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Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Betting on casino hard to fathom

Surely convention centre advocates promising billion-dollar returns don't need SkyCity's money.

Nigel Morrison says the SkyCity empire is so flush it could easily fund the convention centre project. Photo / Greg Bowker
Nigel Morrison says the SkyCity empire is so flush it could easily fund the convention centre project. Photo / Greg Bowker

So much for the hope that SkyCity might lose interest in expanding its Auckland gambling empire now that it has the green light for a $375 million expansion in Adelaide.

Chief executive Nigel Morrison says his empire is so flush with cash and so popular with bankers it could easily fund its planned $350 million Auckland convention centre project.

That's if the Government buckles to the gambling monopoly's demands for a raft of concessions, many of them similar to those squeezed out of the South Australian government.

The negotiations went on for two and a half years for the Adelaide deal. SkyCity's interest in reaching some sort of barter deal in Auckland, promising to build a "free" international convention centre in return for concessions like more poker machines, extended monopoly in the market and the like, has been going on for considerably longer, and there's still no end in sight.

It started early in 2009 when Prime Minister John Key, wearing his Tourism Minister hat, joined with the old Auckland City Council in a feasibility study on a convention centre. Four Auckland sites were picked out, including one next to SkyCity in Hobson St.

In November that year, five organisations including SkyCity put their hands up when the Ministry of Economic Development called for expressions of interest.

Submissions had to be in by mid-June 2010. Three months later, the first of Christchurch's earthquakes struck. A year later, when the SkyCity bid was declared the winner, it was the only contender left standing.

It was the only proposal that didn't want large dollops of government backing at a time when any spare cash was pointing Christchurch's way. Instead of cash, SkyCity wanted kind - new poker machines, an extended gaming licence, that sort of thing. The haggling went on until the middle of this year, when the Auditor-General opened a probe into the backroom negotiations. A draft of this report is now with the casino company and the Government.

What I've never fathomed is that if a national convention centre is the vital piece of missing infrastructure to guarantee our future prosperity that Auckland Council, central government and the various business sector leaders claim it is, then why are they shackling this veritable money fountain to the whims of a gambling empire?

Just a few weeks ago, in these pages, Auckland Chamber of Commerce boss Michael Barnett was thundering on about how "in the 10 years Auckland has talked of building a national convention centre able to compete with Australian and Asian ventures we have lost, conservatively, $5 billion and thousands of new city and New Zealand-wide jobs to our economy".

Not to mention "the many other downstream benefits such as the boost to tourism, fostering commercial links and supporting innovation and knowledge transfer", Mr Barnett said.

To me, there's always been a certain cargo-cultism in such talk - a weird faith that such a building would miraculously cure our ailing economy. But you'd think true believers, like Mr Barnett, his chamber of business whizz kids and Prime Minister Key wouldn't be fumbling around, caps in hand, for start-up funding from a gaming boss.

If Mr Barnett claims Auckland has already lost $5 billion by not getting this temple to our prosperity erected 10 years ago, well more shame on him and his capitalist fellow travellers. Life under Nanny State must have softened their predatory instincts. A sniff of a $5 billion return over 10 years for a $350 million investment should have had them salivating to be in for the kill.

Unfortunately, Mr Barnett doesn't say whether he includes in his grand total the $42 million a year SkyCity plans to make from the 500 extra pokies and other concessions it's seeking from the Government. Much of this money will be extracted from super-rich VIP gamblers from communist China, and from Auckland's struggling proletariat, who will be hoping against common sense that their luck might change.

This is the red ink side of the equation that convention centre proponents try to avoid: the army of problem gamblers which will inevitably expand in proportion to the growth of SkyCity's monopoly enterprise.

They're the collateral damage Auckland will have to live with if we continue to tie the convention centre to the casino.

- 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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