More Asian people will lose their jobs and businesses if the SkyCity convention centre deal goes ahead, MPs have been told.
A stream of Asian community groups spoke against the deal yesterday when select committee hearings opened on the NZ International Convention Centre Bill, which allows SkyCity 230 extra poker machines, 52 extra gaming tables and an extension of its licence until 2048 in return for building a $400 million convention centre.
The Auckland Council also opposed the bill, but it was supported by the Heart of the City business lobby and by the Catholic Church's Auckland Diocese Justice and Peace Commission because of the extra jobs it will create.
Problem gambling counsellor Donghwan (Gus) Lim of the Korean Community Wellness Society said Asian people made up only 9 per cent of the population but 64 per cent of problem gamblers who were excluded, or excluded themselves, from the casino in the six months to June last year.
"There are so many Asian people disproportionately getting harmed by SkyCity," he said.
The convention centre deal was being promoted on the grounds that it would increase tourism from overseas, but almost 90 per cent of the casino's gamblers were local.
"I see so many people who have lost their jobs because of gambling, I see so many companies gone bankrupt because of gambling," he said.
Pressed by the National MP for Rodney, Mark Mitchell, to provide details, Mr Lim said he did not have data but he knew of a few companies that had closed because of their owners' gambling losses.
Problem Gambling Foundation Asian family service director John Wong said 62 per cent of Asians seeking help from the foundation gambled at casinos.
This is a much higher proportion than for the broader population of problem gamblers, judging by a 2010 health survey which found that non-casino pokies were by far the most common source of New Zealand gambling problems (49 per cent), with casino pokies second on 13 per cent and casino tables fifth on 10 per cent.
"We have seen so many Asian clients who decided to come to NZ for a better life or wanting to contribute to their new home country NZ, as many were successful business people," Mr Wong said.
"But because of their gambling they end up in bankruptcy, destroying their lovely family and dream of coming to NZ, and their children cannot finish their education."
But Catholic Justice and Peace Commission member Seamus Donegan said: "If we didn't have a casino, we'd bet on horse racing, because the reality is that gambling is a legitimate chosen form of recreation for Chinese people. With SkyCity, at least it's an environment that is monitored and it's an environment that is regulated, so if gambling is going to happen I'd much rather see it happen in an environment where Government can exercise supervision and control."
Law professor Jane Kelsey warned that SkyCity's overseas investors could sue a future Government if it tried to change gambling laws before SkyCity's licence expires in 2048. Although SkyCity was a New Zealand company listed on the NZ stock exchange, most of its top 20 shareholders, who held 61 per cent of the shares, were international financial institutions, led by the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (6.66 per cent) and JPMorgan Chase Bank (6.11 per cent). Professor Kelsey said foreign investors "could sue the Government of the day for breaching New Zealand's international investment treaty obligations if a new law significantly reduced the profitability of the casino and hence the value of, and returns from, the company's shares". "That case [ ... ] would go before a private offshore tribunal under an increasingly discredited system of arbitration; costly and notoriously biased towards investors."
Heart of the City
The Heart of the City business lobby says the SkyCity convention centre will concentrate Auckland's poker machines in a better controlled central location - the casino. Heart of the City chief executive Alex Swney was the only one of 22 submitters at the hearings yesterday who supported the bill enshrining the pokies-for-convention-centre deal without amendments. He said the vast majority of convention centres worldwide needed public subsidies because 80 per cent of their economic benefits went to surrounding businesses, and Auckland should accept SkyCity's offer to build one without a subsidy. "Don't wait for the perfect solution," he told MPs. "Try to make the one on the table work best." He said the deal was a "win-win" because it secured the convention centre while the council's policy reduced pokie numbers. "We are seeing a sinking lid on pokies in Auckland and a greater concentration in a better controlled environment."
The Salvation Army proposed a new public body to supervise SkyCity casino's host responsibility staff. Major Campbell Roberts, of the army's social policy unit, told MPs yesterday that the casino's host responsibility staff faced "an intrinsic conflict of interest" because they were supposed to identify problem gamblers and help them to tackle their addictions, yet those same people were a major source of the casino's revenue. "We submit that a model could be developed wherein the casino's host responsibility staff is paid by the casino but employed or reporting back to this newly formed public organisation." Major Roberts said 507 out of 1152 people who went to the Salvation Army in Manukau for food, budgeting or other services between January and July this year had suffered harm from gambling. "The social harm from these types of laws will haunt Aucklanders and New Zealanders for the coming generations."
Auckland Council says boosting pokie numbers at SkyCity Casino would undermine the council's region-wide "sinking lid" policy. A bipartisan submission by right-wing councillor George Wood and left-winger Cathy Casey supported a new convention centre, but opposed giving SkyCity extra pokies or extending its licence in exchange for building it. Mr Wood said 4539 Aucklanders had counselling for problem gambling in 2010 and 2011. "The licences given to SkyCity as set out in this bill will increase the potential for gambling harm and are likely to add to those statistics and undermine Auckland's recently developed sinking lid policy." Dr Casey said the council wanted the bill amended to enforce harm minimisation provisions, force SkyCity to give back more than 2.5 per cent of its profits to the community, and confine pokies to the casino itself rather than across SkyCity property in a "Las Vegas-style gambling complex".
Convention Centre deal
*SkyCity to spend $400 million on a convention centre for 3500 delegates.
*SkyCity casino allowed 230 extra pokies and 52 extra gaming tables, and its licence is extended to 2048.
*Government says convention centre will create 800 jobs; NZ Institute of Economic Research found net gain of only 18 jobs after allowing for other jobs displaced, eg, due to higher dollar.