If I were Eleanor Catton, I’d write a new book. It would be called ‘Fifty Shades of Free’. In it, a neo-liberal, profit-obsessed, very shallow, very money-hungry Prime Minister gets his dirty, smelly, well-shagged carpet publically taken to the cleaners by a Casino. Of course, this new book would not win the Man Booker Prize. Because it would be a work of non-fiction.
This week, the Prime Minister felt the thin, sharp blade of public opinion at his throat as he preposterously went in to bat for Sky City and its demand for cost-overrun cash. Although the Casino eventually backed down (if keeping the gambling concessions, the monopoly extension, adding a new hotel to the mix and being given permission to deliver 10% less than was promised to the Crown in the original deal can be called a backdown), the confrontation has been an ugly, credibility-sapping exercise for the PM: a political own-goal, pyrrhic victory and an all-round terrible look.
As reported in the NZ Herald, “Leader of the Opposition Andrew Little said overwhelming opposition to public funding for a convention centre meant the Government had no choice but to back away from its plans. “SkyCity are the ones who have suckered the Government. This is about SkyCity’s bottom line, not the Government’s,” he said in a statement. The Labour leader said the casino’s decision to drop its bid for taxpayer funding had nothing to do with ministers playing hard ball with SkyCity. “It has everything to do with the stitch-up they did with the casino giant from day one.”Mr Little added: “What part of ‘not a cent’ did John Key not understand? He and Steven Joyce dug their own hole. They have attempted to soften the public up for months, now they have been forced to back down.”New Zealand First leader Winston Peters said the Government’s performance on the deal had been “rambling, shambling and pitiful”.
On Stuff, Vernon Small had earlier caught the Prime Minister’s true priority and basic bargaining position: “Asked if the Government would re-tender the contract for the convention centre, which SkyCity agreed to build in return for gambling concessions, Key said that would be a bridge the Government would cross when it got to it. “Let’s deal with SkyCity first.” It’s a defining sentence and sentiment for the PM. Before addressing child poverty or sky-rocketing house prices or Auckland’s transport issues or even easing the plight of those people in Christchurch still trying to put their post-quake lives together, “let’s deal with Sky City first” has been his mantra. This week, he spruiked the Casino’s need for tax-payer support and as Andrew Little observed, only universally-negative public polling prevented him from meeting that need.
How we got to this point is again addressed by Vernon Small: “Asked what cost protections there were for the taxpayer in the original deal, Key said there were issues of “what escalation of costs would look like at a certain point when the contract is signed, where that sits, blah, blah, blah”. If the PM is still pondering on why Ms Catton shows no respect, perhaps he could reflect on these words. As a measure of how much the PM respects the electorate, ‘blah, blah, blah’ sums it up really.
As it turned out, there were only least-preferred options for the Prime Minister. Although the Casino yielded, the PM, by his own words, was left shilling eyesores by the seashore. The issue split the Government and united the country. In the NZ Herald, Fran O’Sullivan reported Finance Minister Bill English’s genuine opposition “to the gold-plating of the design specs that have taken place since SkyCity struck its “convention centre for more pokies” deal with Key and Cabinet minister Steven Joyce.” In the same piece, she notes that the Beehive spin was that “John Key craftily wheeled English out to send a message to SkyCity that there are fiscal limits to the Government’s ability to fund the extra. A message that the Prime Minister – who had shamelessly bypassed good governance procedures when he stitched up the bones of the behind scenes “free” deal with SkyCity directors in the first place – was too compromised to deliver himself.” What was that Fran? The PM shamelessly bypassed good governance procedures when he stitched up the bones of the behind scenes “free” deal and was too compromised to deliver messages to Sky City himself? Shamelessly bypassing good governance procedures, stitching up free deals and being compromised to a Casino doesn’t sound crafty. It sounds like grounds for dismissal. Again, if the PM is still pondering on why Ms Catton shows no respect, he could just read Fran O’Sullivan’s column .
Further damning criticism came from the Right. In NBR, Mathew Hooton let rip: “In cabinet papers, the government told itself a big centre “has the potential to deliver considerable economic benefits to New Zealand.” Ministers did not risk consulting the Treasury on this point. It was merely “informed” of what was going on. No cost-benefit analysis was carried out and for very good reason: It was politics and political friendships driving the demand for convention centres, not economics. The procurement process for the Auckland centre was a farce and as close to corruption as we ever see in New Zealand.”
The PM nailed his true colours to this Convention Centre. When it is built, it should bear his name for, like a dirty, smelly, well-shagged carpet, “as close to corruption as we ever see in New Zealand”, it shall be his legacy to us all.
In Davos, he went before the cameras of the world to defend the reputation of Prince Andrew. He promoted Mike Sabin to the Chair of the Law and Order Committee. He extols the virtues of the TPPA. And he is about to commit us to a war in Iraq. Without the jolly German distraction that was Kim Dotcom, the focus of the country lasered in this week on the quality of the Prime Minister’s judgment. His Convention Centre thinking, “rambling, shambling and pitiful”, his “blah, blah, blah”, gives much cause for concern.