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Media cuddles up to Packer with few hard questions

James Packer is getting a dream run from the media on his plans for a Sydney casino. Why isn’t anyone asking harder questions about his strategy?

For anyone who can remember the 1990s crony capitalism saga behind James Packer finishing up in control of one of the world’s biggest casinos in the Melbourne CBD, developments this week in Sydney are deeply troubling. And just as concerning is the performance of the mainstream media which has turned into a Packer cheer squad as the NSW Parliament collapses in the face of a powerful rent-seeking casino developer.

The Australian Financial Review, our independent national financial paper of record, should be all over the dubious process which has seen the widely-owned Echo Entertainment Group ambushed by a competitor which openly colludes with political parties, makes direct political donations and employs well-connected former politicians to advance its interests.

Yet there is James Packer pictured on page pme today appearing in “The AFR’s Conversation Series”. The story is headlined “Packer slams O’Neill in casino war” and there further back in the book is a picture of Packer standing with the paper’s companies editor Nabila Ahmed, along with media writer James Chessell and CEO Brett Clegg.

Sadly, The AFR chose to barely cover the Echo Entertainment AGM at Jupiters Casino on the Gold Coast yesterday. It was a torrid affair as new chairman John O’Neill saw both the remuneration report and his re-election challenged from the floor and forced to a poll.

O’Neill, who hired Packer employee Mark Arbib to review the governance arrangements of the Australian Rugby Union, has been largely responsible for the gutting of Echo’s board and senior management ranks at a time when it needs toughness and resolve. He led the Packer-requested coup that forced veteran chairman John Story from the board after a brutal assault complete with numerous national newspaper ads and unleashing Packer fixers such as Alan Jones for a campaign of denigration against Echo’s assets along with certain personnel and shareholders.

Having assumed the Echo chair with the key support of the company’s two voting executive directors, it remains a mystery why O’Neill then negotiated the departure of well-regarded Echo CEO Larry Mullin last month just as the Packer fix for an untendered casino licence with the NSW political duopoly was coming to a head. Even worse, Echo’s toughest director, Brett Paton, resigned last month in a protest against the removal of Mullin.

The sheer chutzpah of lame duck Mullin finding out about yesterday’s O’Farrell announcement halfway through the AGM was clearly designed to humiliate him and the company. And when encouraged on numerous occasions yesterday to demonstrate his toughness and independence, O’Neill produced nothing more than platitudes and generalisations. Little of this made The AFR today, but The Australian published:

Mr O’Neill’s re-election went to a ballot, and later in the day the company filed with the ASX that he had been re-elected, but not before he had been strongly attacked by shareholder activist Stephen Mayne over his attitude to the announcement by Crown that it would be seeking to build a second casino in Sydney, which would compete directly with Echo’s Star.

Mr Mayne said Echo “didn’t seem to be putting up much of a fight” against the Crown proposal and that “this board needs to launch a major rearguard action”.

The Packers are masters at getting close to government and getting them to do its bidding, and he’s doing it now at our expense,” said Mr Mayne.

I’m not convinced that John O’Neill is the man, given that Packer wanted him as chairman. Why isn’t he out there fighting harder? The share price is down and our assets are diminishing.”

Mr O’Neill said that Mr Mayne wanted to see “blood on the floor and theatre”, adding: “But we’ll keep going about the business in a way that’s comfortable. We’re not going to be firing off any Scud missiles until we need to.”

Hello, John O’Neill! Both sides of NSW politics are on board for Crown to operate an untendered high roller casino at Barangaroo.

Crown should be launching a full takeover bid for Echo that respects its monopoly licence and pays a premium for control. Instead, Packer is now gloating about using his political connections to undermine Echo’s Sydney casino just because they refused to give a competitor a seat on the board.

Sadly, all we are getting from most of the media is this narrative of Packer being a political genius out-smarting a rival company. Where is the outrage? Who is standing up for proper process and transparency? Who is looking out for Echo’s 120,000 mum and dad investors? And what about the debate on problem gambling when Australians are already the world’s biggest gamblers?

You’d think Sydney in 2012 would be above these Russian-style deals between oligarchs, media interests and politicians. Especially The AFR, which should be maintaining a respectable distance to independently cover the political moves of a controversial casino developer.

*Stephen Mayne is the policy and engagement co-ordinator for the Australian Shareholders’ Association

13
  • 1
    Oscar Jones
    Posted Friday, 26 October 2012 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    Good to Stephen back in form and doing what he does best.
    “Rissian oligarch” style deals really does sum up this whole charade and the unquestioning attitude of the MSM that somehow, it’s Packer’s birthright to be handed these pots of gold is another reason for plunging readership.
    Richard Ackland is the only one I can see who has written anything remotely sensible on what looks like a secret deal.

  • 2
    zut alors
    Posted Friday, 26 October 2012 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

    Keep at them, Stephen.

    As if casinos aren’t rotting society enough - now an even bigger stench is hanging over NSW. P@cker likes to high stakes gamble without ever going near a table or pokie.

