Lucky For Some: Sky Casino and the National-led Government are cutting a deal on pokie machines - but only because we, the voters, continue to tolerate the gambling industry. If we really cared about the harm gambling causes, we'd shut the casions down and smash the pokies to smithereens.
IT’S ONE of the more memorable scenes in Godfather II. As Michael Corleone scrambles to flee Havana, Castro’s revolutionaries invade the Mob’s casinos and begin hurling one-armed bandits (a.k.a pokie machines) on to the street.
The poor have no difficulty in identifying the things that make their lives harder and more miserable: and pokie machines, neighbourhood liquor outlets and loan-sharks are all up there at the top of the list.
It’s why Hone Harawira’s Mana Party is so unequivocal on the issues of gambling, substance abuse (including alcohol and tobacco) and loan-sharking. It’s also why Stephen Joyce is absolutely right when he argues that if Labour and the Greens had the courage of their convictions they would announce that any future government in which they served would simply cancel all current casino licences – even at the cost of thousands of jobs.
There’s a reason why organised crime has always been involved in gambling: it’s because the House never loses. Owning a casino is like owning your very own mint. It’s a licence to print money.
And don’t be fooled by all those James Bond movies, in which gambling is presented as the glamorous pastime of the obscenely wealthy. It’s not. The profits of gambling do not come from the wealthiest, but from the poorest, members of our society.
The gambling industry feeds upon the desperation of those who have run out of options; on the dreams of those condemned to wade through the sewage at the base of our social pyramid. It fastens itself upon those communities foolish enough to offer themselves up as hosts, deposits it deadly seeds, and then, like the creature from Alien, explodes from its incubator in the form of alcoholism, fraud, theft, domestic violence, child neglect and suicide.
These are the true costs of the deal currently being negotiated between the Ministry of Economic Development and Auckland’s Sky City Casino. The latter may not be demanding a monetary subsidy from the Government, but, implicit in its offer is an understanding that we, the taxpayers, will carry the social costs arising from the additional 350-500 extra pokie machines the casino is demanding.
And we, the taxpayers, get this – even if Messrs Key and Joyce do not. We understand that this is not just a normal commercial deal. We know that along with the money, misery is changing hands. Like the slave merchants of old Savannah, we are exchanging gold for human flesh and blood; gold for human suffering. And that is wrong.
And because it’s wrong; because we’re not quite ready to characterise the Government’s actions (which, in a functioning democracy, means our own actions) in such stark and morally unambiguous terms; we (in the form of the Opposition parties) are casting about for some other way to express our outrage at the proposed Sky City deal.
It’s why we’re hearing so much about the “selling of New Zealand law” and how destructive that’s going to be of our legislature’s integrity. Poppycock! To make things happen on the economic development front New Zealand’s Parliament has never hesitated to pass enabling legislation. What, pray tell, was the Clyde Dam Empowering Act (1982) if not enabling legislation? Special bills for special people is an aspect of the Westminster parliamentary tradition that goes all the way back to the Enclosure Acts of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries.
No, that line of argument will not do. The reason why nearly three-quarters of New Zealanders (according to TV3’s polling) don’t like the Sky City deal is because, deep down, we know that the legalisation of casinos and the introduction of pokie machines (the “crack cocaine” of gambling addiction) was a Faustian bargain that imperilled our very souls.
Because the Devil is nothing if not clever. He sweetened (and continues to sweeten) the deal with honeyed talk of “assisting the community” with the “proceeds” of gambling. He invites us to consider what would become of our philanthropic organisations without the support of Pub Charity? What would become of our sports teams?
“Just imagine,” he says, with furrowed brow and glittering eye, “how much extra tax we’d all have to pay without the pokies!”
And we, feeling that twinge in our hip-pocket nerve, hang our heads and sign on the dotted line of Mephistopheles’s smouldering parchment.
It will take genuine moral courage from the leadership of the Labour Party, and true guts from the Greens, to join with Hone Harawira and Mana in saying that some jobs aren’t worth having. Closing the casinos and banning pokies would be an upending act – a revolutionary decision to send the sewage flowing upwards, for a change.
And the poor would cheer to see the gambling bosses scuttling for the airport in their black limousines. The sound of thousands of shattering pokie machines ringing in their ears.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 24 April 2012.