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Paul Holmes on New Zealand

Paul Holmes is an award-winning Herald columnist

Paul Holmes: Casino is Key's best bet to get project afloat

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John Key knows SkyCity has the resources to get his convention centre plans off the ground. Photo / Greg Bowker
John Key knows SkyCity has the resources to get his convention centre plans off the ground. Photo / Greg Bowker

Auckland is afizz, and not only with SkyCity's proposed, vastly expanded convention centre with its vastly expanded gambling facilities.

The idea of more slots and tables no doubt has the casino rubbing its hands with glee, but why shouldn't it?

SkyCity will be forking out $350 million to expand the convention facilities in a deal that seems to have been done, to all intents and purposes.

I must declare a small interest. I'm a trustee of the SkyCity Community Trust. This was set up when the casino licence was first allocated in the early 1990s.

Harrahs, the big American gaming house, promised the Government that 1 per cent of bottom-line profits would be allocated to charitable groups. This has occurred faithfully year after year.

Each year, groups from all over the region make an application for funds and once a year our trust sits around for a couple of days doling out the money.

Various sums, some of them in the tens of thousands of dollars, help groups in desperate need. Many of the beneficiaries are those who work with children with all kinds of disabilities and funding needs.

The money helps give them an even break. Their parents too, often as not.

The trust is a wonderful thing. It enables a lot to get done. There are many people whose lives have been improved by the SkyCity Community Trust and are grateful for it.

The Anglican Bishop of Auckland, he won't take any gambling money, never mind that gambling's been round since Adam was a cowboy. It'll be a while before the church gets a new roof, Vicar.

But that's not the issue we have at the moment, of course. The issue is the politics. It's how the entire proposal for the casino and convention centre got wheels in the first place. It seems to have been as simple as a few powerful men, a dinner or two, and a nod and a wink.

It seems John Key asked SkyCity chief executive Nigel Morrison to expand the convention centre.

Key is Tourism Minister. Given the size of convention centres in other parts of the world, and in Australia particularly, and the money brought in by the tens of thousands who attend conferences in such places, he would like to have a New Zealand convention centre in which you could swing a cat.

Sure, says Morrison, but let us expand our table and our slot-machine numbers. Key, the dealer, sees the deal and what a good one it is. SkyCity pays for the lot. Perfect.

Oh yes, all very fine, except there's a social dimension here, in which the do-gooders quite rightly rear up and remind us there is a significant group of people with a weakness, whereby they take all their wages and throw them coin by coin into evil slot machines designed to rob you. Sorry, slot machines are the pits.

But what's really got the commentariat exercised is a perceived lack of clarity of process, or lack of process at all, in this convention centre deal.

"Want to build us an expanded convention facility, Nigel?"

"Sure, John, just let's have a few more tables and slots." Deal.

But having said that, Key knows that SkyCity is the only viable player around and there's no point wasting time and money on anyone else - and he knows that New Zealand has to compete round the Asia Pacific for some of that lucrative convention money that currently goes to the Gold Coast or wherever - and here's a brilliant chance to get SkyCity to pay for it all to happen.

Of course, Key is not helped by a speech in which the chairman of SkyCity, Australian Rod McGeoch, who won the Olympics for Sydney and then got dropped for some reason, boasts of SkyCity's close ties to "high-ranking" Cabinet ministers.

What a foolish remark to make. This looks like as inside as you get when you are trading. And that's the trouble with the whole thing.

It's a funny way for Government to do business. But in the end, and Key knows this, who else is going to build a convention centre right under SkyCity's nose, right there in the city of Auckland? Wattie's? Golden Bay Cement? Waipuna Lodge? Forget it. SkyCity owns that part of town and there's no point disputing it.

And you know what? The public doesn't care. It's a beltway issue, one to excite the sensitivities of the boys and girls in the gallery. Round at my place, no one really cares.

Mind you, I can never credit the numbers of people I see pouring in and out of that casino day and night, year after year.

It's a mystery to me. The gambling gene I never got. Got plenty of others, though.

- NZ Herald

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