That SkyCity deal is sweet as. The law hasn't been traded, more pokies won't do any harm and now that the government's saying it might walk away from the deal, well, that doesn't amount to a backdown. Yeah right.

Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce did his own unique version of the 'Dead Parrot' sketch on Q+A this morning. Just as Michael Palin once memorably stood at a shop counter insisting that a dead bird was alive, Joyce argued that white was black when it came to the Sky City conventional centre deal.

The Sky City deal has got away on National in one of its rare political mismangements; it has the feel of the schedule four debate all over again when the government badly misread the mood of the country and was forced to backdown.

This time, it being a second term and with the Prime Minister having tied his flag more tightly to this policy, a backdown is not nearly as certain. But even if the government was to fail to seal the deal with SkyCity, it would not amount to a backdown. No, no. Joyce said:

It’s not a back-down situation at all. The government is interested in doing a negotiation and an arrangement which is fair to both parties – fair to taxpayers and fair to SkyCity shareholders. And if such a deal can be arranged, then that’s something we’ll put before the Parliament. If it can’t be done, we won’t be doing it. But it’s not a case of a back-down.

Which, of course, means a backdown is at least being considered. And it can only be called a backdown, given Key's repeated endorsement of what a good deal this is for the country and his decision to stall work into any other options once he knew SkyCity was going to tender.

This is a convention centre National has backed - and still backs, if the politics don't become too hard. What's more Joyce said this morning that an addition of several hundred more pokie machines - whatever the final number may be - would not "necessarily" add to this country's gambling problems. So, from that point of view, the only thing standing in the way of a deal is politics.

Yet the facts around pokies are not encouraging - they're the meth of the gambling industry, as the Herald has quoted. More than three-quarters of problem gamblers use them as their main mode of gambling... Around half of all pokie users are problem gamblers... And according to the Australian Productivity Commission each new gaming machine creates 0.8 of a new addict, which in turn affects 5-10 people around them.

For Joyce to hear such figures and reply that he does not see a "cost" in those extra gaming machines is surely akin to insisting that the world is flat. He would be on safe ground questioning the degree of the harm, but to deny any suggests a politician in denial.

Will a 20-30 percent increase in the number of pokie machines at our largest casino not add to the $2 billion New Zealanders already lose through gambling? Will it not create more addicts? And will more problem gamblers not be a cost to taxpayers in terms of the assistance we offer, the benefits required, the productivity lost and so on?

No, says Joyce. This parrot, he declares, is just sleeping. Pining for the fjords.

And just in case you were in any doubt about the depth of Joyce's denial, consider this exchange:

GREG                           "Yes, but let’s just back this up. If you hadn’t said... If you’d said to SkyCity, “No, we’re not going to change the gaming law. You can’t have any extra pokie machines. You’ve got 1600. That’s enough,” you wouldn’t have a deal. Is that right?

MR JOYCE                  There's no doubt about that. I mean, at the end of the day...

GREG                           So you have sold the law.

MR JOYCE                  No, it’s not selling the law, Greg. I mean, it’s basically saying you’ll alter the law to enable economic activity to take place..."

So... It's not selling the law, it's just altering it in return for economic gain. And this parrot is just resting.

I don't want to get to hung-up on that point, however. I'm all for governments looking for creative deals to boost our economy, and sometimes those may involve law changes. The problem is with this specific deal.

Phil O'Reilly once told me that the reason the unions buggered their argument against The Hobbit law change was because they didn't understand that this wasn't just another industrial relations dispute. We're proud of those films, they speak to our national identity, and we weren't about to lose them to Estonia. And he was bang on.

This time National has made the same mistake in reverse. Its MPs haven't understood that people don't feel proud about gambling and its associated problems and don't like favours for individual corporates (especially Australian ones).

So the government is left holding a parrot that, politically, is dead. It's a late parrot, it's ceased to be, it is no more.

The question now is how long it's willing and able to keep staring voters in the face insisting that the parrot is as right as rain.

Comments (9)

by IrishBill on April 22, 2012

Phil O'Reilly once told me that the reason the unions buggered their argument against The Hobbit law change was because they didn't understand that this wasn't just another industrial relations dispute. 

