Editorial: No winners in SkyCity report

The results of the auditor-general's probe of the Government's deal with SkyCity to build a convention centre in exchange for a law change allowing the casino more gaming machines are in, and both sides of the political divide are claiming victory.

Prime Minister John Key claims the report "totally vindicated" the Government, and Opposition parties are holding it up as proof the tender process was a sham.

Essentially, the report found the final decision was made on the merits of the respective proposals, but the process of evaluating each tender was not "transparent or even-handed". Of course, SkyCity was always going to secure the deal ahead of its rivals - it was effectively offering to build the convention centre for free. Even if the other bidders knew from the outset about the pokies trade-off SkyCity was offering the Government, it seems highly unlikely they would have been able to alter their tenders and affect the final decision.

All that is largely beside the point anyway.

The key question at the centre of this issue is a moral one: does saving taxpayer money to build a public asset ameliorate the negative social impact of problem gambling? Make no mistake, the extra 300 pokies SkyCity would get in the deal will come at a cost to the community. The casino wants them because the house never loses, and at least some of those profits will come from the pockets of problem gamblers.

No-one expects SkyCity to be terribly concerned about that, but criticism of the Government's involvement in such a deal is legitimate. That criticism is only heightened by the auditor-general's view that the processes that led to the deal lacked transparency and fairness.

The prime minister will be calculating that the moral question underpinning the issue is not black and white, and voters will be more impressed by the sight of a multimillion-dollar convention centre than the silent anguish of faceless gambling addicts and their families. It's a political calculation that will, regrettably, probably prove to be correct.

The Government knows the report is far from "vindication", but its political opponents also know it has been only grazed by the auditor-general's bullet. Both are spinning the report to suit their respective political agendas, but ultimately the only people who can answer moral questions with any meaningful consequence are the voters.

Their judgment is the only one the prime minister fears, and he clearly thinks he's on the right side of public opinion.

Manawatu Standard