Claire Trevett: the real benefit of the America’s Cup to the Government


Over the last week, Sport and Finance Minister Grant Robertson has undergone something of a metamorphosis from America’s Cup sceptic to wearing red socks with glee.

Labour is a party born from blue collars and socialism, and the America’s Cup has never sat that well with some of its members.

There are big supporters in Labour: among them Trevor Mallard who was once the minister in charge of justifying spending public money on the Cup, and Stuart Nash who gets that job now.

For others, the only comfort has been that Labour-red socks are the emblem of luck for Team NZ.

Robertson is one of those who seems somewhat conflicted.

Robertson is a regular attendee of cricket, rugby and other sports, but has not attended a single America’s Cup race – not even Wednesday’s. The PM could not attend, and Robertson was the most obvious replacement.

It is fair to say that until this week he was somewhat begrudging about forking over $136 million to host the Cup.

Robertson has had to justify spending millions of dollars for New Zealand to host a contest that carries the moniker of a “rich man’s sport”.

Treasury’s early advice – even before Covid-19 – was that the net economic benefit was likely to be marginal.

The Government has had the extra complication of having to justify America’s Cup teams and backers getting exemptions to enter New Zealand while others had to sit and wait for slots in MIQ to pop up.

Yet this week, Robertson found himself standing up in Parliament singing the praises of Team NZ, and boasting of the Government’s wisdom in investing millions of dollars into it.

On Wednesday, he found himself wearing red socks to work instead of his usual sensible black socks.

Some of this may be down to the simple pleasure of watching New Zealand prevail over a team that has an Australian in it – especially the old nemesis Jimmy Spithill.

But Robertson has also clearly discovered the Cup is a marvellous distraction from the other woes that assail the Government on the Covid-19 front.

As previous governments did, Robertson is now discovering that once New Zealand is winning all else is forgiven and forgotten.

The stated benefits from funding for the Cup in the past have included international exposure, promotion of New Zealand innovation and business, tourism, “legacy” projects, and “national pride”.

Covid-19 will undoubtedly have had an impact on the economic spin-offs, especially on tourism.

But politically, the last of those benefits, national pride, has been the most important this time round.

The America’s Cup has provided just the tonic Auckland needed after the disruptions of the latest lockdowns.

That in turn has served to take some of the heat off the Government for those lockdowns.

As the Government continues to wade through the morass of debate around vaccinations rollouts and trans-Tasman bubbles, the America’s Cup has given a brief interlude of pure enjoyment.

But that will end now.

And the first to feel the crush of reality returning will be Economic Development Minister Stuart Nash.

Nash is in charge of the America’s Cup. He loves it. He has been to watch the racing on several occasions.

Alas, he could not make it to Wednesday’s racing because he is also Minister of Tourism.

Not everybody has succumbed to the warm glow of the America’s Cup. Tourism operators in Queenstown are among those who will get little benefit from it.

So yesterday, Nash was heading to the South Island for meetings with them instead of swanning about on the Hauraki Gulf.

Labour can count itself very fortunate that Team NZ have done well in the America’s Cup regatta.

Former Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce can give the ministers a reminder of what happens when the team loses on your watch.

Soon after Joyce arrived in San Francisco to watch the last races of the Cup in 2013, Oracle made its comeback, fighting back from 8-1 down to beat Team NZ.

Blaming the Government is a lot more palatable than blaming sports “heroes” for such a loss. So poor old Joyce found himself labelled the jinx ever after.

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