David Fisher

David Fisher is a senior reporter for the NZ Herald.

SkyCity boss reveals Cabinet access

SkyCity chairman Rod McGeoch. File photo / Steven McNicholl
SkyCity chairman Rod McGeoch. File photo / Steven McNicholl

SkyCity's shareholders were told of close ties to "high ranking" Cabinet ministers five days before Prime Minister John Key invited the company to bid to build the new national convention centre.

SkyCity chairman Rod McGeoch said the access was enabling the company to change the way it was seen by "key influencers".

The claim emerged as the Government comes under intense pressure over its relationship with the company after Mr Key admitted yesterday it was his idea to have SkyCity build the $350 million national convention centre.

The revelation sparked criticism from opposition parties and those working with problem gamblers.

Last night Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce corrected a previous statement that he had not met SkyCity officials for five months.

A spokeswoman for Mr Joyce, whose ministry officials are negotiating the deal, said he had met Mr McGeoch last Friday at the Australia New Zealand Leadership Forum in Sydney.

"They talked briefly about the national convention centre proposal," she said.

SkyCity has offered to pay for the convention centre in return for gambling law concessions. The company's casino is restricted by the Gambling Act which stops it introducing more games, busier games or faster games.

Mr McGeoch told shareholders at the annual meeting on October 30, 2009, the company's "relationships" with the Government were "as good as they have ever been".

He said his roles in business leadership groups had created opportunities to meet "high ranking officials and Cabinet ministers".

Mr McGeoch, who is also chairman of the Australia/New Zealand Business Forum and the Trans Tasman Business Circle, said it was "situations like that which is changing how we are seen by key influencers".

He said SkyCity wanted changes to the Gambling Act 2003, which barred the company from expanding its casino business.

He said gambling regulation should also balance "the contribution the casino industry makes to the likes of employment and tourism".

Parliamentary records show Mr Key had dinner with the SkyCity board on November 4, 2009 - five days after Mr McGeoch's speech at the annual meeting.

Mr Key filed a written response to a Green Party parliamentary question saying they discussed the convention centre and board members raised issues over gambling law.

Yesterday, Mr Key said his approach was not a "shoulder-tap".

He said SkyCity was the only party prepared to fully pay for the convention centre and he was comfortable if the deal led to an increase in the number of poker machines the company was allowed.

"It's largely the issue of a piece of infrastructure for tourism and it's an important part of building that tourism model."

More details of the deal have emerged from a private briefing given three weeks ago by SkyCity chief executive Nigel Morrison.

He told the Transtasman Business Circle that SkyCity wanted the early renewal of its Auckland casino licence, which expired in 2021, more table games, gaming machines and "automated" gaming tables.

The casino also wanted "changes to gaming regulations to increase the efficiency and attractiveness of the service it provided for customers".

- Additional reporting: Adam Bennett

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