New Zealand is a small, remote country with an unfortunate reliance on imported capital to maintain our standard of living. A crucial insurance for the economy is New Zealanders’ hard-earned reputation for having the lowest level of government corruption in the world.
Or at least that’s something we had.
I write this post with the heaviest of hearts because I know how completely National has jeopardised the economy. I know how foreign investors will be frightened by the truth. Their reaction could see more hardworking and innocent Kiwis turfed on the unemployment scrapheap.
Ultimately, though, there is an overwhelming public interest in having on record just how low Prime Minister John Key and his factotum Steven Joyce have sunk in their bid to trade our country’s laws for a casino’s cash.
Yesterday the Deputy Auditor-General released her report into the tender process for the SkyCity convention centre. At 71 pages it is among the longest and most damning auditor’s reports I have seen. John Armstrong, writing in the New Zealand Herald, assessed the tender as “verging on banana republic kind of stuff without the bananas.” Armstrong was too polite.
Labour leader David Shearer summed the report up more completely: “Kiwis know [Key] was donkey deep in this entire process. The deal with SkyCity was his idea. He knew exactly what was going on and was pulling the strings behind the scenes.”
I have followed the convention centre tender since it first came to public light in 2010 – months after John Key had a cozy dinner with the casino company’s board and (in the PM’s own words) “discussed a possible National Convention Centre and they raised issues relating to the Gambling Act 2003”.
As time has passed I have become more and more outraged by what was transparently a stacked process seemingly designed to ensure SkyCity was the only tenderer left standing at the end.
All throughout the National Government have obfuscated, played cat-and-mouse games with the Opposition and the media, and denied multiple Official Information Act requests on the most specious of grounds.
Not only did ministers refuse to answer more than 100 of my parliamentary questions on the SkyCity deal – but they even took to using the SkyCity deal as a supposed reason to refuse answering dozens of questions which were quite unrelated to the casino!
The Commerce Select Committee (which I am a member of) even had to take the most extraordinary step of recalling Ministry of Economic Development/MoBIE officials to a second testimony session, following their failure to answer legitimate questions as part of the committee’s 2011/12 financial review.
As the years passed and the stench of the rotten tender grew overpowering, the sole explanation Key and Joyce offered for their preference for SkyCity was that taxpayers wouldn’t foot the bill for the conference centre. But that was an outright lie – $2.1 million of your dollars were diverted from the Christchurch earthquake recovery effort and other economic development programmes to support the convention centre design!
Finally, when the Deputy Auditor-General prudently announced a probe into the whole sordid affair, Steven Joyce vowed to push on in contempt of her. In my time in Parliament I have never seen anything like it.
But now the auditor has published her report. Her findings are damning and they back up what I have been saying and what my Labour colleagues have been saying since 2010. It is beyond comprehension that Steven Joyce did not resign from the ministry immediately after receiving the report.
The Deputy Auditor-General’s findings include (and I quote):
- We do not consider that the evaluation process was transparent or even-handed (p5).
- SkyCity was treated very differently from the other parties that responded [to the tender] and the evaluation process effectively moved into a different phase with one party… the steps that were taken were not consistent with good practice principles of transparency and fairness (p5).
- The Prime Minister/Minister of Tourism… annotated the [tender] briefing paper by hand, stating that “we should close off the SkyCity angle first” (p15).
- It was well known among officials that SkyCity had met with various senior Minister in the previous months. In our view, there was an obvious risk that SkyCity would have a better understanding of the Government’s thoughts than other participants (p45).
- There were a number of flaws with the way the evaluation process unfolded during 2010 (p50).
- Given the nature of the responses, it is likely that the SkyCity proposal was always going to be the most attractive (p51).
So what are the broad consequences for New Zealand?
Has the opaque and unfair SkyCity deal been scrapped? No.
Instead National has thumbed its nose at the auditor’s office and is about to restart the negotiations. They have to finalise pesky details such as how anyone will receive the television news once a hulking great pokie palace is plonked where our state broadcaster has some of its studios.
Has the Government promised not to change the law to flood central Auckland with very low-taxed pokies, while taking money out of high-taxed pub pokies which fund kids’ learn to swim programmes and quit gambling programmes?
It’s a no to that too.
As my Labour colleague Ruth Dyson succinctly put it “The convention centre will not be ‘free’. The social cost for New Zealanders and their families battling problem gambling will be significant.”
So National seem quite happy to plough along with their trade in our laws, whatever the consequences. Well Labour will fight them every step of the way. I can only hope that the government’s support partners in the Māori and United Future parties will do the right thing and join us.
Ultimately, though, this is not only about one shady deal – although one shady deal is clearly one too many.
This speaks to the whole world about what sort of country New Zealand is in our collective soul. It speaks to the truth about whether we have a clean government which stands up and stops corruption wherever its finds it. Or whether we don’t.
And it speaks to our longstanding core values of egalitarianism and equality. Labour MPs face the human casualties of the National government’s economic mismanagement in our electorate offices every week. We know the despair felt by ordinary, honest kiwis who can plainly see that John Key’s ‘brighter future’ means one law for them and sweet deals for his mates at the big end of town.
The casino deal is a total disgrace. Clearly John Key and Steven Joyce don’t care.
So, in light of the Deputy Auditor-General’s report, I am publicly calling on SkyCity to formally withdraw their current tender. That should trigger the entire process to restart from the beginning, so it can be run fairly and transparently.
I look forward to SkyCity’s quick, positive and public response.