The Mendacities of Mr Key #9: The Sky’s the limit with taxpayer subsidies!
We all know the story by now; how Key admitted to discussing a convention-centre deal over dinner with Skycity executives on 4 November 2009,
“I attended a dinner with the Sky City board 4 November 2009 where we discussed a possible national convention centre and they raised issues relating to the Gambling Act 2003”.
The lack of transparency in the deal-making process was subsequently criticised by the Auditor-General in February 2013. Toby Manhire from The Listener listed ten quotes outlining the AG’s dissatisfaction with Key and his officials’ behaviour;
1. “We found a range of deficiencies in the advice provided and steps taken leading up to [the] decision.”
2. “Although decisions were made on the merits of the different proposals, we do not consider that the evaluation process was transparent or even handed.”
3. “By the time it was expected that SkyCity would put a ﬁrm proposal to the Government for support, officials should have been working to understand and advise on the procedural obligations and principles that would need to govern the next steps. We found no evidence that officials were doing so at this stage.”
4. “The meetings and discussion between the Government representatives and SkyCity were materially different in quantity and kind from those between the Government and the other parties that responded.”
5. “SkyCity was treated very differently from the other parties that responded and the evaluation process effectively moved into a different phase with one party. In our view, the steps that were taken were not consistent with good practice principles of transparency and fairness.”
6. “Overall, we regard the EOI [expressions of interest] process in stage two as having been poorly planned and executed. Insufficient attention was given to planning and management of the process as a whole, so that risks were not adequately addressed and managed.”
7. “We did not see any evidence of formal discussions or decisions on the evaluation process and criteria, or mapping out of the basic options for what might happen next, or advice to Ministers on how the process would be managed and their involvement in it. We do not regard this as adequate for a project of this potential scale, complexity, and risk.”
8. “We have concluded that the preparation for the EOI process and the EOI document, fell short of good practice in a number of respects.”
9. “In our view, the result was that one potential submitter had a clearer understanding of the actual position on a critical issue – that the Government did not want to fund any capital costs – than any other potential submitters … We accept that it is unlikely that this flaw made a material difference to the outcome. However, we have spent some time discussing it because we regard it as symptomatic of the lack of attention to procedural risks, and therefore to the fairness and credibility of the process.”
10. “We are unable to comment on the value of any contribution the Government might make as part of any eventual agreement with SkyCity, because negotiations have not yet been concluded.”
Key’s response, in Parliament was an outright denial;
“Absolutely, and the reason for that, as the member will be aware, is that the Auditor-General’s report was divided into three parts. The first part of it was focused on my involvement, and I was totally and utterly cleared and vindicated in that. That was my only involvement.”
The Auditor General, Phillipa Smith, was less than impressed by Key’s attempts at mis-representing her Office’s report as a ‘vindication’;
”That fact that [the report] took 50 or 60 pages suggests that nothing was entirely clear cut. We have said that we found problems with the process that was adopted and so I think the report speaks for itself.”
Right-wing NZ Herald columnist and National sympathiser, John Armstrong, was trenchant in his condemnation of Key’s comments. On 20 February, 2013, he wrote;
Verging on banana republic kind of stuff without the bananas – that is the only conclusion to draw from the deeply disturbing report into the shonkiness surrounding the Government’s selection of SkyCity as the preferred builder and operator of a national convention centre.
The Prime Minister’s attempt to downplay Deputy Auditor-General Phillippa Smith’s findings in advance of their release yesterday by saying he had not lost any sleep from reading draft copies may turn out to be a costly political miscalculation.
John Key may have escaped personal blame for the serious flaws in the old Ministry of Economic Development’s handling of the convention centre project but the report is far worse than he had been leading people to believe.
He is taking refuge in the report’s assurances that no evidence could be found to suggest “inappropriate considerations”, such as connections between political and business leaders, were behind the final decision for the Government to negotiate with SkyCity as the preferred bidder.
In other words, no corruption. Or at least none that could be found.
Right-wing commentator, Matthew Hooton, was more scathing and pulled no punches;
The procurement process for the Auckland centre was a farce and as close to corruption as we ever see in New Zealand.
