When James Packer threw himself into Scientology after the disastrous One.Tel collapse in 2001, many eyebrows were raised, including his father’s.
According to veteran journalist Alex Mitchell, Kerry Packer made some late changes to his will, which ensured executors David Gonski and Lloyd Williams would be able to prevent Tom Cruise and his mates from getting their hands on the family fortune.
While young Packer appears to have moved away from Scientology since his father’s death in late 2005, the puzzling ebbs and flows of his political associations are a little harder to fathom.
Kerry Packer very effectively played the game of picking political winners as he benefited from Labor Party largesse during the Hawke-Keating years and from the Wran and Carr governments in NSW. Graham Richardson was a key player in this, although James Packer finally ditched him from the family’s payroll two years ago.
Kerry Packer wasn’t so lucky during the Greiner-Fahey governments in NSW, most notably missing out on the Sydney casino licence, but Victoria’s Kennett government more than made up for this with a series of obliging regulatory changes during the 1990s that delivered big profits on his Crown Casino investment.
When the winds of change were blowing in Canberra, Kerry Packer made a decisive move to back John Howard, which delivered the ultimate payday when the Channel Nine franchise was protected from competition until Steve Fielding’s vote saw foreign ownership restrictions lifted, enabling PBL Media to be sold for $5.5 billion to private equity firm CVC in 2006.
The fallout from this political switch was substantial as Keating lashed Packer and Howard at every opportunity. According to Nikki Savva’s memoir, Packer intervened to unleash Paul Lyneham’s hugely aggressive 1998 60 Minutes hit on Keating’s piggery wheeling and dealing.
Keating is one of Labor’s great tribal haters, so was it any wonder he used his position as head of the Barangaroo design committee to summarily dismiss James Packer’s aspirations to build a high-roller casino on public land?
The most amazing thing about this saga was that Packer had the chutzpah to request a meeting with Keating and expect endorsement of his hugely controversial proposal so soon after the divisive compulsory precommitment debate. If that debate demonstrated one point, it is that the community is concerned that Australians have become the world’s biggest gamblers, losing $20 billion a year.
One of the surprising elements of Australia’s political duopoly is the way they allow opportunistic families such as the Packers to walk both sides of the street.
For instance, despite relying on regulatory support for his Crown and Burswood casinos from state governments in Victoria and WA respectively, James Packer still went out and did a deal with colourful Tasmanian premier Paul Lennon to allow Betfair to enter the Australian market.
This was a direct attack on the wagering tax revenues of state governments across Australia, yet Packer still expected them to obligingly cop it sweet.
You then had the Gillard government’s attempt to introduce mandatory precommitment on poker machines, a move that would have cost Packer’s Crown Ltd tens of millions of dollars in annual revenue.
The Packer response was to hire former ALP national secretary Karl Bitar as his government relations manager, while also appointing the politically connected Harold Williams and former Howard government communications minister Helen Coonan to the Crown board.
Coonan is a moderate Liberal from NSW and close to Barry O’Farrell, which perhaps explains why the NSW Premier has so glowingly endorsed Packer’s vision for Barangaroo. However, as Malcolm Turnbull demonstrated on Q&A last night, there is widespread disgust in moderate Liberal ranks about Bob Katter’s homophobic attack ads against Campbell Newman.
Given that these ads were partly funded by James Packer’s ill-timed $250,000 donations to Katter’s red-neck party, it will be very interesting to see whether this damages Packer’s standing with the Liberal Party. After all, he is currently seeking probity approval from the NSW and Queensland governments to lift Crown’s stake in rival Echo Entertainment above 10%.
Packer has this morning released a statement condemning the ads, asserting that he’d done “enormous work for North Queensland and Indigenous Australians”:
“I admire his passion for this great country and that’s why I donated to him,” Mr Packer said.
“But I don’t agree with all his policies and views and I certainly don’t support this advertisement or his attack on Campbell Newman.”
If Campbell Newman is elected Queensland premier in 11 days, he would surely be sceptical about giving some Katter-backing southern billionaire control of Queensland’s three casinos.