Skycity doesn't need taxpayers' money, but other social costs still need to be considered, writes Brian Rudman.
Since the first Christchurch earthquake last September, it's been obvious the Government would have no money to underwrite a national convention centre in Auckland. The quake struck around the time it was expected to announce which of the five contenders to build the facility it favoured, and also, how large its contribution to the $350 million plus project would be. Some reports had suggested as high as a 75 per cent grant.
The SkyCity bid was the only one not seeking government financial backing, so it immediately became the only player in the game. The surprise in this week's announcement was not who got it, but the supine way Prime Minister John Key seems to have buckled to the gambling giant's demand for an extension of its licence, and to increase the size of its gaming facilities, as a condition of building the convention facility.
Mr Key's response to concerns about the possible social harms of increased gambling facilities was "we've had nine years of a Labour Government which has been tying people up in red tape and stopping this country progressing. We are a Government that wants to make progress in terms of economic development".
This cavalier dismissal of systems set up to reflect community disquiet about the effects of gambling is the sort of arrogance you expect of a third-term government, not one still to complete its first three years in office.
It is a concern reflected by his Police Minister Judith Collins, when in July 2001 as chairwoman of the Casino Control Authority she ruled on SkyCity's application for an earlier $37 million expansion project. As now, it wanted permission for new gaming tables and gaming machines to help fund the building of new convention facilities.
Mrs Collins permitted 12 new gambling tables and 230 gaming machines, agreeing with the applicant that the new facility "would be likely to have a substantial positive impact on tourism, employment and economic development" in Auckland.
But she admitted that "negative social impacts ... could well result ... in the absence of an appropriately designed and properly implemented responsible gambling programme at the casino".
With the assistance of the red tape that Mr Key so disparages, Mrs Collins was able to insist on ways of mitigating the potential harm, and also to create a big stick to ensure there were penalties to keep the gambling bosses in check.
She worked within the sort of checks and controls that any civilised society has to try to regulate and limit the harm that large casinos can inflict on their customers.
Yet in his lust for a new convention centre for free, Mr Key seems happy to push through legislation, rewriting the rules to suit SkyCity, even to the extent of extending its casino licence past 2021.
Licence hearings are the one chance the community has to hold the licence holder to account. We've all read the reports of drug lords laundering their money through the casino and of the family misery caused by problem gamblers. The red tape is the only tool society has to keep the industry in check.
For $350 million, the PM tells the casino bosses, he'll make it go away. I wonder if that includes the resource consent still needed from the Auckland Council?
As someone who has long argued that if the tourist industry wants a big convention centre to attract new customers then it should pay for it, I'm delighted that SkyCity has come up with a proposal that means ratepayers and taxpayers won't have to pay the bill.
But I'm not so delighted to waive citizens' rights to some input into the planning phases of a facility which will have such a large impact on the city.
Putting aside the social problems linked to money laundering and gambling addiction, there is an issue, for instance, that should be worrying Auckland Mayor Len Brown, who says he supports the project.
The new convention centre is likely to kill the convention business at the council-owned Aotea Centre. Convention business accounts for about 50 per cent of the centre's revenue, and an insider fears this income will be "decimated" by the newcomer.
The new centre's first target will be the bigger conferences, but it will also "siphon up everything it can, including the smaller ones the Aotea now gets".
Luckily there are some conferences that a SkyCity-linked convention centre won't get - conventions run by organisations which for ethical or other reasons, rule out meeting at casino-linked venues.
I was told that a lot of international associations, including big medical and educational group, have written into their bylaws that they will not meet in a gaming city or hotel. In the US there's an ethical element to this ban, but there's also a more practical reason. Often, conferences include continuing-education sessions, and organisers don't want conference goers playing hooky and sneaking off to the gambling tables.