As reported by the Deputy Auditor-General, Mr Eagleson – whose best friend and Las Vegas gambling buddy is Mark Unsworth, SkyCity’s Wellington lobbyist – had been conducting private talks with SkyCity through 2009 and early 2010, including about what regulatory relief SkyCity wanted.
Mr Eagleson argued a procurement process was unnecessary and that the government should just go with SkyCity on the grounds no one else could realistically compete.
(Hat-tip: No Right Turn.)
Read Hooton’s full column. It is far more critical and insightful than any left-wing commentator (including myself) has been on this issue.
Even before the AG’s investigation and damning report, Key’s figures of extra jobs resulting from the proposed convention centre were in doubt.
On 3 April 2012, Key stated in Parliament;
“I might add, when we were out announcing that we were doing a deal with Len Brown in Auckland, he was quite a little lamb chops before the election, because Len Brown knew as well that it will create 1,000 jobs in its construction, 900 jobs ongoing, hundreds of thousands of visitor nights for a convention centre, and tourists who will be spending twice as much in New Zealand.”
By June, Key’s claims for “1,000 jobs in its construction, 900 jobs ongoing” were questioned by hospitality and travel specialist analyst, Horwath Ltd. Horwath director, Stephen Hamilton, was blunt;
Horwath director Stephen Hamilton said he was concerned over reports the convention centre would employ 800 staff – a fulltime-equivalent total of 500.
He said the feasibility study put the number of people who would be hired at between 318 and 479.
“That’s not the number of employees at the convention centre. That’s the number in the whole economy. Some will be at the convention centre, some will be in the hotels and some will be additional taxi drivers.”
He also questioned the construction job figures, saying: “I’m not quite sure what the source of that 1000 was.”
The original Horwath report said 150 jobs could be created over a five-year construction period for a total of 750.
But the most well-known promise from Key was that the convention centre would not cost tax-payers a cent. In May 2013, Key justified his deal-making with SkyCity by stating;
“The construction of the new convention centre will not cost taxpayers or ratepayers a cent, with SkyCity meeting the full project costs in return for some concessions from the Government.”
Nearly two years later, inflation appears to have turned “not a cent” into an estimated “$70m to $130m shortfall”, with SkyCity hustling National for a tax-payer bail-out.
On 10 February, Key appeared to have caved to SkyCity pressure to pay a massive taxpayer-funded subsidy to the casino operator;
“I’m keen to see the best convention centre I can for Auckland, because this is a very long-term asset, so I would hate to see some sort of eyesore constructed down town.
There are issues around the construction of it. Obviously you can spend more and get something that looks a lot better, or spend a bit less and get something that looks worse.
In a nutshell, the Government has an agreement with them [SkyCity]. It could make them meet that agreement but the escalation in prices to build the convention centre, which is bigger than was proposed and flasher than was proposed, means there is a hole.
So there are a couple of options. Option one would be to say to Sky City, ‘Build the convention centre exactly at the price that we all agreed, on the conditions of the deal that we agreed’, but it would be smaller I think than we had hoped and less attractive.
Or the second option is to see if there’s any way of filling that hole and to identify how big that hole is, and that’s the process we’re going through.”
“We agreed a deal at $402 million…our strong preference is that the SkyCity convention centre is built and paid for by SkyCity.”
It seems that the public and media have become weary of Key’s continual back-tracking; broken promises; and often outright lies.
This was not the first time that Key had promised the public one thing – and then delivered something else. In October 2010, as an industrial dispute erupted between SPADA and Actor’s Equity, there were threats that Peter Jackson’s “Hobbit” movie project would be moved off-shore (an empty threat as Jackson later revealed).
On 26 October, Key was telling the public that his government would not be paying extra incentives to Warner Bros and that there would be no “bidding war” with other countries to provide greater incentives to the U.S. movie industry;
“If we could make the deal sweeter for them that would help; that’s something we would consider… but we can’t bridge the gap that is potentially on offer from other locations around the world. We’re not prepared to do that and… I don’t think the New Zealand taxpayer would want us to do that.”
