Editorial: SkyCity pokie defence fails to ring true

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Pokie machine numbers may increase alongside the proposed convention centre. Photo / Martin Sykes
Pokie machine numbers may increase alongside the proposed convention centre. Photo / Martin Sykes

If public utterances of SkyCity are any guide, it is becoming worried about the fate of a proposed deal under which it would invest $350 million in a convention centre in Auckland while gaining extra poker machines at its casino and an extension of its licence beyond 2021. How else to explain the extraordinary comments of its chief executive, Nigel Morrison? Among other things, he has said SkyCity's poker machines are less harmful to the public than Lotto tickets, and that claims of social harm are out of proportion to reality.

There are some similarities between poker machines and Lotto, not least in the phenomenon of the near miss, which encourages people to gamble more. But it seems untenable to claim that lotteries, which have been around for many years, cause more harm than electronic gaming machines, a relative latecomer.

As much was confirmed by a report by Australia's Productivity Commission in 2010. "People playing gaming machines face much greater risks than people who gamble on other forms, particularly lotteries, scratchies and bingo," it concluded. Indeed, "very few" of the "other forms" group - the majority of gamblers - suffered harm.

Mr Morrison was on only slightly firmer ground with some other pronouncements. Those at risk were not casino customers, he said, but "mums in South Auckland" who were shopping in communities where there were pokies at pubs and clubs. It is readily apparent that easy access to these machines is a catalyst for heavy gambling, often by the most vulnerable sections of society.

But the Productivity Commission found that people who played at community venues also usually played at casinos. More broadly, it declared that, in any event, no venue was "safe".

That situation would hardly be changed by the addition of 350 to 500 extra poker machines at SkyCity. Additionally, no such venue distinctions could be made if gambling tables unavailable in pubs and clubs were part of the deal.

Mr Morrison cannot be unaware of such damning findings. As such, his comments could be interpreted as a somewhat agitated attempt to repel a growing public disapproval of his company's planned deal with the Government. That would not have been necessary if negotiations had been concluded by now. But, first, the general election and, second, the apparent existence of fish-hooks have prolonged this process, allowing time for growth in questioning of the deal.

It has not helped SkyCity that information largely unhelpful to its cause has emerged during this period. An estimate by Goldman Sachs that the company would make up to $42 million a year from the extra poker machines put its investment in the national convention centre into perspective. It suggested SkyCity's proposal might not be such an overwhelmingly outstanding deal for the taxpayer.

Equally, the casino operator was done no favours when Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce had to defend the fact that it returns only 2.5 per cent of its profits to the community. Community gaming trusts must pay 37 per cent.

Mr Joyce said this year that "on the balance of probabilities" the project would go ahead. But the deal has had to contend with increasing community awareness of the harm of gaming machines. It was always going to be difficult to portray additional pokies at SkyCity in a positive light. The implication that the law of New Zealand is for sale added a further layer of difficulty.

In that context, Mr Morrison's unconvincing defence of SkyCity's pokie operation has probably not been helpful. Indeed, it could only help to tilt the balance referred to by Mr Joyce.

- NZ Herald

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