Opinion Funny thing, Packer’s Sydney Crown doesn’t need its casino anyway

Funny thing, Packer’s Sydney Crown doesn’t need its casino anyway

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As expected, the final report of the NSW inquiry into the suitability of James Packer’s Crown Resorts to run a casino – it isn’t – has set multiple hares running, including massive embarrassment for the Victorian and West Australian governments, the end of several individuals’ careers as directors of credible public companies and the inevitable sharp reduction of Packer’s shareholding and effective control.

We won’t be calling it “Packer’s Crown” much longer. He had been trying to sell down anyway.

But, also as expected, Commissioner Patricia Bergin has left the door wide open for Crown Resorts to yet have a casino in its Barangaroo tower. A little housekeeping, a few rolled heads and, voilà, a “conversion to suitability”, to use the Commissioner’s words.

Well, this is Sydney.

Before that, standby for much huffing and puffing and “well I never” from Premiers Andrews and McGowan. The Victorian and West Australian governments have long been rolling over for the Packer empire, begging to have their tummies tickled, whenever the Packer crew whistled.

Well, they are Melbourne and Perth.

Now premiers past and present will be “shocked, shocked to find gambling is going on in here” – or rather that there’s been money laundering and high roller junkets via dodgy partners with Asian crime syndicate connections. Cue cleanouts of the relevant watchpuppies.

Some players in the Crown saga have been fortunate.

Long-time Packer functionary John Alexander has already taken a golden parachute from the building after running it and denying all – “sensationalist and unproven claims” he declared.

Pro tem chairman Helen Coonan wasn’t collared as someone who has to immediately go, despite being on the board for a decade without apparently noticing much.

“Some observers may expect the Authority to require the purging of the whole Crown Board before it would be in a position to regard Crown as a “suitable” person under the Casino Control Act,” wrote Commissioner Bergin.

“However such an approach would be inappropriate if there is an available realistic alternative to accommodate due regard to the commercial imperative of the viability of a public company whilst achieving such conversion.”

Australia's most expensive apartments
Billionaire James Packer spent $60 million on an apartment at One Barangaroo.

So, not all at once, but maybe not for too long.

The former deputy leader of the coalition in the Senate concurrently chairing a gambling company and the Australian Financial Complaints Authority wasn’t a good look before the inquiry.  It is a worse look now and anyone’s guess which job will go first.

And there are other shoes to drop if the NSW government takes Commissioner Bergin’s broader recommendations seriously.

In theory, NSW has one existing casino and one pending “conversion to suitability”. In reality, NSW is rolling in casinos – the mega-clubs that are major gambling destinations with multiple gaming machines of all descriptions. They are likely to come in for greater scrutiny.

In light of the many ructions, the funny thing about this inquiry is that it turns out Crown Resorts doesn’t really need the casino licence to make its Barangaroo monster work and Sydney doesn’t need a casino to make the northern end of Barangaroo work either.

The tower that now dominates the Sydney skyline is mostly a block of flats, albeit expensive flats that have substantially paid for the building.

The hotel is off to a roaring start without a casino, the restaurants and bars enjoying good business, the rooms and facilities well reviewed.

The Crown Sydney skyscraper at Barangaroo. Photo: AAP

The casino money making machine would of course be rich cream on top of that if our borders open to international high rollers at some stage, but not having a licence won’t send the Sydney Crown broke.

And the excuse Barry O’Farrell gave for agreeing to the casino has proven to be false.

In conversation, the then NSW Premier told me the government thought a casino was needed to bring some “life and excitement” to the northern end of Barangaroo, that otherwise it would be dead.

That is demonstrably not the case.

(Mr O’Farrell, now Australia’s High Commissioner to India after a spell as CEO of Racing Australia, didn’t use the word “casino” though – it was part of the farce of the Packer machine blitzing both sides of NSW politics to get what it wanted that the thing was termed a “VIP-restricted gaming facility”.)

The tower, whether admired or hated, will remain a testimony to the shoddiness of NSW politics, of the weakness of both the main parties so easily owned by James Packer’s machine, so easily convinced to surrender such a prize without a competitive tender.

james packer casino inquiry
James Packer gave evidence to the inquiry from his luxury yacht in the South Pacific.

It represents a massive failure of governance in plain sight, applauded and egged on by most Sydney media. Peak Sydney.

Giving Packer whatever he wanted was both unnecessary and a wasted opportunity.

The original concept for Barangaroo was to have an excellent hotel built over the water, thus leaving more open space and bringing a touch of Venice to the Harbour City. It could have been a brilliant building without a tainted casino licence.

The world’s great hotel chains would have fallen over themselves for the opportunity to have such an iconic site. They would have competed to provide more “life and excitement” and style than the often rather trashy clientele that is attracted to casinos.

Or even VIP-restricted gaming facilities.

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