Ministry takes aim over pokies riddle

NEIL REID
Last updated 05:00 27/01/2013

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A Parliamentary select committee has taken aim at ongoing secrecy over the alleged proposal to allow Auckland's casino to install more pokie machines in return for building a $350 million convention centre.

Auditor-General Lynn Provost will soon release a draft report into the tender process undertaken by the Ministry of Economic Development for proposals to establish an international convention centre.

It has been alleged that SkyCity was told it could have an extra 500 pokie machines if it built the centre.

SkyCity already has more than 1600 pokie machines.

Problem gambling organisations and opposition MPs say more machines in the casino would cause immense social damage.

As the release of the auditor-general's report nears, documents released by Parliament's Commerce Select Committee have revealed how the Ministry of Economic Development has invoked privacy to keep details of its negotiations with SkyCity top secret.

The committee posed a series of 158 written questions to ministry officials while it was completing its annual review of the government department last year.

Included were questions about dates of meetings and correspondence between the ministry and SkyCity officials.

The committee also asked for the job position of relevant ministry officials who met with SkyCity and what the purpose and outcomes of the discussions were.

The Ministry of Economic Development - which has since been merged into the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment - initially stated such an answer would require "substantial investigation and collation", adding its release would be "subject to consideration in accordance with the Official Information Act".

The committee responded in writing that approach was "unacceptable", saying the ministry was "under an obligation to respond fully and frankly to select committee financial review questions.

"A proper substantive answer is required by the committee. Refusal to answer would raise issues of Standing Orders that the committee may need to consider further."

The ministry then provided the committee with confirmation that its officials had 23 meetings with SkyCity between June 2011 and July 2012. During that period, correspondence had been exchanged 33 times.

The meetings and correspondence all related to "the design, construction, funding and operation of the New Zealand International Convention Centre".

The names of those involved and the specifics of what was discussed were withheld by the ministry "in order to protect the privacy of individuals and the commercial/negotiation in confidence nature of the discussion".

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Labour's Internal Affairs spokeswoman Ruth Dyson last week called on the Government to come clean on what, if anything, it had promised SkyCity bosses.

"This whole deal has smelt from day one," Dyson said.

"If the Government has already told SkyCity on the quiet that the deal will go ahead then it should also tell the public.

"A national convention centre should be built on its own merits, not as a result of a back-room tradeoff between National Party minister and a casino company."

Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce's office confirmed earlier this month that no deal had yet been signed with SkyCity.

- Sunday Star Times

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