The Guardian • Issue #1986

Betting the house: the Crown Casino scandal

Royal Commissions in two states, Victoria and Western Australia, into the Crown Casino empire have revealed the enormous amount of corruption which takes place within their walls. In Melbourne, the royal commission found the casino, owned by billionaire James Packer, has links to criminal gangs, has repeatedly breached money laundering laws, and has exploited its casino licence by taking advantage of state tax deductions to cheat Victoria out of a potential $200 million. The report also found that the casino had been taking advantage of people with gambling addictions, allowing some people to gamble for 50+ hours straight, desperately trying to win their money back.

Despite all this, Victoria has opted to renew Crown’s license and give it a two year “grace period” to clean up its act under the recommendation of Commissioner and former Federal Court justice Ray Finkelstein, who delivered the final report. This “grace period” will be monitored by a “special manager” to ensure that the casino adheres to Victorian law. The Victorian government has appointed Stephen O’Bryan QC for the two-year role, after which he’ll deliver a report to the gaming regulator, who will determine whether or not the casino should keep its license. In his capacity as special manager, O’Bryan will effectively act as a board member. He’ll be allowed to attend board and management meetings, inspect the books, and request any desired information from members of the company, and will be able to direct board decisions.

While this looks good on paper, given the sheer number of violations committed by the casino, it is difficult to imagine how a single person could monitor the entire situation, even over a two-year period. Particularly in light of Finkelstein’s comments that:

“It is difficult to grade the seriousness of the misconduct. Some [of the conduct] was so callous that it is hard to imagine it could be engaged in by such a well-known corporation whose Melbourne Casino Complex is visited by millions annually.”

But if one steps back and considers the inherently exploitative nature of corporations, this is not actually all that hard to imagine.  Their profit margin is their main concern, not their average punter. Casinos are particularly predatory in their nature. As the Victorian Greens leader astutely pointed out:

“The government has set Crown up as too big to fail, and then failed themselves to stop the corruption and gambling harms.”

A West Australian Royal Commission is underway in Perth over similar allegations, with Packer testifying at its hearing. This is the third time the Crown has been investigated in Perth. Packer admitted that there have been “too many oversights” while explaining that he hadn’t been to a single board meeting in almost four years and that the board had no written charter, which allowed it to operate as it pleased. As the hearing is still underway at the time of writing, it is unclear if Perth will adopt a similar approach to Melbourne.

A Crown Casino was built in Sydney in 2020 on land originally intended as a public park, despite initially having its license refused in light of the Victorian and West Australian Commissions. It has since been allowed a liquor licence, but its gambling licence is still on hold. Packer and then-NSW premier Barry O’Farrell had come to an agreement to allow for the construction during a private lunch hosted in broadcaster Alan Jones’ apartment.

Gambling can be a major form of harm for many Australians, so it is imperative that casinos and any other locations that permit gambling are closely monitored and regulated. It is not enough, in light of these blatant violations, to pursue more commissions, inquiries or allow for “grace periods.” The industry needs to be brought to heel now, not in two years’ time.

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