Gordon Campbell on today’s ‘conscience’ vote on the SkyCity deal

Gambling, for all the social evils that it can bring in its wake, is a legal activity enjoyed by many. And during night’s debate in Parliament on Te Ururoa Flavell’s Gambling Amendment Bill (a Bill that has been gutted at select committee of all its original good intentions) showed some interesting tonal differences among the Opposition in their approach to gambling and its problems – differences likely to be evident again when the SkyCity deal gets voted on later today, in an alleged conscience vote.

One can reasonably assume that the Green MPs – and their core constituency – are not regulars at the TAB, or at the casino gaming tables. This week, the denunciations by co-Leader Metiria Turei of the evils of problem gambling and the iniquities of the SkyCity deal have been as forthright and outraged as one might have heard from the Temperance League of yore. The SkyCity trade-off has been a dirty deal, Turei has argued. Echoing some of the language of a recently released regulatory impact statement on the project issued by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, Turei pointed out how the deal would bring higher levels of family violence, marital breakups, depression and suicide in its wake. In similar vein, Green MP Denise Roche urged Flavell to withdraw his gutted Bill entirely, now that it seems likely to do more harm than good.

To hear Labour’s Andrew Little and Clayton Cosgrove last night though, was to visit a quite different realm of Kiwiana. One where the honest, hard-pressed sons and daughters of toil love to go down to the RSA or the “Cossie Club” to “have a sup” with their mates, soak up a spot of camaraderie and “enjoy a flutter” on the races, or the pokies. Therefore, Little called for a ‘nuanced’ approach to the issue. Cosgrove did recite a personal tale of a family in his constituency that had been “destroyed” by problem gambling, and he echoed the Salvation Army’s call that Flavell’s Bill would now do more harm than good. Yet he was at pains to stand carefully behind the Sallies on this one, and to claim that theirs had to be seen as an apolitical verdict, based on long experience. Labour is clearly keen, in other words, to seize the opportunity to paint John Key as the conniving agent of the gaming industry, but without sounding like the anti-gambling wowsers that the Greens are more than happy to be. Potential Labour voters gamble – some of them a lot – and that fosters in Labour a rather skittish desire for ‘nuance’.

By contrast, National – and Peter Dunne – have never felt much need for nuance when it comes to the needs of the gaming industry. The deal due to be voted on this afternoon will see SkyCity provide Auckland with a $402 million convention centre, in return for concessions that include 230 new pokie machines and another 52 gaming tables. SkyCity would also get a 35-year extension to its licence and – all up – the concessions have been estimated to be worth up to $527 million over the lifetime of the deal. SkyCity has also agreed to some harm reduction measures, which the Problem Gambling Foundation has rejected as tokenism:

To reduce problem gambling harm, SkyCity must have a tool identifying players at risk of problem gambling and a voluntary pre-commitment system where gamblers can restrict their spending or time at the casino.

It will also double its number of host responsibility specialists Problem Gambling Foundation NZ chief executive Graeme Ramsey was disappointed in the measures he described as “window dressing”.

“I don’t think they are going to have a massive impact and they are certainly very little improvement, if any, from what SkyCity are currently doing.” He wanted to see mandatory pre-commitment systems and an independent audit of SkyCity’s host responsibility programme…

For its part, the MBIE regulatory impact statement is something of a classic of ‘a bob each way’ officialese, in that it cites a precise numerically based estimate of the harm that is likely to be accrue from SkyCity’s increase in pokies and gaming tables, while simultaneously denying that such impacts can be reliably calculated. Thus, on one hand:

It said recent analysis found an average increase of 0.8 per cent of problem gamblers for each new gaming machine – 184 new problem gamblers. Another estimate was made based on an 8.1 per cent increase in the number of pokie machines and a 20 per cent increase in the number of gaming tables.

“If this increase led to a corresponding increase in the number of people experiencing problems as a result of someone else’s gambling it is possible to hypothesise that an additional 4779 people may be at least partly affected by casino machines, and an additional 3600 by tables.”

But on the other hand:

The regulatory impact statement said there was no reliable way to quantify or put a cost on the potential harmful effects of the changes being proposed in the SkyCity convention centre deal.

On Tuesday during a fascinating RNZ interview, MBIE Minister Steven Joyce seized on that ambivalence to hammer away at any attack on the social evils of the SkyCity deal based simply on the numerical increase in poker machines. The number of pokies, Joyce pointed out, has actually been declining for years. So the increase in pokies at the SkyCity is but a temporary – and he argued, negligible – upwards blip in what is an inexorably downwards trend. If more poker machines equals more social evil then by that logic, Joyce concluded, the problems related to problem gambling would need to be treated as being on the decline.

Last night in Parliament, National’s Sam Motu-Liga tried to spin that same argument (about the decline in pokie numbers) as an achievement of the Key government. In fact, the decline began much earlier – the numbers peaked in December 2002 – during the Clark government, as this graph shows:

Click for big version.

The comparison in gaming machine stats that is evident here between say, first quarter 2013 and first quarter 2012 – offers further evidence of the decline in poker machines in all categories of venue. The gaming machine profit numbers are available here, and deserve more attention than I’ve so far had time to give them – I haven’t yet worked out per machine profit trends, or rural/urban profit trends, although that alone doesn’t say much about affordability. What the picture suggests is that the ‘social evil’ argument about the SkyCity deal has to be made on something more substantial than the mere gains in pokies enjoyed by SkyCity via the deal. If one carried over the logic from the harm caused by alcohol via the proliferation of readily accessed outlets – i.e. less wine being sold in dairies etc – then there could be an argument that the exodus of pokies and their concentration at SkyCity where preventative measures could theoretically be enforced, could be painted as a desirable trend. The more compelling case against the convention centre deal is that it is likely to be a white elephant with significant operational costs. Especially given the global competition in conference venues, at a time when digital conferencing is becoming far more viable, and when tight economic conditions are rendering mass gatherings (not to mention the long haul flights to get to Auckland) an increasingly unaffordable cost for business.

In passing, one should also say that the amounts being wagered in New Zealand in all forms of gambling are simply astounding. Here’s the comparison between the 2011 and 2012 figures in the main categories –

TAB racing and sports betting increased by 4.9 per cent from $273 million to $286 million, reflecting gambling on the 2011 Rugby World and the growth of fixed-odds racing betting; spending on NZ Lotteries products rose 3.5 per cent from $404 million to $419 million; casino gambling expenditure rose 8 per cent from $471 million to $509 million, due to growth across SkyCity’s casinos and the Christchurch casino reopening after the February 2011 earthquake. Spending on gaming machines in pubs and clubs dropped by 0.3 per cent from $856 million to $854 million.

And since we’re supposed to be talking today about gambling and issues of conscience, it should also be pointed out that the degree of dependency of sports clubs, community groups, and research organisations on the moneys that are dispensed from gambling profits is equally astounding:

An estimated $648 million was distributed to a variety of community purposes from gambling proceeds. Non-casino gaming machine trusts raised an estimated $314.2 million for authorised purposes. NZ Lotteries transferred $197.2 million to the Lottery Grants Board for community services and projects. The New Zealand Racing Board allocated $132.8 million, mostly to support racing club activities and infrastructure. Casinos paid just over $3.5 million to their community trusts.

So if we’re really talking about the evils of gambling, the SkyCity deal is symptomatic – but it is also indicative of a far wider social addiction to the consolations of gambling, and to the payoffs from its proceeds.