The Curious Pokie Battle of Tokoroa

Much ado about nothing? Or the latest skirmish in the decades-long Kiwi War of the Pokies?

The sleepy town of Tokoroa in South Waikato is embroiled in a battle royal over plans to merge three gambling venues, leading television and news sites report. The merger will result in 30 pokies being installed in two locations. Pocket 8 Ball Club is merging with The Olde Establishment and the Putaruru Memorial Club.

Much ado about nothing? Or the latest skirmish in the decades-long Kiwi War of the Pokies?  We think the public relations and legal battle may illustrate some hidden secrets and conflicts of interest. General manager Wendy Cook of the Pocket 8 Ball Club denied that there was any breach of protocol or approved process by the Town Council.  The council amended the gambling venue policy, after public review, to allow merging clubs to operate up to 30 machines. Ms Cook pointed out that, since the Gambling Act of 2003, 13 clubs have consolidated gaming machines. “There is no loop hole,” she protested. The merger, Ms Cook said, will mean four gaming machines and two pokie venues fewer in South Waikato. She argued that halving the number of venues will mean better supervision by specially trained staff.  “Having the machines in one centralised place,” she said, “allows for greater harm minimization”.   Some local anti-gambling activists are not mollified. They are filing legal action and holding protests. Their main argument seems to be that half of the community is impoverished. Adding 30 more pokies to the existing 133 in the district will cause harm, they say. More than 2400 Kiwis signed a petition protesting the new licence. Colin Bridle, a spokesman for an anti-gambling activist group, said that nearly half of the local population lives on less than $20,000 per year. “In a small community with a high concentration of machines,” he complained, “it’s increasing the harm of our community.” $5 million is spent in the town’s casinos. Activist Andree Froude from the Problem Gambling Foundation argued that pokies ruin small towns. “In Tokoroa, over $5 million was lost on pokies in a year … sucked out of that community.” She added that gambling is harmful for children: “people can’t afford to put food on the table, children are going off to school hungry.” However, economic dependency of Kiwi communities on gaming income has other local groups worried. They are calling for pokies to be left alone. A proposal in Hamilton to crack down on pokies had community groups in an uproar. Entertainment outfits like Balloons over Waikato told councilors that they would need to move out of town or shut down entirely if funds from pokies were to dry up. Other community organisations back the City Council’s move to restrict or outlaw the machines, which it likened to the crack cocaine of gambling. Community organizations had to admit that they benefit big-time from pokie profits. About 40% of operating funds of True Colours Children’s Health Trust come from pokie machines, its CEO Cynthia Ward confessed. And nationwide, Kiwi casinos pour upwards of $3 million into community coffers. Some anti-gaming organisations exploit controversies to enrich their own groups. Feed Families Not Pokies aimed to raise $100,000 through an online donation page, calling for judicial review of the Tokoroa pokie merger. More than a week into the campaign they had raised the princely sum of $218. The activists might do better trying to win a pokie jackpot. We jest. But the reality throughout New Zealand – and the rest of the world – is that the trend is steady bleeding from land-based casinos toward online venues. The Internal Affairs Department reports that the six Kiwi casinos reported revenue reductions from NZ$586 million in 2015/2016 to $572 million the following year. Average spend per Kiwi punter dropped from $167 to $156 in the same period. Especially in Kiwi country, where citizens cannot interact online with NZ casinos, that means a preference to play in overseas online casinos, growing at a rapid pace. It’s not just a matter of convenience. Reputable casinos such as those vetted by CasinoKiwi typically deliver far higher returns than your typical local club.  The volume is much higher and there is so much more competition with other sites. So RTPs on pokies tend to be in the mid to high 90s, unlike the typical one-armed bandits found in local down-market venues. There, they hover in the high 80s to low 90s if not worse. Not only that: online casinos have strict monitoring and assistance programs for problem gambling. They take preventive measures to encourage responsible behaviour. New Zealand licensing conditions require this. Most casino websites, including CasinoKiwi, link to realtime online support groups to address any problems on the spot that you are unlikely to find in your corner pool hall.