When asked about any possible taxpayer subsidies, to match other countries incentives, he added;
“It’s not in the tens of millions, put it that way. There’s a lot of noughts.”
Key was adamant; Warner Bros would not screw another cent out of the New Zealand tax-payer. There were already generous tax breaks in place. So said Dear Leader at 11.45am, on the morning of 27 October;
“They’ve got movies to make and in the end, money talks in Hollywood. That’s just the way it works. We can’t stop other countries around the world putting up much better and more financially-lucrative deals. If it’s just simply a matter of dollars and cents, I’m just not going to write out cheques that New Zealand can’t afford.”
By 7.38pm – barely eight hours later – Key had pulled out the taxpayer chequebook,
“Tax rebates will also be changed for Warner Bros, which will mean up to an extra $NZ20.4 million per movie for Warner Bros, subject to the success of the movies…
… The Government will offset $NZ13.6 million of Warner Bros’ marketing costs as part of the strategic partnership.”
“It was commercial reality. We did the business.”
The subsidy that was supposedly “ not in the tens of millions” became a $34 million tax-payer funded gift to Warner Bros – on top of a 15% tax-break given to the movie industry – a tax-break not available to any other industry in this country.
Key had caved to the movie moguls from Hollywood, and the tax-payer would foot the bill.
Three years later, the next corporation to hold a “gun” to Key’s head and extort millions in tax-dollars was Rio Tinto.
As State Owned powerco’s were being partially privatised, the multi-national corporation demanded their electricity-supply contract be “re-negotiated” and tax-payer “assistance” to keep the smelter at Tiwai Point afloat during low aluminium prices – or else the facility would be closed. The threat was the loss of 800 jobs (some claimed indirect jobs up to 3,000) and economic activity that was claimed to be 10% of Southland’s GDP.
With the possible closure of the smelter – which uses 15% of the country’s electricity – the price of power would collapse, making shares in Meridian, Genesis, and Mighty River Power worth only a fraction of their float price.
Key bravely asserted on 3 April 2013 that government and the New Zealand tax-payer would not be “held hostage” to Rio Tinto’s threats of closure;
“It’s quite possible that that power could be used either by new ventures that come to New Zealand or, alternatively, it would allow some less productive assets to be closed down or it would allow New Zealand not to build as much generation as might be required.”
Five months later, on 8 August 2013, Key had surrendered to Rio Tinto’s demands and as well as a deal for increased electricity subsidies, National handed over a cheque for $30 million to the corporation.
Key justified the tax-payer bail-out and increased subsidies by pointing to saving jobs;
“If Tiwai Point had closed straight away then hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of jobs would have disappeared and the Greens would have said the Government doesn’t care about those workers and is turning their back on them so they really can’t have it both ways.”
However, the loss of thousands of jobs from the economy seems not to have taxed Key’s concerns when it came to thousands of State sector workers being made redundant;
By February the following year, Rio Tinto posted a US$3.7 billion profit, and issued a 15% increase in dividends to it’s shareholders. Part of the dividends pocketed by shareholders was no doubt made up of $30 million gifted from the pockets of hard working New Zealand tax-payers.
Soon after the tax-payer funded bail-out of Rio Tinto, Green Party MP, Gareth Hughes made this remarkably prescient comment;
“Treasury told National right from the start ‘don’t give them any money’ – it just means every corporation will have its hand out for public money whenever they have any leverage over the Government.
Is that how you want your government to govern? Do you want your government playing fast and loose with public money; using your cash as a bargaining chip to cut deals over the phone with multi-nationals every time it finds itself backed into a corner?”
I can answer Gareth’s question: the next corporation with it’s hand out is SkyCity.
John Key plays fast and loose with tax-payers’ money – not to save jobs – but to present an appearance to the public that National is “saving” jobs. It is a matter of the public’s perception he is focused on.
If that involves handing out cheques to Warner Bros, Rio Tinto, and now possibly SkyCity – he will do it.
