Toby Manhire 's Opinion

Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire: SkyCity smirking all the way to the casino

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Should any of the negotiated terms be broken, the state must pay compensation. Dealer wins. Photo / APN
Should any of the negotiated terms be broken, the state must pay compensation. Dealer wins. Photo / APN

The year is 2048. Justin Bieber, in his mid-50s, is on a comeback tour. You probably printed your lunch. Winston Peters turns 103 - and celebrates with a blazing parliamentary row followed by dinner at the Green Parrot. And, at last, the deal struck by the New Zealand government with the SkyCity Entertainment Group way back in 2013 comes to an end.

For the 35 years between now and then, the majority Australian-owned company will have a monopoly on casino operation in Auckland. It will be essentially impervious to regulation. They might well paint a smirk on the top of the Sky Tower.

In return for building and operating a $400 million convention centre in the middle of Auckland, SkyCity gets an exclusive casino licence. That licence swells to permit 230 more pokies, along with 40 more gaming tables. As well as 240 "automated table game player stations" - that's a machine you can play poker on, rather than a pokie machine, presumably. Oh, and until at least 2021, no government may tweak by as much as a cent the casino tax rate.

Should any of those terms be broken, the state must pay compensation. Dealer wins.

What a humdinger of a deal. John Key had urged SkyCity to "think outside the box", and so it did. The beauty of it, as far as the budget crunchers are concerned, is that the state need not pay a dollar.

Someone is coughing up cash, of course, and though you won't read it in the jargon-bloated costings provided by KordaMentha, which was keen to stress that it was not tasked with evaluating "the social impacts of the regulatory concessions", it comes chiefly from the pockets of the chumps pouring their money into those slot machines. If the Sky Tower is Auckland's contemporary steeple, its adherents are the meek, returning again in the vain hope they might, this time, surely this time, inherit the earth.

The label "pokies for convention centre" sounds clumsy because this is a clumsy deal. It is a forced marriage. It is asymmetric. At least in the way The Hobbit trade-off was laid down, things were discernibly linked. We beef up the tax breaks and loosen the labour laws; you make the film here. Deal.

This time, the statutory changes are tangential to the reward. Yes, SkyCity can point to some areas (hotels, carparks, restaurants) where the Venn diagram unites - synergies, everyone. But, really, there is no intrinsic link between the construction of a conference building and a souped-up, safeguarded casino licence.

Consider a parallel example. A city needs a stadium. A brewery thinks outside the box and says it will put up all the capital and build the thing - what a magnet for international events, for visitors, an engine of economic activity. In exchange, the brewery is given a guarantee that only its beers, only its wines and only its spirits can be sold within city boundaries. A guarantee that alcohol duty will not go up for seven years. And that the regulations around the distribution of that liquor, including licensing hours, will remain unchanged for 35 years.

Does that sound far-fetched? Well, here it is, in black and white, from the Government document: "The Crown will pay compensation to SkyCity [if] the Gambling Act is amended (including by repeal) or regulations are promulgated, the effect of which is to reduce the permitted hours of operation of the Auckland Casino."

What is the real value of a locked-in, state-guaranteed 35-year monopoly on casino operation in New Zealand's biggest city, with unprecedented gambling facilities? We'll never know, because it hasn't been offered to the market. If worth selling, why not disentangle from the conference-centre question, and put that package of privileges to tender, rather than accept payment in the form of a concrete box, a conference centre, to be located, by a devil's irony, just a block down from the City Mission on Hobson St.

The conflation of the convention-centre carrot with a major extension and expansion of the gambling licence muddies the issue. It presents a false trade-off, encouraging detractors to sneer: "We either want to do well as a country or we don't. We either want progress or we don't." That's, of course, the illustrious broadcaster and former SkyCity ambassador Mike Hosking. He also said, he really did, that those who oppose the casino deal are a bunch of "navel-gazing whingers".

We're a small country, we need to think imaginatively. Especially in a plodding economy. But just possibly we shouldn't be depending on a casino, a business capable of exacting such a desperately unglamorous, family-ruining social toll, to do the imaginative thinking for us.

- NZ Herald

Toby Manhire

Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire is a Wellington bred, Auckland based journalist. He writes a weekly column for the NZ Herald, the NZ Listener's Internaut column, blogs for listener.co.nz, and contributes to the Guardian. From 2000 to 2010 he worked at the Guardian in London, and edited the 2012 book The Arab Spring: Rebellion, Revolution and a New World Order.

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