Flaws and benefits of pokies

The notion that the future of sport in this country might rely on picking the pockets of people with gambling addictions sticks in the craw. But finding, then treading, the fine line between arguably exploiting the weaknesses of individuals who can least afford it, and providing for the huge social benefits of organised amateur sport, is no simple matter.

It has moral and practical dimensions and is an issue likely to evince a range of opinion. Nobody, however, should countenance "sharp" or non-compliant practice in the pokie sector - and mounting assessments that this is endemic surely requires that an overhaul of the legislation and rules governing it be instigated.

Sport has become addicted to the funds it receives through pokie grants. In the six years from 2006 to 2011, sporting organisations in New Zealand received a total of $817 million. Rugby topped the list of beneficiaries, receiving $142 million, followed by horse racing at $99 million and football at $60 million. Few sports do not benefit from the grants: basketball, athletics, cricket, golf, netball, league, water sports are all partially supported by them - as the law permits.

The Gambling Act 2003 states pokie grants can be used to fund a range of "authorised purposes" such as horse race meetings and racing stakes and amateur sports teams and clubs. Professional sport is specifically excluded.

There is little doubt many organisations have come to rely on the funds they receive from pokie grants and could not survive without them. So how did they get by in the past?

The nature of society has changed markedly in the past three or four decades. Gone is the once-sacrosanct weekend, for example, when nobody worked and every parent was a potential volunteer to coach, run the touchlines, tend to the grounds and drive transport to and from venues.

People's lives have become busier.

Both parents in a family often work and have weekend or evening commitments. Many are sole parents, which further limits the time for voluntary management of amateur clubs. Further, the do-it-yourself attitudes that pervaded the grounds and clubrooms of yesteryear have been somewhat corroded by the creeping professionalism of sport at large.

To remain viable, sports clubs require funds - whether to pay for uniforms, equipment, ground maintenance, code affiliation fees or travel. Those funds increasingly fall on the participants or their parents to provide, or have to be raised by time-poor supporters.

The trajectory of rising costs can put sport out of the reach of many of the people - especially children in the poorer socioeconomic areas - who stand to benefit most from it. Hence the attractions of funds from sources such as pokie grants.

Critics argue this reliance poses an ethical dilemma for sporting organisations. The Problem Gambling Foundation, for example, suggests at least 40% of pokie revenue comes from those identified as being problem gamblers.

For sporting organisations who see themselves as a force for good in the community, their very support of pokie grants, it could be argued, helps maintain a deleterious social activity. On the one hand, the habits of problem gamblers are sustained; on the other, the money those gamblers throw away provides the infrastructure for healthy activities through which a great many positive values are inculcated - and upon which careers and future lives are built.

Gambling is a time-honoured tradition in many cultures. Within reason, whether people wish to put their spare change in piggy banks or pokie slots comes down to personal choice. The law of the country is framed to constrain excess where excess is identified as problematic. The legislation surrounding pokie grants needs finessing: it appears the current laws are being abused, resulting in unacceptable money-go-round "rorts". As a consequence, the sector is acquiring a bad name and the law is being made to look an ass. That must be curtailed, and practices, if required, cleaned up.

But it is not enough to say pokie grants should be banned outright.

Sports clubs and other charitable entities which genuinely qualify for support should continue to receive grants. Those that do not should be weeded out.