Pokies & smokies: When the means and ends don't meet

John Key loves closing a deal. But when it comes to SkyCity and plain packaging he seems to have lost sight of the fact that how you do things is the mark of a man... and a government

We seem to live in a world these days where the means don't matter so much if you can justify the end - we're driven by outcomes; the result is all that matters. Yet just how much the means means to a person, or a government, can be telling and two big stories this week have been revealing when it comes to making sense of John Key and his second term government.

First, the Auditor-General's office released its report on the government's negotiations over the SkyCity convention centre. There was something for everyone in its findings - from guilt to innocence and borderline corruption to astute dealing.

John Key of course latched onto this line:

We have seen no evidence to suggest that the final decision to negotiate with SkyCity was influenced by any inappropriate considerations.

But as the Deputy Auditor General, Philippa Smith, made clear in her summary, this was a report about process, not about outcomes. She was more interested in how the final decision was reached than the quality of that decision.

Much of our audit and inquiry work in this area is concerned with process, and whether public entities are following established good practice as they carry out their responsibilities.

But compliance with established process is not an end in itself. Procedural principles and guidance on how public funds are spent exist for a reason: the public sector adopts these disciplines to:

  • help ensure that decisions are made carefully and for appropriate reasons;
  • promote open and fair competition, domestically and internationally; and
  • protect against the risk of corruption or inappropriate influence.

The good practice standards help achieve these goals by setting out steps to ensure that the processes followed are transparent and fair to all participants.

Which is a good explanation as to why the means matter. In that regard, she found the process deeply flawed. She found "a range of deficiences", not just in the work of officials as National would have you believe, but in "the steps that officials and Ministers took leading up to that decision".

On Planet Key, it seems, process is just a way to get to a desired outcome. And this is where the dealer PM shines through, revealing a lack of political probity. Key rightly believes that Auckland needs a convention centre. He, not unreasonably, thinks the government shouldn't have to pay for it. So with those two goals in mind he went on the hunt for a deal, and found one with SkyCity: Law change+more pokies= free convention centre.

For him, that's a result and he seems genuinely annoyed that people aren't more impressed with his ability to deliver a major piece of infrastructure at zero cost to you and me.

What he's missing is that in politics - when you've got public money and the need for the fairest of fair play - the means matter. Or at least they should.

You can't ride roughshod over Ngati Whatua, The Edge and others who spent money and effort in the mistaken belief they had the same shot at winning the contract to build a convention centre. You can't just have dinners with business leaders and offer law changes over coffee.

SkyCity may be the best builder in this case - the location is certainly better than the old railway station, Alexandra Park or Wynyard Quarter. But the process stinks. You can't trade favours or circumvent processes like that in public office.

Key doesn't seem to have learnt his lesson from The Hobbit fiasco, but rather feels vindicated that part of his job is to smooth paths and close deals, even his his trading chips are the laws of the land and our national commitment to fair play. But he's a Prime Minister, not a closer. As Smith says, it's his job to worry about undue influence, transparency and fair play. It can make deals harder to close and more complicated than in the private sector, it means worrying about things that are more esoteric than just the bottomline, but it comes with the territory.

As PM he's got to "think outside the box" - to quote Key himself - about not just the financial cost of his deals, but the social ones as well. Condensing more pokies into a single place not only makes addiction easier,while giving one company a much bigger market share of a (slightly) shrinking market.

The plain packaging announcement this week leads me to much the same conclusion. On the face of it National and the Maori Party are cracking down on Big Tobacco and, given the tobacco giants' intense and concerted opposition to plain packaging for many years, hitting them where it hurts. In their brands.

But again he's done a deal, of sorts. Key has given Turia a headline and created the impression a valuable coalition partner (on the latest polls, a possible king-maker) is making a difference for its constituency. That's a good end game for both parties. The facts though aren't so simple.

Key rather undermined Turia's glorious moment (and the impression that she had power and had delivered a major blow to the ciggie makers) by saying it all depended on how those ciggie makers got on taking Australia to the overlords at the WTO.

Turia made plain packaging sound imminent, promising legislation introduced to parliament before the end of the year. But that's somewhere short of an imminent law change. In truth, if the desired end was really to take a stand on smoking, there's nothing to stop New Zealand changing the law now and standing alongside Australia in the WTO dock.

But there are other ends concerning Key in this matter, not least being our free trading reputation and Tim Groser's WTO bid.

If you look at the time-frame, the WTO challenge could take two or three years to settle, which kicks any law change to another parliamentary term and leaves the legislation gathering dust in select committee.

Turia will have resigned in a couple of years and won't be there to champion the law, the Maori Party may or may not be as important to any government, and who knows how the WTO will rule. Maybe National will want or need to follow through with this week's promise... maybe not.

Again, Key has delivered the desired end - good politics for his party and partner - with little care for the means of actually getting our smoking rate down and rescuing the 5000 smokers who die each year.

For me, the means matter. As others have said, the right and decent thing to do would be to restart the tender process over a convention centre and introduce plain packaging pronto. But neither are going to happen.

Why? Because Key may well represent the mood of the nation these days with his focus on results over process; people only read headlines and simply want to know how things end. And because in this term National, presumably feeling the pressure to deliver on promises before the 2014 election, seem to be all about end games, no matter how they get there.