The real threats from Key's one-armed bandits

Here’s a way to think small: park a box halfway up Auckland’s Queen street and invite the world there for confabs, with views of office buildings and shops.
That is what a law change to license a few hundred extra fleecing machines will buy to benefit tourist operators and retailers, who will create low-paid jobs to service the throngs.

Imagine if Sydney had thought so small: the opera house would be a box halfway up George Street. Instead, Sydney got one of the world’s landmark edifices, on a headland on an attractive harbour.

A government here with ambition, which is what John Key promised, would also aim for the frontage of the world’s finest stretches of water. The cavern in which the conventioneers meet could be imaginatively landscaped into the waterfront, open out to promenades and link into downtown Auckland.

But such an enterprise would require risk, creativity and big thinking. This is New Zealand, not Sydney. Key’s trade with Sky City upholds our national she’ll-be-right tradition that got us a rugby world cup final on a tarted-up provincial footy field instead of at a twenty-first-century stadium linked to the city and the harbour.

That’s the cultural dimension. There is a moral dimension and a social one. The pokie trade doesn’t just fleece those who flutter on or get hooked by Sky City’s machines, known as one-armed bandits in their pre-computer mechanical form. It transfers to Sky City skimmings from other venues that are fed into community do-good ventures in poor areas.

Nevertheless, unless Key backs off, the trade will go through. John Banks, once an opponent of gambling for the damage it does to some, and Peter Dunne, once an upholder of family values which gambling can undermine, will vote for it because they owe Key their seats in Parliament.

That’s because of the undeniable economic dimension. A convention centre will lift the country’s profile and tourism prospects. That is the point of the state subsidy — the additional gambling licences and the fiscal (and other) costs of addiction — which is necessary because, cabinet papers say, convention centres don’t cover their capital costs, just their operating costs. The economic value lies in the subsidies to tourism and retail.

But there are two other dimensions, a democratic one and a political one.

The democratic dimension — proper process — seems to puzzle Key, still in some ways a political neophyte. Proper process is at the core of a top-quality democracy and this country is (was?) up at the top on global indexes. Ensuring proper government process is part of the courts’ duties, as their intervention in the initially botched Crafar farms sale approval showed.

In doing the right thing for the economy, Key has not done it in the right way.

In a democracy, as distinct from in currency trading, doing things the right way is important. Too many things done the wrong way undermine democracy. Witness the United States Congress, with its embedded culture of horse-trading lobbyists’ special interests.

A side trade with one bidder which other bidders didn’t know about and so couldn’t counter is not the right way, even more so if it involves changing the law in the preferred bidder’s interests.

Since this became public last year — in the wake of Key’s labour law change for Warner Brothers and Steven Joyce’s eventually aborted competition law change for ultra-fast broadband bidders — other companies have begun worrying whether they, too, need to keep an eye out for side-trades as part of dealing with the government.

That leads to the political point: the leg up the Sky City trade has given David Shearer. For the first time Shearer has looked and sounded like an opposition leader, with a clear, easily grasped and well articulated position.

That doesn’t mean the polls are about to flip round. Any significant reversal of Labour’s write-off last year — if there is one — will take up to a year or more. It takes time for public reflexes to shift and longer still for that to show in polls. Polls won’t tell us much until later this year, if then.

Labour knows this and meantime is starting to rethink policy and, as National did after its 2002 disaster, modernise its party organisation, draw on outsiders more, institute a range of levels of membership, support and activism and innovate communications and participation in decisions. A discussion paper is due soon.

But its political fortune has lifted a little. National’s continued substandard political management has helped. With more thought, National could have torpedoed Labour’s feel-good parental leave ploy, for example.

National’s fumbles, especially over the Sky City slinter, have gifted Shearer space to define his leadership.

That leadership is different from any of a major party in living memory. Which is National’s fear: that something that seems safe, like one-armed bandits, turns feral and lifts Labour’s unusual leader on to the bottom rung of the credibility ladder.