Critics slam Sky City pokie deal

OPEN BOOK: Plans for a lobbyists' register could shed light on transactions such as the SkyCity casino deal.
JOHN SELKIRK/Fairfax Media
OPEN BOOK: Plans for a lobbyists' register could shed light on transactions such as the SkyCity casino deal.

The Government is unashamedly considering changing the law to allow hundreds more pokie machines at Sky City's Auckland casino in return for a national convention centre, despite evidence it will increase problem gambling and reduce the amount of money gaming machines return to the local community. Danya Levy reports.

When Sky City Entertainment offered to spend $A250 million ($NZ312m) redeveloping Adelaide's Riverbank Precinct in return for a review of state gambling taxes last year, South Australian treasurer Jack Snelling told the multi-national company it was ''dreaming''.

Offered a similar deal two months earlier with the carrot of a new $350m national convention centre in downtown Auckland, the New Zealand Government jumped at the opportunity.

The Government has been negotiating with Sky City since last June to build the 3500-seat convention centre but is keeping developments close to its chest, saying talks are ''commercially sensitive''.

The centre is being touted as a major asset for the country; providing a $90m boost to the economy, employing 1000 people to build and a further 800 to run.

Prime Minister John Key says he is ''not convinced'' more pokies at Sky City would have an impact on problem gambling.

Other companies tendered for the project but were blown out of the water when Sky City said it would do it for free.

Problem Gambling Foundation chief executive Graeme Ramsey says ''there is nothing free about it''.

''There is a very clear correlation between availability of machines and the number of machines and the number of problems.

''Research shows for every gaming machine you put in you get 0.8 of a problem gambler, so it's almost one for one.''

The majority of harm from gambling was caused by pokies, he said.

''For over 70 per cent of people who come to us, it's about pokies.''

While more people were seeking help for gambling problems, only about 12 per cent of those with gambling addictions sought help.

Sky City Auckland currently has 1647 pokies and it has been reported that it hopes to increase that number by anywhere between 500 and 1000.

Exactly how many more seems to be a sticking point in the deal with Key warning journalists against using the number 500, saying it was likely to be fewer. How many fewer he wouldn't specify.

Sky City has casinos in Auckland, Hamilton, Queenstown, Christchurch, Darwin and Adelaide.

In Australia it pays on average 28 per cent of the money it takes on gaming machines to local state governments.

Sky City Auckland pays 2.5 per cent on its net profit on all its business - pokies, tables, restaurants and hotels - back to the Sky City Auckland Charitable Trust.

Pokie machines in pubs and clubs which are run by trusts such as the Lions give 37.12 per cent of their takings back to the community. That money is then doled out by the Lottery Grants Board for charities, community activities and horse racing.

Before the Auckland Council merger, many individual councils had sinking lid policies which remain in place.

Auckland Mayor Len Brown says an international class convention centre would be ''huge asset'' for Auckland, but acknowledges he has always been concerned about problem gambling.

''I will continue to work to limit the harm it does.''

Key has said the council's policy meant there would not be an overall increase in pokies in Auckland, but Ramsey says although there would be the same number of gaming machines, there would be less money going to the community.

''What Sky City provides community groups is minuscule. The real difference here is an element of the money will be going from the community's pocket to a shareholder's pocket.''

Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce played down the chances of the deal going ahead, saying there was always a chance either party could walk away.

If the deal is struck, the Government will have to legislate to allow the extra pokie machines.

There were also suggestions a relaxation of strict laws around gambling advertising was on the table, but Joyce has ruled that out.

Key argues casinos are a safer environment for gambling than local pubs and clubs but figures supplied by Internal Affairs under the Official Information Act show they can be a hub of crime for money launderers, loan sharks and fraudsters.

Green Party gambling spokeswoman Denise Roche says Sky City cannot operate without an element of harm, evidenced in February when five children aged five months to eight years were left unsupervised in a van outside the Auckland casino for about 45 minutes while their parents gambled.

''They had loyalty cards,'' says Roche, whose nephew has also struggled with problem gambling and was a loyalty card member of the casino.

''They (Sky City) know who the problem gamblers are but they can't exist without them. They can track how much people are spending, that's what a loyalty card is (for).''

The nephew received emails from Sky City. He has now stopped going, she said.

Loyalty members were also given vouchers to encourage them to return.

Recent research by the Health Sponsorship Council found people who went to a casino were more likely to be or become problem gamblers, Roche said.

There has been concern lately about Sky City's influence in the media after reports television and radio hosts Mike Hosking and Paul Henry had earned up to $2000 a month from the casino.

In previous elections, Sky City has been a big political donor. In 2005 it gave $60,000 to both the National and Labour parties and $12,000 each to the ACT, Maori, United Future and Progressive parties.

Ministers, MPs and members of the media are frequent guests in its stadia corporate boxes.

Sky City appears to be becoming defensive as media attention on the deal increases.

Spokesman Peter Tracey declined requests for an interview, saying ''I'm not sure there's much point''.

Labour leader David Shearer has described the deal as ''shonky''.

''It's basically selling law to get more pokie machines into Sky City. I can't believe that is happening in New Zealand.''

He says legislation enacting the deal should be a conscience vote and Labour MPs will be free to vote on their beliefs.

Key has ruled out a conscience vote, saying it is a matter of infrastructure, not morality.

But Shearer says that shows the prime minister is concerned some National MPs don't agree with the deal.

''I would say many MPs in the National Party wouldn't agree with it and that's why he's making it a party vote.''

While it is doubtful ''many'' of them disagree with the deal, some of National's more religious MPs have privately expressed their concern about gambling.

One pointed out National's caucus was ''more conservative than it had been in years''.

RECORDED CRIME AND OTHER INCIDENTS AT SKYCITY AUCKLAND:

Abandoned children

2009 _ 19

2010 _ 46

2011 _ 54

Assaults

2009 _ 3

2010 _ 3

2011 _ 14

Cheating

2009 _ 9

2010 _ 20

2011 _ 11

Counterfeit currency

2009 _ 1

2010 _ 9

2011 _ 5

Fraud (identity and document)

2009 _ 84

2010 _ 52

2011 _ 25

Loan sharking

2009 _ 4

2010 _ 6

2011 _ 5

Breaching minimum operating standards

2009 _ 10

2010 _ 7

2011 _ 6

Breach of trespass by barred people

2009 _ N/A

2010 _ N/A

2011 _ 265

Money laundering

2009 _ 8

2010 _ 3

2011 _ 3

- Figures provided by Internal Affairs under the Official Information Act

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