This is the party that prides itself on being a “sound, prudent, fiscal manager” of the government’s books. Except that New Zealand governments have not engaged in this kind of tax-payer funded largesse since Supplementary Minimum Prices were paid to farmers in the 1960s and 1970s.
That, to, was initiated by the supposedly pro-free market National Party.
Which leads on to an interesting situation regarding this government; it’s lip-service to the “free market” and supposed hands-off by the State. Committed right wing National/ACT supporters should be asking themselves three very pertinent questions:
- Is it ok if future Labour governments intervene and gives subsidies to various businesses as National has done?
- Does on-going State intervention by this National government signal the end of the neo-liberal experiment?
- Has National’s intervention in the “marketplace” illustrated the failure of neo-liberalism?
One thing, though, should now be clear to all; Key will say one thing, and then renege and do completely the opposite if it suits him politically.
One would think that any self-respecting journo from the media (no, not you, Mike Hosking) these days would be asking Key a very simple question;
“Mr Prime Minister, you have issued statements in the past and then flip-flopped months down the track. Why should we take anything you say at face value value, when you have back-tracked so many times previously?”
Put another way;
“Mr Prime Minister, you’ve said what you intend to do. How long before you change your mind when it becomes convenient to do so? You do have ‘form’, you realise?”
Or, even more bluntly;
“Mr Prime Minister, how long will this decision last? Days? Weeks? Six months?
I’ll leave it to esteemed members of the Fourth Estate to frame their questions in a suitable manner.
Just don’t be expecting an honest answer.
Image acknowledgement: “The A List“
In terms of past events; past scandals; and past instances where the PM has been caught out – it is by no means the worst.
This time, however, matters have reached a critical flash-point. The media has awoken to a smell of a government on the defensive and where Dear Leader has pushed the envelope once too often. Journalists and media commentators are no longer as tolerant; no longer awed; and no longer willing to be mollified by a popular prime minister.
The Shipley Factor has kicked in.
At this point, nothing that National does will counter the same style of growing clamour of criticism it’s predecessor faced in the late ’90s.
Nothing that has happened since then has caused me to resile from my earlier expressed belief that Key’s current administration is terminal.
‘Natwatch’ from The Standard wrote on 12 February;
“The focus group results are in and John Key is backing off from the Government injecting further money into the SkyCity convention centre.”
Which probably makes more sense than anything else this shabby government has done since 2008.
NZ Herald: SkyCity deal was PM’s own offer
Office of Auditor General: Skycity
Parliament Today: Questions and Answers – June 4 2013
Fairfax Media: Auditor-general backs Sky City report
NBR: Close to corruption
NZ Herald: Puzzle of Key’s extra casino jobs
Fairfax Media: Govt at odds over SkyCity convention centre
NZ Herald: Sir Peter – Actors no threat to Hobbit
Fairfax Media: Key – No Hobbit bidding war
NZ Herald: Hobbit to stay in NZ
TVNZ News: Relief in Southland over Tiwai Point deal
Otago Daily Times: PM defends Tiwai payout
Fairfax Media: State-sector job cuts ‘will make life tough’
Fairfax media: SkyCity’s ‘fair deal for all’ questioned (hat-tip Mike Smith, The Standard)
Previous related blogposts
Other blogs & blogposts
Imperator Fish: It’s about friends helping friends
Insight NZ: National splits in two over Sky City bailout
Liberation: NZ Politics Daily – 13 February 2015: SkyCity
Local Bodies: SkyCity’s Glorious Deal
No Right Turn: More money down the drain
No Right Turn: “Close to corruption”
Polity: Mo’ money
The Civilian: Disappointment as meteor misses Sky Tower
The Daily Blog: Key’s SkyCity Scam is a dirty deed done relatively expensively
The Daily Blog: Brenda McQuillan – A Problem Gamblers View of the Deal
The Dim Post: On Hooton on Sky City
The Dim Post: Win by not playing
The Standard: The SkyCity Deal
The Standard: Sky City’s playing us for suckers
The Standard: Key is in reverse gear about Sky City
This blogpost was first published on The Daily Blog on 15 February 2015.
= fs =
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