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Q+A: Transcript of Len Brown interview

Published: 3:08PM Sunday April 29, 2012 Source: Q+A

PAUL HOLMES
The deal being negotiated between the government and Skycity for a convention centre is the controversy that will not die.

The latest instalment in this saga is our political moment of the week. Auckland Council voted Thursday not to oppose the deal, but by only 12 votes to nine. A tetchy meeting heard claims the convention centre would bring hundreds of millions to the city, and counter-claims the extra pokies would create more addicts and that Skycity would suck the profits back to Australia.

In the midst of it all, Len Brown spoke of the importance of harm minimisation, should there be more pokies, but ultimately voted not to close the deal. Len Brown, the mayor of Auckland, is with me. Good morning.

LEN BROWN - Auckland Mayor
Morning, Paul.

PAUL 
So that vote of yours, then, for the convention centre - you've sided with the Government, essentially, haven't you?

LEN 
No. What I've done for a start is said we want to actually see the deal. So that's why they people voted for-

PAUL 
So what were you voting on?

LEN 
Well, so we were voting on whether or not we would indicate to the Government what our position should be in the deal, and I said right from the get-go to the Prime Minister we desperately need that convention centre. 1000 jobs. 800 jobs in construction. Half a billion a year. Hugely important for Auckland and New Zealand's economy.

PAUL 
But where's the evidence it's gonna bring in the millions?

LEN 
Oh, look, I mean, Brisbane, for example, one of our great competitors. 86 conferences per annum. We do six. The economic benefit to Brisbane is massive. We would - I believe we would take out exactly the same type of economic benefit. So it's critical. Secondly, for me, it's about job support. I was down in Otahuhu last week. Went to the NZMA training facility. 30 kids in there, previously kids from - they'd dropped out of school...

PAUL 
NZMA?

LEN 
NZMA. You wanna go and check them out. They are doing a great job. So they've got 30 kids in there.

PAUL 
But what does that mean?

LEN 
Well, it's just a training institution. 30 kids in there, and of those 30 kids, most of them going into hospitality. We need to get young people into jobs. That's my real clear focus.

PAUL 
I've got no agenda here. I just want to know for people at home where the council sits in this. You've got the Government over here wanting a convention centre. Sky want it, but with a price. If the council wanted, could you stop that convention centre, even if the government and Skycity agreed?

LEN 
No. No, we couldn't. In fact-

PAUL 
But you've got to issue the permits...

LEN 
We've got to do the resource consents, but, of course, that's a legal obligation, and we'd need to do that within very strict criteria. We have advocacy rights in here. So I'm speaking on behalf of the people of Auckland on this issue, and I've conveyed this formally to the Prime Minister. They make a decision on the convention centre, that is with SkyCity and that does include some issue relating to increases of pokies or whatever. What I'm saying to them is that my clear focus - and it has been previously as the mayor of Manukau - is about harm minimisation.

PAUL 
Yeah, I got you. Coming to that shortly. But does the Government actually need buy-in from the council?

LEN 
The preference is buy-in. So for a start, there's no ratepayers' money in this. This is a national convention centre. So it's either Government money or nothing. And in this instance, of course, the government don't have a lot of money. We're not putting the ratepayers' money into it. So the deal at this point in time is try and transact a final negotiated position with Skycity that would deliver that centre free.

PAUL 
That's pretty good, isn't it, but someone's gotta spend the $350 million and build it. The issue, of course, as you pointed out just before, the issue for people is the pokies. Do you worry about the pokies?

LEN 
'Course I do.

PAUL 
Yeah. But you worry about not having a convention centre more than you worry about the pokies, is that right, Mr Brown?

LEN 
It is one of those great conundrums. And so in my former role, and certainly now, supported sinking lid policy, in fact drove it through in Manukau. We've seen 7000 reduction in gambling machines across the region over the last seven years and we'll continue to see a reduction in that. But the second thing, and one of the reasons why I was so strong in Manukau about this, just wasn't about the fact that I was against gambling or anything like that. We were just seeing an over-proliferation around our suburban streets and conversion of our dairies into gambling outlets and also...

