John Roughan 's Opinion

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan: No conscience qualms here

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Casino clearly the only reliable operator of a world-class convention venue in Auckland

Auckland councils have slowly been stopping any more pubs from installing poker machines. Photo / APN
Auckland councils have slowly been stopping any more pubs from installing poker machines. Photo / APN

In all conscience, I think I could vote for the convention centre. It was a smart move of the opposition in Parliament to call the bill a conscience vote on problem gambling. I suppose it is.

So much has been said and written about gambling addiction since John Key proposed the deal with SkyCity that it is hard to deny the casino's price in additional poker machines will harm some people.

Not many. At last count by the Ministry of Health, 0.3 per cent of the population are problem gamblers and 2.5 per cent of the survey said they were affected by somebody else's gambling. But a strict conscience says nobody should be harmed.

The opposition says nobody need be harmed, other tenders to provide an international convention centre in Auckland did not require a pay-off in gambling concessions. But all of the rest required public money.

For Key, I suspect, the attraction of SkyCity is not just the saving of $402 million, it is the fact that SkyCity will run the thing.

Conference centres are something of a cargo cult in urban planning. Any time a city brainstorms ideas to boost its economy a convention centre will be written on the whiteboard, along with high-tech incubators and more broadband connections. The Christchurch recovery plan has one.

They are put into the category of "infrastructure", which means they are relieved of the need to be profitable because they generate profitable activity all around. It is always a seductive argument for those who like to gamble with public money and it is dangerous.

Any useless thing can generate profitable activity around it, a sound economy depends on components of measurable value.

A succession of Auckland mayors over the years have been into the Herald to brief us on schemes for a convention centre, all of them needing public money, probably perpetually.

In the last round of bidding the former Auckland City Council clearly preferred a proposal from its own stable of venue designers and managers. Its confidence in this field was somehow unfazed by the Aotea Centre, an acoustic disaster.

When Key came to power, he looked over the various proposals and had a word to SkyCity. I don't care a jot that this is not exactly how things are supposed to be done in public project tenders. It was just the sort of touch I had hoped he would possess.

Everywhere in the world big conference centres co-habit with casinos. With a hotel, shopping mall, cinema and other attractions in the same precinct, they usually form a glittering focus of the city's life.

If any operator can keep a world-class conference venue in Auckland running competitively it is probably SkyCity, and only SkyCity. It was idle of the Audit Office to suggest the project ought to have been re-tendered in case others could have offered a proposal at no public cost. SkyCity is the only game in town - by law.

My conscience would rule out the alternative of a public-funded project. Without doubt it would have confused public purposes. The initial feasibility study for the Auckland project favoured public ownership so that the centre could "support wider social, economic and environmental outcomes as a community asset by having, for example, free rock concerts ..."

On that score, the conscience rests.

SkyCity's price for building and operating a 3500-seat conference centre has turned out to be 230 poker machines (adding to the 1647 gaming machines already there) and 52 additional gaming tables of which 12 can be an automatic game for up to 20 players.

Material released with the announcement suggests SkyCity wanted 850 additional machines and 40 tables. The minister in charge of negotiations, Steven Joyce, told Parliament this week the 230 granted is the same increase permitted by the previous Government in 2001 for SkyCity's provision of its existing smaller convention centre. I don't recall a conscience vote back then.

It was two years later that the Labour Government put through the present Gaming Act that started to clamp down on pokie machines in pubs. I don't recall much public debate about that either.

Quietly, Auckland councils have been allowing no more pubs to install poker machines. Since 2004 the number of venues on the isthmus has dropped from 152 to 106. In Manukau it has declined from 83 to 67. On the Shore, 47 to 42.

We are not a nation of children. Poker machines may be addictive but not physically so. It seems wrong - an abject surrender of the human will - to treat them like a drug that must be removed from reach.

The majority of players have no problem, addicts can get help that is entirely funded from gaming. If the industry can also support a world class convention venue, this conscience is calm.

- NZ Herald

John Roughan

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald. A graduate of Canterbury University with a degree in history and a diploma in journalism, he started his career on the Auckland Star, travelled and worked on newspapers in Japan and Britain before returning to New Zealand where he joined the Herald in 1981. He was posted to the Parliamentary Press Gallery in 1983, took a keen interest in the economic reform programme and has been a full time commentator for the Herald since 1986. He became the paper's senior editorial writer in 1988 and has been writing a weekly column under his own name since 1996. His interests range from the economy, public policy and politics to the more serious issues of life.

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