Gordon Campbell on the America’s Cup and convention centre handouts

According to Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce, Team New Zealand “is not a job for life” but it certainly seems the next best thing to it. For a sport that prides itself on its entrepreneurial edge, our America’s Cup efforts seem to be chronically dependent on government handouts and media-generated frenzies to generate even a domestic following in New Zealand. As for its international appeal…this remains next to zero, as sports columnist Joseph Romanos has pointed out:

The media has hyped it up massively…..It’s all been delivered in a rather smug we’re-taking-on-the-world-and-winning-again manner. We aren’t, of course. Only four teams entered the 2013 America’s Cup contest. The Swedes turned up late and, like the Italians, were second rate. Only the New Zealand and American franchises were serious contenders. Whole continents – Asia, Africa, South America – were absent. Except for New Zealand, no country really cares about the America’s Cup. There were New Zealanders in all four teams in San Francisco…

Regardless, the gravy train keeps rolling on. Yesterday, the government extended a further $5 million handout to enable Team New Zealand – which to all intents is Grant Dalton, Dean Barker and the people they choose to hire – to stay together and attract sponsors, if and when another America’s Cup challenge eventuates, by around May of next year. If we do decide to challenge, the government would be willing to stump up $35-40 million in total, Joyce told yesterday’s prime ministerial press conference, subject to certain conditions. If no challenge eventuates, the initial $5 million will be “speculative” money down the drain. Incredible, really. The problem is not simply that yachting at this level is an entirely elitist sport, with none of the natural following enjoyed by the All Blacks or Silver Ferns. With the Americas Cup, failure also seems to have no consequences, and the selection criteria for the top team is opaque. For all his skills, Barker has now fronted three failed Cup challenges, and has an 11-20 ration of wins to losses at Cup level. Yet if he wants to continue, there seems to be no barrier to him and Grant Dalton still being the arbiters of who gets on the team, as part of their role as conduit for taxpayer subsidies.

In defending the government’s further investment, Joyce cited the exposure that this year’s challenge allegedly earned for our “beverages” (i.e. wine) high tech and marine industries in San Francisco, which he described as the “gateway” to the US market. Funny then that the New Zealand consulate is located in Los Angeles, because that’s more commonly seen as the natural gateway to the US market. The front page treatment of the America’s Cup races in the San Francisco press that Joyce cited was also a highly misleading analysis. For much of the regatta, the Cup contest was stolidly ignored by the US media, and it barely registered coverage even within the San Francisco Chronicle sports pages. What coverage it ultimately got was entirely a product of Oracle’s unlikely come-from-behind victory. (USA! USA!) Judging by this precedent, and if the next regatta is sailed in the US, we can expect little or no exposure for our taxpayer investment if we win, and will get coverage only in the shadow of another American victory. Steven Joyce may have a theory where its good for our business push into the United States to be cast in the role of losers. It certainly is a novel marketing approach.

Convention Centres Multiplying Like Rabbits
Auckland is building a convention centre. Queenstown wants to build one. Christchurch wants a new one. Wellington needs a ‘purpose built’ convention centre, according to the new Council CEO, Kevin Lavery. Is anyone doing the sums on what the competition for the domestic convention dollar is going to mean for the viability of all these expensive edifices now on the drawing boards all around the country? Because at a time when tele-conferencing is becoming a viable, cost saving alternative, logic would suggest that there can’t be that many international conventioneers willing to fly all the way to New Zealand to fill up all these convention halls on a regular enough basis to justify the massive investment.

That economic reason alone – let alone the social effects of gambling – is reason enough for why future governments should not be locked into compensating SkyCity for the next 35 years if and when the Auckland convention centre venture fails to hit its targets. For his part, Steven Joyce is portraying the disreputable, gerrymandered deal that he and Prime Minister John Key have concocted over the Auckland convention centre as being one that future governments should be somehow honour bound to observe. Some gall. This isn’t, and never was an honourable deal. Currently, the SkyCity convention centre’s enabling legislation may well depend for passage through Parliament on the vote of Act Party leader John Banks – whose guilt or innocence in his criminal trial may come to hinge in turn, on the testimony given by SkyCity about its donation to his 2010 mayoral bid. What are the chances that Banks and SkyCity might realise they have a mutual interest at stake?

For good reason, Parliament is sovereign when it comes to the treaties and the business deals to which future governments – and future taxpayers – are made liable. Bad deals and treaties that no longer serve their purpose cannot be allowed to stand, just because in the past, a government of the day was foolish enough (or venal enough) to sign on the dotted line. The obligation cuts both ways. If Joyce doesn’t want to put a future government in the position of renegging on a deal, he shouldn’t be signing up to such a questionable deal in the first place.