Access to any activity with the potential to cause individual harm – from gambling, cigarettes and alcohol, to hunting and even certain sports – should be something we always carefully consider as a society. But in every case there must be a balance between the possibility of harm and the public’s desire to take part. And between the potential for risk and any benefits likely to accrue from the activity.
While the controversial Sky City Convention Centre deal has become the latest focus of this debate, it seems in reality the issue might be more about how the deal was done, than the true consequences of the decision.
At its simplest form, according to the details we’ve seen, the deal involves Sky City building a $350m national convention centre in return for adding up to 500 more slot machines to their current collection of about 1600. Sky City will make all the upfront investment, in return for the opportunity to gain a greater profit – not only from the increased number of slot machines, but also presumably from the boost to the company’s rapidly expanding portfolio of hospitality businesses: hotels, restaurants and bars clustered around the iconic Sky Tower.
On the face of it, this should be a question of balance between the economic stimulus of a national convention centre – not just to Sky City but to all the businesses engaged in tourism or receiving benefit from it in Auckland and the wider region – and the risk of an increase, estimated to be up to several hundred, of the number of problem gamblers in the city.
But what seems to be really driving this debate is the fact that the Government has done a deal. The Prime Minister himself saw the opportunity, and actively pursued it, eventually selecting the option over other bids that required some degree of Government investment.
Interestingly, despite the level of coverage around the decision, and the commentary from both proponents and detractors, the deal hasn’t really hurt National in the public’s eyes – with the Government up 2% in the latest round of polling.
But it does highlight that in some quarters we have a real problem with our elected officials pursuing specific economic opportunities. We seem to like the idea of free trade deals, but get nervous about foreign investments like the Crafar Farms; we love seeing our country on the silver screen, but have a problem with incentives (or even farms) for the people that make the movies; we all want to benefit from tourism, but we’re uncomfortable about making deals in pursuit of this.
Some of these kinds of concerns would be absolutely unheard of in other countries – even our closest neighbours. And perhaps that’s part of what makes New Zealand what it is. But it can also mean we sacrifice out on a lot – including our international credibility – when we drive away these opportunities.
In short, in debates like the Convention Centre, are we in danger of losing our sense of perspective?
Julian Smith | General Manager – MYOB