Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Even in sin city SkyCity deal meets with unease

Photo / NZPA
Photo / NZPA

It would be encouraging to think the delays in finalising a deal between the SkyCity empire and the Government over the proposed international convention centre are based on issues of conscience.

Stalled because John Key has had a sudden attack of the guilts, not wanting to go down as the prime minister who bent the rules to fund a major new public enterprise out of the proceeds of gambling.

But even if the ethics of the deal are not worrying him, the results of opinion polls must be causing concern. The latest Herald-Digipoll survey shows 61.5 per cent of voters disapprove of the deal and only 33.8 per cent approve. That was a sharp turnaround from a year ago when a similar poll found 40.3 per cent disapproved and 57.3 supported it.

Even in Auckland, which NZ First leader Winston Peters recently labelled the Super City of Sin, there's a queasiness about the proposed deal that reflects the national mood. Auckland's disapproval rating was less than the rest of the country at 55.5 per cent, compared with the rest of New Zealand's 64.5 per cent, while 38 per cent of Aucklanders approved, compared with 31.6 per cent of non-Aucklanders.

But even in sin city, the disapproval is still strong.

We Aucklanders are not a bunch of wowsers. We rather pride ourselves on our open-mindedness. When the Chow brothers turned up with plans for a high-rise brothel alongside the casino, the loudest objections, apart from the usual suspects, were about the destruction of a heritage building on the site of the proposed new brothel. Yet we are deeply uneasy about this deal.

Last week a majority of Auckland councillors, including all his City Vision and Labour allies, defied Mayor Len Brown, and voted 10-7 not to support "the Government's proposal for SkyCity to develop a convention centre in return for changes in our gambling legislation to increase gambling at the SkyCity casino".

In backing the deal, Mr Brown concentrated on the "extraordinary economic benefits" of building the convention centre. In opposition, Dr Cathy Casey said the deal went against the Auckland Plan's aim to minimise harm from gambling, by backing a convention centre which would suck people into the casino. Councillor Mike Lee complained the Government was keeping a report on social harm confidential until the deal was signed.

Following the council's symbolic rejection of the deal, Auckland Chamber of Commerce head Michael Barnett leapt to the Prime Minister's defence. He said "the fact that Prime Minister John Key has spelt out that the increase of gaming machines that is part of the deal will happen within the context of a sinking lid should be reassuring to people".

He said: "Yes, there will be more gaming machines within SkyCity but there will be fewer in total across Auckland and New Zealand. This means fewer gaming machines in uncontrolled environments, and where issues such as problem gambling can become entrenched and end up as a significant social cost to the community."

But this is a joke considering the fate of Te Ururoa Flavell's Gambling Harm Reduction Bill which has been emasculated by the National Party as a condition of its support. The provision that local councils can introduce a sinking-lid policy to reduce and eliminate the number of pokie machines from areas of disadvantage where problem gambling was an issue was replaced by a proposal to allow operators to move gambling machines from one venue to another.

Internal Affairs Minister Chris Tremain said this was common sense and would allow machines to be removed from low socio-economic areas to areas such as the city centre where, apparently, the prospect of harm was lower.

The Auckland Council is developing a uniform regional policy on sinking lids and pokies. The No More Pokies coalition claims a poll of 500 Aucklanders showed 74.8 per cent thought there were too many pokies and 76.9 per cent supported a sinking lid. When he was mayor of Manukau City, Mr Brown introduced a sinking-lid policy without any provision for moving machines elsewhere.

Yet while the Auckland Council tries to reduce the number of pokies, the Government, with Mr Brown's support, is buying itself a "free" convention centre by offering SkyCity an additional 230 pokies to bring its total to 1900, and extending its licence for 35 years.

A suburban sinking-lid policy is just a way of herding more customers to the casinos.

As National MP for Whangarei in 1999, the current Act leader, John Banks, waxed lyrical on the evils of gambling, attacked the Casino Authority for approving a casino in Queenstown when "the people ... overwhelmingly said, 'we do not want a gambling den here'."

He denounced a law that allowed the authority to "ride into town and deliver to the fat cats their blood-sucking corporate enterprise".

Casinos, he said, "want the money of the most vulnerable people".

Where is that Mr Banks when we need him?

- NZ Herald

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Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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