Hard News by Russell Brown



As part of the deal with the government announced this morning, SkyCity will -- along with a range of other concessions and favours -- be allowed to install 230 more pokie machines in exchange for building and operating an international convention centre alongside its present casino site.

I'm pretty sure the number of new pokies is no accident. It's the exact same number granted when Sky City built its existing convention centre in Federal Street Street in 2001. Similarly, Sky was then granted permission for another 12 gaming tables, and this time it's 11. David Farrar has pounced on the symmetry, bolding it up in case no one gets the message:

This reinforces to me what a tough negotiator Steven Joyce is, as groups were talking the agreement could be as many as 500 new pokie machines. The number, at 230, is identical to those granted to SkyCity under the previous Government in 2001 for the development of the existing, and much smaller, Auckland Convention Centre.

Thus has "Labour did it too" been set up as a key line in the presentation of the deal. Farrar doesn't even have to say the H-word because he knows one of his commenters will fill in the blanks soon enough:

So Labour did the same thing and they now whinge about it. Their hypocriscy knows no bounds.

The trouble with this line is that it's bullshit. Yes, the numbers are the same -- but they were achieved by wholly different means. The Labour government played no role in the 2001 arrangement. As Bernard Orsman noted in the Herald a year ago, the decision was made by the five-member Casino Control Authority, which was chaired at the time by soon-to-be MP Judith Collins.

As Orsman writes:

At the time of the 2001 deal Labour was in Government but played no role in the pokies for convention centre deal. Labour introduced the Gambling Act in 2003, preventing further expansion of gambling facilities.

So it's hardly hypocrisy. Labour not only played no role in the authority granting regulatory concessions to SkyCity, it soon afterwards changed the law to prevent such deals being done in future. National, by contrast, is to change the law, under urgency, to allow an expansion.

In 2001 there were no private dinners with the Prime Minister, no preferential treatment for SkyCity, no critical report from the Auditor-General, no SOEs being leaned on, and no cautious, conservative political commentators writing columns like this:

Verging on banana republic kind of stuff without the bananas - that is the only conclusion to draw from the deeply disturbing report into the shonkiness surrounding the Government's selection of SkyCity as the preferred builder and operator of a national convention centre.

I'd also take tributes to Steven Joyce's negotiating mojo with a grain of salt. SkyCity has really done better than it might have expected in this arrangement. As David Fisher noted today on Twitter, the price of $75 million for a renewal of the casino's licence presents "a significant shift to SkyCity's benefit", given that Korda Mentha independently valued the licence at between $65 million and $115 million. The taxpayer will also cough up $34 million over four years to promote the new convention centre.

I don't doubt the economic value of a big, high-quality convention centre (which we can only hope will be built to a higher standard than the shoddy, stuffy Federal Street facility), but I do hope that the egregious spin attached to today's announcement won't simply be recycled by the news media. This deal has been reached via an extremely troubling process. The government's cheerleaders will hail it nonetheless. The rest of us should feel very, very uneasy about it.

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