OPINION: John Key needs to broaden his social horizons.
According to the prime minister, allowing Sky City Casino to install another 350 to 500 pokie machines in its Auckland premises will not materially increase problem gambling in this country because the casino targets international clients.
Mr Key should spend an evening observing the casino's clientele. Sky City may target international visitors, but the pensioners, housewives and migrants who daily pour money into the serried ranks of the casino's pokie machines carry Kiwi passports.
Asian, Australian and North American high-fliers do not need to jet into Auckland to play the pokies. They have plenty of their own.
Mr Key has been offered a deal that would make Mephistopheles blush. If the Government allows the casino to cause more misery to those who cannot constrain their urge to feed its beeping, whirring, flashing machines, it will build Auckland a $350 million convention centre.
The prime minister is clearly tempted by the offer. In a television interview this week, he talked up the benefits of a convention centre and played down the impact of a casino expansion.
"Would a small number of pokie machines in addition at Sky City materially make a difference to problem gambling? The answer is I don't believe it will," he said.
The prime minister is either misinformed or so enamoured of the idea of a convention centre that he has suspended his critical faculties.
Casinos make their money from habitual gamblers, not passers-by who occasionally pop in for a quick flutter on their way to dinner or a show.
Among those habitual gamblers are a sizeable number who cannot control their impulses in front of a pokie machine. A major study by the Australian Productivity Commission recently concluded that problem gamblers were responsible for about 40 per cent of the revenue generated by Australian pokie machines.
To suggest, as Mr Key has also done, that casinos are better equipped to deal with problem gamblers than pubs and clubs is to ignore the evidence to the contrary. Health Sponsorship Council research, published in February, indicates that casino gamblers are more likely to be problem gamblers, or at risk of problem gambling, than non-casino gamblers.
The Government should reject Sky City's offer. If a sound business case exists for the construction of a convention centre in Auckland, its promoters should have no difficulty attracting private investors. If a compelling case exists for subsidising its construction with public funds, they should be able to persuade Auckland Mayor Len Brown to dip into ratepayers' pockets.
If neither of those options make sense, Auckland should lower its sights.
The centre should not be paid for by those who send their children to school hungry, lie to family and friends and steal from employers because they cannot control an addiction they have been encouraged to develop.
- The Dominion Post