Jane Clifton: the PM’s proposal to SkyCity

by Jane Clifton / 28 April, 2012
The PM’s SkyCity gamble takes smile-and-wave pragmatism to new lengths.

It’s funny the way we say we’re “having a flutter”, as if merrily waving goodbye to a few dollars prettily borne aloft on a gentle breeze. In reality, each week we feed millions of dollars into a great dark maw and rejoice that, once in a blue moon, someone like Trevor of Te Kauwhata gets a tiny portion of those outgoings.

The gambling industry is founded on the most curious of commercial transactions. The odds of a win are so infinitesimal, in reality we are paying for what we would otherwise get in the ordinary course of a day for free: our own outlandish daydreams, and a shot of adrenalin, cortisol, endorphins and all those other mood-altering chemicals that racket around in our body when we’re happy or excited or anxious.

You could get the same effect by simultaneously eating chocolate and smooshing paper money down the waste disposal. Or standing on a crumbling cliff face while feeding handfuls of gold coins to the fishes below. Yet through either the lure of magical thinking – “I just know I’ll win a big prize one day” – or addiction to the chemical rush, some of us get hooked on gambling, spending vast amounts on even harmless-seeming flutters like Lotto.

But it’s a foolish politician who underestimates the visceral attachment people have to their flutter – as with their tipple. In tough times, naughty pleasures like drinking and gambling seem all the more precious, especially to those in that clichéd political heartland, Struggle St. As Parliament is finding, thanks to the extraordinary pokies-for-conference-centre deal the Government is proposing to do with SkyCity, it’s damned hard to reduce the arguments to the brass tacks.

One immediately obvious thing is that it’s unprecedented and, frankly, grubby looking for the Government to say to a company, “We’ll slacken gambling laws to benefit you if you agree to stump up for a conference centre Auckland badly needs.” It’s not so much a slippery slope as a greasy one; a continuum in which downstream a government might say to the supermarkets, “We’ll let you display alco-pops around the lolly counter if you agree to build on sites we specify in Canterbury.”

Last electoral term there were those who urged the Government to take the tough, unpopular decisions to shore up the economy while it was still well upholstered with voter confidence. It’s doubtful that this is the sort of tough, unpopular decision they meant. Like premium pet food, this deal could be bagged up and labelled “The Optimal Balanced High-Energy Diet for the Frisky, Fun-loving Opposition in Your Parliament!”

It has every food group, or at least the look of it: political favouritism, prime ministerial interference, the aggravation of a growing social problem, big wodges of money going into corporate pockets, backroom deals, a call-to-arms for every liberal-left sector group and tut-tut fuel for the concerned person in the street. It lacks only taurine for bright eyes and fish oil for a glossy coat.

The Government seems impervious to the electoral risks. But politically and, downstream, fiscally – given the social and economic cost of problem gambling – it would have been smarter to offer SkyCity, or some other capable company, a straight-out subsidy for building the convention centre. This would still have been controversial, but would have avoided the wowser-versus-libertine sort of fist fight we’ve been having.

The proposed deal discloses an unwholesome degree of cosiness between SkyCity and the Government, especially given Prime Minister John Key’s admission that he was the lead deal-maker. Although voters have tended to find it endearing that Key is the kind of guy who could cut a deal with a pair of Mormon proselytisers on his doorstep, this is a step way too far in smile-and-wave pragmatism.

However, the ensuing moral panic about whether the deal will start a new epidemic of problem gambling doesn’t bear more than five minutes’ scrutiny before a whole lot of inconvenient corollaries come to light. For a start, it was Labour that first allowed casino pokies into New Zealand, citing tourism and economic development. Despite the fact that over the years the casino turned out to be much less a lure for tourists seeking a glamorous flutter, and far more a rather glum-ambienced haunt for low-income locals and gambling-mad Asian immigrants, Labour did not exactly surge towards a rethink.

And although it’s hard to argue that a significant increase in pokie numbers in the casino will lead to less gambling rather than more, it is hardly the only gambling pressure-point New Zealand faces. At least it’s localised, and has the barrier of logistical inconvenience. Lotto, iPredict, the TAB and the one-armed bandit down at the local pub are much more accessible to most of us.

As with the alcohol debate, it becomes very hard to draw a boundary between “harmless” and “moderate” activity, and harmful behaviour. The experts tend to say all regular drinking, however modest, is harmful, because alcohol is a toxin; and no gambling is ever “safe” because it necessitates most of us throwing our money away for nowt – all while being potentially dangerously addictive.

Yet you can count on the fingers of one foot the MPs bold enough to call for an end to all gambling and/or drinking. There’s plenty of advocacy for reducing pokie numbers overall. But in that context, the SkyCity uproar is a lot like the drinking debate, where it alights on the number of bottle stores.

Do we know for sure that fewer outlets will lead to less drinking? Unless the restrictions are sudden and drastic, it’s hard to imagine they would make much difference, other than to very light, casual imbibers. If people want to drink, they’ll go to wherever they can get alcohol, and will quickly learn to organise themselves to get around time and location constraints. That is, if it’s important enough to them, and by now we have angsted enough about “our drinking culture” to know that it is. The same goes for gambling.

People patiently queue for Lotto tickets every Saturday in a way they will queue for little else these days. The impatient do it online – again, an action denoting clarity of purpose, not some casual whim sparked by the visibility or convenience of a thing. Betting on the horses is no longer the major, visible part of our culture it was, say, 50 years ago, yet I’ve never seen an empty TAB outlet. And people who are addicted to pokie machines will most assuredly go to wherever these machines lurk.

SkyCity’s boss was widely derided for saying Lotto and neighbourhood pokies presented more of a problem-gambling hazard than his casino. But when you consider that Lotto sales have nudged $1 billion a year, it’s pointless to deny that we have normalised the essential mentality of gambling. It’s childish to keep feeding this beast when the odds of it reciprocating are so risible. But we tell ourselves, “It goes to some good community groups”, and “It’s totally democratic, so I’ve got as much of a chance of winning as the next punter”, and “You never know! Look at Trevor, ready to start his 5.00am shift at Countdown, when all of a sudden … !”

We should really tell ourselves that our Lotto contributions, if placed in a retirement fund religiously every week, would positively guarantee us a big payout eventually. But the romance of a flutter trumps such common sense. As has been said philosophically of gambling, we may as well view it as a tax on those who are bad at maths.
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