PAUL 
Yes, let's not worry about what you did in Manukau city. I want to know how many pokies could you live with? I mean, SkyCity say we've gotta have more tables and more pokies. People are forgetting about the tables. I think they've said they want tables. How many more pokies?

LEN 
I'm not negotiating this deal, but what I will say is certainly, the Government, I would be expecting them to be negotiating well down below the figures that the media are talking about.

PAUL 
What, 500?

LEN 
Yes. In terms of a position, I've told the Prime Minister my view, which is around harm minimisation. My view...

PAUL 
How many pokies?

LEN 
I'm not going to...

PAUL 
Oh, come on.

LEN 
No, I'm not going to pre-empt this decision.

PAUL 
Every pokie makes SkyCity about $140,000 a year, I think.

LEN 
When the Government concludes its negotiation I'll give my view in terms of whether or not I think that the position they've arrived at is appropriate and one that we can actually live with.

PAUL 
But in the end what you think is not going to matter to them. As you say, you've got an advocacy role, but the council doesn't mean anything in this.

LEN 
If Auckland is in a furore that is directed back at the Government in terms of the final negotiation and they don't like, then the government will hear that and make their decision accordingly. And we will be making our views in terms of the final outcome of this at that time.

PAUL I
'm sure you will. For more pokies you do want some strong measures in place. You want harm minimisation. Like what?

LEN 
OK, so, for example, what they don't have in SkyCity at the moment and what they don't have across most of the gambling institutions of Auckland and around the country is 24/7 harm minimisation officers, so people who are actually in the licenced premises dealing with those that they can see- know and understand, and we have the information already - the gambling institutions already have this information - to actually regulate the degree to which they gamble.

PAUL 
Monitoring on the floor.

LEN 
Secondly, screen-saving machines which says, for goodness sake, 'be aware of how much you're spending here.' You can get prepaid credit cards or prepaid cards and turns to spend. You can get a multi-button that says, 'Look, I'm going to take my winnings now and move rather than continue to reinvest.' So there's a range of measures...

PAUL 
They could simply have a machine that kicks you off after a certain time, couldn't they?

LEN 
They absolutely can do that. Now, none of those features are in place now. And so if we're dead serious about harm minimisation, that we're not against gambling - and everyone says, 'Look, we're not against gambling, but we're about choice and ensuring minimisation of the impact on those who are addicts.' This is where we really need to focus in my view.

PAUL 
Right. And SkyCity have got to be serious about this.

LEN 
And I think they can be a lot more serious. And secondly, you know, one of the key concerns expressed by, for example, Sir John Walker, Find Your Field of Dreams, one of the councillors in our council, was that. So if we're collapsing the number of gambling facilities into a casino in a highly regulated environment, then what are you gonna do for those organisations who are getting a diminishing return from the gambling trusts?

PAUL 
So it's going to be a compromise for you. You might not quite get what you want, but it's going to be a compromise. You very much want that convention centre.

LEN 
I'm focused on economic development and jobs, Paul.

PAUL 
Isn't the truth that gambling is poison to many people and harm minimisation ain't gonna mean much and we're just gonna have to accept that if we want that $350 million convention centre?

LEN 
Life is full of some really tough decisions, but we need to pull this country out of the economic recession. Auckland needs to absolutely perform economically. We've got Christchurch on its knees. This country needs economic development, and I back a convention centre as a key part of Auckland and the country's response to our challenges.

PAUL 
If you do not get some significant harm minimisation measures from SkyCity guaranteed, does your support for the convention centre go?

LEN 
I've told the Prime Minister exactly what I think we need to be doing with the negotiated agreement around those measures, and I expect that we will see them in there.

PAUL 
Mr Len Brown, the mayor of Auckland, thank you for your time.

LEN  
Thank you.

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