  • 3
    Stevo the Working Twistie
    Posted Friday, 26 October 2012 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

    The Rum Corps never really left NSW: they just started wearing business suits instead of redcoats. Every time we get a change of government we hope that finally some honesty and integrity will find its way into Macquarie Street, and every time the new lot are shown up to be just as crooked a bunch of spivs as the last. Oh, and by the way, if you are looking for O’Neill’s spine, forget it. It went missing some time in the 90s - just ask anyone who worked for the State Bank of NSW at the time.

  • 4
    paddy
    Posted Friday, 26 October 2012 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

    Took the words right off my keyboard Stevo.
    The whole deal is breathtakingly “rummy”.

  • 5
    Edward James
    Posted Friday, 26 October 2012 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

    We the peoples watch on as both sides of the NSW government gets set to legislate the legal stepping stones needed for James Packer to get what he wants! Our elected reps have a history of changing the law to look after the big end of town. Edward James

  • 6
    Lexi
    Posted Friday, 26 October 2012 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

    Thank God SOMEONE is asking these questions in the media. Thank GOD we have Crikey as one of our only independent media. These are questions thinking people are asking around the dinner table and water cooler.

  • 7
    Edward James
    Posted Friday, 26 October 2012 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

    Lexi Some of us pay to put our questions in local papers. After getting sick and tired of waiting for the bought and paid for media to do the right thing Edward James

  • 8
    steinro byn
    Posted Sunday, 28 October 2012 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

    My mothers neighbour is working part time and averaging $9000 a month. I’m a single mum and just got my first paycheck for $6546! I still can’t believe it. I tried it out cause I got really desperate and now I couldn’t be happier. Heres what I do, FOx90,Com

  • 9
    Emma Rennie
    Posted Sunday, 28 October 2012 at 10:57 pm | Permalink

    There are a whole bunch of things I don’t understand about this, starting with Jamie Packer saying he wants this to be a his monument, who would want a casino as a monument? To what?
    As for Paul Keating saying it will be a big exclamation mark for the Barangaroo development, it seems more like a big middle finger.
    A casino is a lazy way to bring in tourists (and fleece them); really , how much more money does this man need?
    How is it in the public interest to have a bunch of rich tourists gambling at a waterfront location? They might as well be inland and let people who are interested in the view/watersports/fishing/fresh air etc enjoy it.
    Why another casino within (almost) spitting distance of the existing casino? Especially when a spokesman for the proposal said (on ABC 702 Sydney radio) that a diversity of development is needed.
    According to the pro-casino mob Sydney “needs” a six star hotel and it can only be financed by the building of another casino. Is that so that the people rich enough to lose their money at the casino have somewhere luxe enough to stay to make them feel better about losing that money. Lots of big gamblers get complimentary accommodation at attached hotels because they are expected to lose enough to cover those costs.
    Why can’t Sydney have something really visionary if we must bring in tourists? Look at Hobart and the MONA Gallery, tourists from all over the world are going there and raving about how great an experience it is. That is a monument which the whole state takes pride in. One man’s vision. Perhaps we should ask David Walsh to put up a proposal, at least we might end up with something interesting.

  • 10
    MJPC
    Posted Monday, 29 October 2012 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    Well done Stephen for telling it how it is. With our supine politicians of both persuasions (or is it really only one in the end- capitalism /greed) bowing at the altar of mammon I just can’t visualise why the high rollers of the world will be beating a path to its door when there are larger and flashier ascino’s closer to their Asian abodes?
    I predict, shortly after it opens its door, the proletariat will be told the requisite number of high rollers and money launderers attending aren’t being realised and there will be another shady deal to change the license to have pokies and allow Bill and Betty problem gambler to lose their hard earned dosh (or welfare cheques) to assuage the Packer greed.
    This whole deal is immoral, but that’s what you can expect when you give one party free reign to do what they want.

  • 11
    Edward James
    Posted Monday, 29 October 2012 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps more of us should keep after the politicians after we have voted. Don’t accept the very ordinary work product politicians come up with! This deal with James Packer went forward with labor support even though what was being proposed was not permitted under existing legislation. I almost expect BOF to use an old Queensland saying; Don’t you worry about that. Some of us do worry, and we complain too. Edward James

  • 12
    Aaron F
    Posted Tuesday, 30 October 2012 at 11:20 pm | Permalink

    Spot on MJPC. Only for high rollers eh? That is just to make it easier to swallow. Then of course when it is built, it will be whatever will make it the most profitable for Packer.

  • 13
    Peter Bayley
    Posted Wednesday, 31 October 2012 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    They say people in Democracies get the governments they deserve. How true that is in this case. Sydney has ever had a fascination with the brash underbelly of society that the ugly son, James Packer exemplifies so well. Packer and his pocket-sized bunch of NSW pollies (of both hues) were made for each other. Barangaroo RSL will go ahead and quickly become an over-developed den of gambling whores and their prey, every bit as ugly in its greediness and social disdain as Packer himself. What a waste of a beautiful harbour!

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