• Clicking Fingers

    At first glance, Aaron Gilmore has paid a heavy price for what seem to have been pretty minor misdemeanours. He isn’t the first person to make a fool of himself after a few too many.

    But on closer scrutiny, the episode might appear in a different light. It was not so much what he did, but what he revealed himself to be that attracted such unfavourable attention. Here was a man who was ready to treat with contempt those whom he clearly regarded as mere minions, and who was misguided enough to believe that his imagined power and influence meant that he could demand and get whatever he wanted. Is someone who will so arrogantly ride roughshod over others the kind of person we want running the country – even if only in the most minor of minor roles?

    It was that question that meant that Aaron Gilmore lost the support of his colleagues, and particularly of the Prime Minister. They could not afford to have the National government tarred with the Gilmore brush.

    Within a few days of the Gilmore episode, however, the government has found that a new issue has dominated the headlines. The long-heralded deal with Sky City over a convention centre in Auckland has been announced. No one would dispute that Auckland would benefit from such a facility, but the way it has been arranged raises a number of questions that are in their own way not so far removed from the Gilmore saga.

    There is of course no reason that a convention centre should have anything to do with a casino. Sky City’s involvement is something cooked up by the government. If it were a commercially viable project, Sky City should pursue it on their own account without demanding the concessions they have obtained. If it is not commercially viable, then the government should face that fact and fund the project from its own resources, rather than sell concessions to a gambling interest that is careless about the welfare of our fellow citizens.

    There are other peculiarities of the deal. The government has not only sold its power to make laws, but has purported to do so in a way that will bind future governments and make it impossible to unpick the deal. Even its supporters must have been brought up short by the realisation that the arrangement will last till 2048 and that any attempt to change it will involve future taxpayers in hefty annual penalty payments to Sky City.

    This looks like an unconscionable attempt to use contract law to circumvent the generally accepted constitutional principle that one parliament cannot bind its successors. And that injury is exacerbated by Sky City’s further demand that the public should be denied any involvement in determining the shape of the project.

    We have, it seems, in Sky City’s view, already endorsed the deal by voting in the National government in 2011 – in just the same way as we apparently supported asset sales. This attitude brings us perilously close to what Quinton Hogg, later Lord Hailsham, once famously described as “an elective dictatorship” – a government that, once elected, claims a democratic mandate to ignore the will of the people and do whatever it pleases. And what pleases this government, sadly, is carrying out the wishes of big business, even if that runs counter to the interests of ordinary people.

    The Sky City deal is – in line with that solicitude for business interests and lack of concern for the common good – in line with the Warner Brothers deal (which reduced the rights at work of New Zealand employees, and cost the taxpayer $67 million). The keenness to promote asset sales is a further example. The case for selling assets cannot be an economic one, when the assets being sold generate an annual return of at least 7% and the government can borrow at less than half that rate; the outcome can only mean a greater burden for future taxpayers.

    But the government will pursue asset sales because they provide another opportunity to reward their supporters; consumers might suffer, through higher prices, along with taxpayers, but stockbrokers and investors, accountants and receivers (if things go wrong) will (it is hoped) make a killing. We see a similar pattern in the government’s suggested solution to the problem of housing affordability; those who cannot afford decent housing and struggle to pay their rent are somehow to be helped by providing enlarged opportunities for property developers to pocket the increased development value of land.

    Which brings us back to Aaron Gilmore. Do we see something of the departed MP in the ruthless use of power to get what the government and its supporters want? In the contempt with which the interests of ordinary people are dismissed? In the readiness to suck up to the rich and powerful?

    When Aaron Gilmore clicked his fingers to the waiter, the sound reverberated round the whole country. When John Key, with a ready smile, does the same, hardly anyone notices.

    Bryan Gould

    14 May 2013