Bill English really is the bad cop in the Government's brinksmanship with SkyCity over just whose pockets will be picked to pay for the $70 million to $130 million cost overrun for the international convention centre.
The Beehive spin is that John Key craftily wheeled English out to send a message to SkyCity that there are fiscal limits to the Government's ability to fund the extra. A message that the Prime Minister - who had shamelessly bypassed good governance procedures when he stitched up the bones of the behind scenes "free" deal with SkyCity directors in the first place - was too compromised to deliver himself.
That this is off the back of political polling that reveals New Zealanders have seen through Key's endeavour to soften the public up for a taxpayer contribution is not entirely besides the point.
New Zealanders have woken up to Key's obvious gamesmanship where in an attempt to prime taxpayers for a SkyCity top-up he suggested that if the convention centre was built to its original agreed budget of $402 million it would be an "eyesore".
It was a ridiculous ploy and easily seen through including by SkyCity's boss Nigel Morrison who countered Key's spin saying he (Morrison) didn't think it would be an eyesore, but it would be difficult to be proud of the centre as it was originally designed.
The SkyCity chief executive then cleverly played Key - who is also Tourism Minister - by saying "it certainly wouldn't be the world-class facility that would drive the returns for the country, which a convention centre certainly delivers".
Said Morrison: "It's not so much about returns for SkyCity, it's about driving international tourism."
Right now the casino operator is making the running behind scenes.
SkyCity is also lobbying key companies within the tourism industry to build support for the gold-plated international convention centre option. Media figures are also being lobbied.
In this environment, it is critical that the Finance Minister does stand up to his colleagues.
He is just the sort of cop that Cabinet needs given the Prime Minister's tendency to dish out corporate welfare as with Rio Tinto and Warners, to promise future tax cuts when it makes more sense for the Government to post budget surpluses and pay down public debt while the New Zealand economy is humming and not to make impetuous promises - like not to hike the qualifying age for national super which undercuts inter-generational equity.
The reality is this is no ordinary "bad cop, good cop" routine.
The Finance Minister is genuinely opposed to the gold-plating of the design specs that have taken place since SkyCity struck its "convention centre for more pokies" deal with Key and Cabinet minister Steven Joyce.
As the Cabinet minister with overall portfolio responsibility for infrastructure, English has spearheaded Treasury reforms that ensure taxpayer risk around major public private partnerships is limited.
Those bidding to build public infrastructure like roads, prisons and hospitals face serious financial penalties if projects are not brought in on time and within budget.
But Key and Joyce bypassed the Treasury when they thrashed out their deal with SkyCity.
Chucking taxpayers' cash into the pot is English's least preferred option, he told Parliament's finance and expenditure committee this week.
He has greater priorities, like posting the long forecast budget surplus and funding capital projects.
The problem is that Joyce has been letting it be known within the commercial sector that the Government will eventually meet SkyCity somewhere on the cost overruns. This undercuts the Government's negotiating hand.
As English has made clear, the fiscal impact of any deal will have to be quantified in the May 21 Budget.
If the taxpayer does end up putting in more cash there needs to be an assurance that SkyCity won't be back to the Government down the track asking for a contribution to the centre's running costs.
On present performance, English should quantify that as "a risk" within the Government's financial statements, but that won't happen.
It's in SkyCity's commercial interests for the convention centre to go ahead.
Where it will make its money is from the major concessions the Key Government granted the casino operator when it agreed to extend its licence to June 30, 2048 (it was up for renewal in 2021) as part of the deal.
These concessions include 230 more pokie machines, 40 more gaming tables, allowing up to 17 per cent of electronic gaming machines to except bank notes greater than $20, allowing ticket-based and card-based cashless gambling - all of which kick in once the construction contract is signed and apply for the 35-year length of the Government agreement.
The dirty secret is that in the long-run the Government will also make more money from an expected increase in duties on gambling profits that SkyCity will make from the huge expansion of its casino business.
But that won't kick in for four years until the convention centre is completed. In the meantime the Government will compensate SkyCity for any increase in gambling duty.
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