Six years ago, the prevalence of gambling on pokie machines, and the high rate of problem gambling that came with it, was enough to provoke the Christchurch City Council to enforce stricter laws on licenses. Since then, the number of gaming venues has dropped by half, and the number of available pokie machines nearly as much, but that hasn’t slowed down gamblers of New Zealand’s South Island city.
In 2009, to help slow the rate of gambling and problem gambling in Christchurch, the city council adopted the Gambling Venue and Totalisator Agency Board (TAB) Venue Policy. Under those regulations, pubs and clubs that held class 4 licenses to operate pokie machines would be permitted to continue, but no future applications for class 4 gaming licenses would be accepted.
Two years later, in February of 2011, the city of Christchurch was devastated by a catastrophic earthquake; the second in a five month span. With a magnitude recorded at 6.3 (ML), much of the city’s central area and eastern suburbs were damaged, including 26 gaming venues (with 300 pokie machines) that never reopened. Relocating was not an option, as the policy prohibits applying for a license in a new location.
Since then, many more pokies pubs and clubs have disappeared. In fact, of the 184 gambling venues that existed when the policy went into effect, only 92 remain today. As for the number of pokie machines, records show that in 2003 there were 2,386; a number that has reduced to 1,343 to date.
More than five years after the gambling policy was enforced, the city council requested a report on the status of gambling in Christchurch. The results of that report were somewhat shocking, and not at all what council members had anticipated.
One might naturally assume that, after seeing half of the city’s pubs and clubs close down, and 44% of pokie machines eliminated, the rate of gambling would have declined along with them. According to the results of the report, however, that was not the case at all.
Gambling is just as popular in Christchurch today as it was in 2009. The report indicated approximately $20 million is spent on pokie machines every 3 months. That’s right on par with the level of gambling in the city before the quake of 2011.
The report revealed that in 2014, spending on gambling in Christchurch among residents aged 15+ was $70 per capita. That ranks the city #2 in the country for highest gambling spend, second only to Tauranga at $77.21.
The Committee on Regulation and Consents elected not to update the policy, despite protests from Cr David East, Chairman of the Committee. Cr East is of the opinion that upholding the current “sinking lid” policy will eventually damage sports clubs and programs throughout the community that rely on revenue from pokie machines to fund their projects.
“How far do we want this lid to sink and what impact is it having on community funding?” asked East. “If the council is going to be decreasing its support for communities – the Government is decreasing its support for communities – who is going to pick up the slack?”
East also called the policy unfair as it does not allow a business to relocate under an existing license, or apply for a new one, even under extenuating circumstances. “If a business, through no fault of its own, is destroyed by an earthquake, we are imposing a restraint of trade by saying they can’t take their business in its entirety to another location.”
Cr Tim Scandrett, who voted against updating the policy, said, “We have to send a consistent, strong message that we don’t condone this.”