Gambling with the social fabric

Roll up, roll up! Anybody out there, corporations or multinationals want a piece of the action in this country, just sing out. Make yourselves known.

Want to spend some money, make a buck? Get in touch. Nothing's impossible.

We're a can-do sort of bunch down here in God's Own. We worship at the altar of economic development, for which veritable bushels of sins will be forgiven.

Require a bit of a PR push? No worries, we can do that. Need a bit of massaging from some friendly media? You are coming to the right place. Want a law change? Hey, that's our specialty. Come on down!

Notwithstanding our penchant for pragmatism, the pitch for New Zealand Inc is in danger of delivering us a reputation as a soft touch. When Warner Brothers came calling nice Mr Friendly, aka John Key, smiled and waved and said, yup, no problem, we can change the law.

That case was an easier sell because on the other end of the deal was that mega-movie project involving those cuddly little hobbit creatures and the greater glorification of Wellywood, all things Kiwi and Saint Peter.

We enjoy hosting all those big screen luvvies, and we do love to see ourselves up there in lights.

Even if, as those pesky, uppity actors suggested, it might turn the country into the equivalent of a Mexican film set - with comparable wages and conditions.

At least it was work. What didn't they understand about that?

And the great thing is, when the shooting's all done they'll be able to apply for a job at this new Auckland convention centre.

In case you haven't caught up with the details - some of these are a bit vague because the Government is refusing to release specific information and advice on it for reasons of "commercial sensitivity" - here's the deal.

SkyCity, which operates a profitable casino operation in down town Auckland, has promised to fund the lion's share (reportedly $200 million or so) of a $350 million "International" Convention Centre next to its Auckland headquarters in return for an extension of its licence for poker machines.

The Government would tinker with the Gambling Act 2003 to enable SkyCity to add a further 350-500 machines to its operation.

In return, the taxpayer would reap the benefits of this new 3500-seat centre which, allegedly, would create 1000 jobs during the construction phase, and 800 permanent jobs thereafter.

It would theoretically bring an estimated $85.4 million in tourism revenue into the country from additional international visitors.

Wow! How could we go past that?

A few stick-in-the-muds are not quite so moved.

Problem gambling organisations say this number of additional pokie machines could be responsible for creating up to 400 additional problem gamblers each year; and an Australian survey indicates that problem gamblers are the source of about 40% of revenue generated by Australian pokie machines.

Potentially this number of new pokie machine could see at least a couple of hundred new problem gamblers annually, some with families whose rent is not paid, who can't afford to buy food to eat, have no money to go to the doctor, whose problem gambling parents lie and steal and cheat to support a bad, socially destructive habit.

Is SkyCity doing us such a big favour?

A recent Goldman Sachs report indicated that once the new machines are operating the company stands to earn up to $42 million after-tax profit annually.

If this is accurate, its $200-million-plus investment would be paid off in a mere five years.

Further, it has been pointed out that while the gaming trusts that operate pokie machines in pubs and clubs must return 37% of profits to the community in the form of grants to approved "uses", casinos are required to return only 2.5%.

And does New Zealand really need a new "International" Convention Centre in Auckland? How is that going to benefit the taxpayers of Otago, for instance? Does putting the word "international" in front of what is ostensibly a local Auckland project make it a venture of national significance and import?

Conversely, while that may be in doubt, there can be little argument the social fallout from spiralling numbers of problem gamblers, who find new opportunities for misery and deprivation in the gambling goldmines of downtown Auckland, will eventually fall on the taxpayer.

All because we're such a pragmatic bunch, so enamoured of the idea of economic development.

Some even call it progress.

- Simon Cunliffe is deputy editor (news) at the Otago Daily Times.


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