Minister, casino play cards close to chest on pokies and convention centre

Hundreds of new pokie machines and gaming tables are in the offing for casino giant SkyCity as talks for a new national convention centre resume with "renewed vigour".

Talks for a deal in which SkyCity foots the bill for a $350 million convention centre in Auckland in return for a series of regulatory concessions from the Government began in June last year.

The Problem Gambling Foundation yesterday said it understood Sky City had asked for 900 to 1000 extra pokie machines, more gaming tables and regulatory changes to allow more promotion of gambling. A deal has yet to be struck, however, and newly appointed Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce yesterday admitted that talks had been "grinding on a bit".

Just days into his new ministerial role late last year, Mr Joyce hosted SkyCity executives in his Beehive office in Wellington to discuss progress on the deal.

"We want to get a good deal on behalf of the Crown and in terms of what's appropriate and so does, obviously, SkyCity on behalf of its shareholders," Mr Joyce said.

After the meeting, negotiators on both sides had agreed to attack talks with "renewed vigour," he said.

SkyCity was looking for concessions to make its $350m investment worthwhile, and a national convention centre at no cost to taxpayers was a priority for the Government.

Asked if there were hundreds of new tables and gaming machines in the offing for SkyCity, Mr Joyce declined to give a figure.

"You've just got to work your way through the calculations and I'm not going to go out there and say it's `x' or `x to y' or anything like that," he said.

"There are also more technical things, like risks of cost over-runs, that you've got to get tied down as well ... The intention is to do the deal."

Mr Joyce said he would be comfortable with legislation allowing SkyCity to have more machines "on the basis that it's fair to all parties, including taxpayers and that people can see it's a reasonable thing to do".

SkyCity is also expected to get a renewal of its gambling licence, which expires in 2021, as part of the deal.

Graham Aitken, acting chief executive of the Problem Gambling Foundation, said Auckland was already "pretty much saturated with pokie machines".

The ones at the casino were "not particularly well-populated" most of the time and more machines would be worthwhile to Sky City only if it could force regulatory changes allowing more promotion of them.

The foundation would be "very concerned" by any relaxation of the rules on the promotion of gambling.

SkyCity company secretary Peter Treacy declined to comment on any marketing regulation changes or on the number of new machines and tables being sought.

"It is taking a while, but it is a reasonably complicated deal ... The negotiations are going well, with the usual cut and thrust of negotiations," he said.

SkyCity hoped to conclude a commercial agreement within the first three months of this year.

The Dominion Post