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Matt McCarten on politics

Matt McCarten is a Herald on Sunday political columnist

Matt McCarten: Key the gambler seems set to roll those dice

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The Government is playing a dangerous game with its reputation. Photo / Jason Dorday
The Government is playing a dangerous game with its reputation. Photo / Jason Dorday

One of the things our political and business elites pride themselves on is that ours is a country that ranks consistently in the top three as the least corrupt in the world.

That New Zealanders take such a rating as the norm is a credit to the generations who preceded us and built the sort of societal ethics we enjoy today.

The most recent respected Forbes survey, which ranks countries on how uncorrupt and friendly to business they are, has New Zealand at second. Only Canada is ahead of us. The World Bank gives us third place after Singapore and Hong Kong. Previously, we were first.

If being capitalist darlings wasn't enough to puff our suit jackets out at, every reputable international survey ranks us high in the top 10 for just about every statistic possible. We are considered a model society that the rest of the world looks up to.

That's why it's not a surprise that a TV3 poll on Thursday showed 72 per cent of us don't approve of the shonky deal John Key cooked up with the SkyCity casino.

If they agreed to build a convention centre, he would change the law to allow them more gaming machines and tables to pay for it. This poll was released on the same day that Key confidently predicted the public would back him on it.

I'm dubious on whether any overseas organisations would be willing to pay airfares for 7500 conference attendees to this side of the globe. A business plan on the convention centre's viability was scrapped by our prime minister.

This is the same man who told us his national cycling track (remember that?) would create thousands of jobs (none so far) and that the hundreds of millions of dollars we spent on the Rugby World Cup would make us a tourism mecca (accommodation and restaurant takings went down).

I'm not knocking his natural charm, but Key made his fortune spinning "get rich schemes" to investors before he was 40 years old and wooed a majority of Kiwis into handing over our country to him.

But here's the thing. Imagine a situation in which a privately owned casino gets protected by law to be a monopoly cash cow that each and every year creams more than a hundred million dollars profit for its shareholders? By an act of parliament no competitors are allowed. The gaming machines that are permitted in pubs and clubs are restricted and are required to give 37 per cent of their income to the community. The casino gets away with trickling out a measly 2 per cent. That's a whopping 35 per cent difference.

The restrictions and reducing lid on the number of pub machines means these outlets can't make ends meet. Consequently, their community donations have taken a nose dive.

As you can appreciate, it's a highly political environment these operators and the casinos live in.

Consequently, political donations to candidates and parties are rife. Both mayoral candidates, Len Brown and John Banks, received generous financial backing from SkyCity and last general election National and Labour picked up $60,000 apiece from them.

That's more reason for Key to tread carefully. So where is his head when he offers to change the law to allow SkyCity more machines and tables that'll make them another $40 million a year? SkyCity will be able to use this windfall to pay off its capital costs within 10 years. As a bonus, it'll have all the conference attendees stay at its hotel, eat, drink and, of course, gamble at its venue.

It's a great and smart deal for SkyCity. Its shareholders should give their directors and chief executive a massive bonus if it goes through.

Changing the law for Sir Peter Jackson and his hobbits is one thing. But changing the law to benefit a casino monopoly?

This whole matter smells. It's not the behaviour of the leader of a country that sits on the top of the world of business and political ethics.

Key thinks he can bluff his way through this. Our international reputation and his future are riding on it. He has the bravado of a habitual gambler determined to roll the dice.

- Herald on Sunday

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