I'm sorry but that's just wrong. The Hobbit deal was settled before Jackson decided to stir it up. What the union didn't understand was this wasn't an employer that paid any attention to good faith bargaining.

By the time the law was changed most people had rumbled what had happend was nothing to do with the union:

But that doesn't stop Phil trying to rewrite history and you helping him.

by Tim Watkin on April 23, 2012
Tim Watkin

You're going to have to explain that one IB. By "The Hobbit deal" do you mean the law change? Are you claiming the law change was decided before the MEAA took its stance, before the international meeting and the resultant letter or between those and Jackson's combative reaction? Warners and Jackson may have decided what they wanted from the stoush before he went public, but I don't know of any evidence that the government had been signed up that early in the piece. We're going back months, remember.

Your post just seems to repeat some columns – Vernon's piece actually makes the same point as I (and O'Reilly) did, which is that the unions erred by taking on The Hobbit because of the patriotism attached. But I'd be interested if you had any evidence.

Still, don't buy that there's any rewriting going on here.

Check out this post for some details/timeline as best as we could figure at the time.

by Ian MacKay on April 23, 2012
Ian MacKay

Apart from the morality of the law change, it could be argued that a large Conference Centre is unlikely to actually attract many large conference. Sydney V Auckland? Northern Hemisphere Conference to fly a long way south to Auckland?

Has a good business-model case been made?

by DeepRed on April 24, 2012

One-time Listener editor Paul Little pointedly wrote:

"Usually, this is enough to rule out a location as the site for a convention centre. Auckland is as suitable a site for a convention centre as the Nullarbor is for a ski academy.

We are, admittedly, the ideal location for conventions of the Vanuatu Chamber of Commerce or the Norfolk Island Entrepreneurs Association.

But that's about it. Australian bodies prefer to look west when selecting sites for their bunfights. Most groups will be better off closer to home."

Personally I'm all for a big convention centre, but does it really have to be as horribly expensive and over-staffed as the current plan looks, as compared with Sydney and Melbourne?

I have plans to satirize the shit out of this blatant pork-barreling. Watch this space.

by Tim Watkin on April 25, 2012
Tim Watkin

What, this space?

by Tim Watkin on April 25, 2012
Tim Watkin

Ian and Red, I guess the point I'd make is that SkyCity ain't no charity, so if they thought they couldn't do better than the Vanuatu Chamber of Commerce, they wouldn't want to spend $350m on a convention centre. And neither would Infratil, Ngati Whatua, the Auckland City Council and the other bidder who escapes me for now... oh, the one who wanted to build out at Alexandra Park.

BTW, how else is tired of the erroneous line Joyce is spinning that only SkyCity wanted to build in the CBD? What about The Edge and it's plan to build about three blocks from SkyCity? It's hardly Botany or Papatoetoe, is it?

From memory that was a bloody good bid – the only supposed downside being the public money involved. And that's not really looking such a bad investment right now.

by DeepRed on April 27, 2012

@Tim W: pork barrel politics is a known factor behind major cost overruns, even when they're just projections. It's certainly the case with NASA, and closer to home, the Holiday Highway.

by DeepRed on April 27, 2012

What, this space?

What kind of space? The sort of space you find on a T-shirt. Or a bumper sticker.

by IrishBill on April 27, 2012

Sorry for the late response. I had some log-in problems.

The deal I'm talking about was the deal between Jackson and the union (which was basically that the union would negotiate with SPADA). This was done and the "boycott" was called off several days before Jackson kicked up a stink (thereby blindsiding the union).

The law change came after that. By which time it was clear the union wasn't anything to do with it other than a handy distraction. Phil has conflated two seperate things in what I can only assume is an attempt to pin the law change on the union. Despite the union being well beaten before Jackson made the whole thing into a PR excercise.

It should be noted that there was another secret deal that we're only just hearing about today designed to allow for Jackson to easily import workers. I've heard that this deal is being used to bring in technical staff on contracts (I would be very interested to know if they have skills unavailable in NZ).


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