For a man who was elected on a platform of cleaning up the “Labor mates” culture and “sleaze” of the previous 16 years, NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell is making a very poor fist of the latest scandal at The Star casino.

In fact, BOF has been keeping very quiet about the current inquiry into The Star, due to the involvement of his former communications director Peter Grimshaw, who was stood down over it only last week.

But it’s time for the NSW state government to come out and say either that it will enact tighter controls over the casino, or leave us with the impression that taking $475 million in gambling taxes over the past five years means turning a blind eye.

The evidence from this week’s inquiry, which is looking at the sacking of managing director Sid Vaikunta for s-xual harassment, and other casino matters, has been that — like Downton Abbey — the casino has two classes of guest. Downstairs, rules were enforced but up in the inner sanctum, where the “high-rollers” gathered, anything went.

Former staffers Elizabeth Ward and Greg Culpan have given evidence that for the high-rollers, nothing was off-limits — they could flout the 24 hours playing time limit, choose which dealers worked in their pits, and get lines of credit of up to $500,000 without any supporting documentation.

Ward said that when she expressed concern to a superior that a certain high-roller may have a gambling addiction (which must be reported), she was told that the casino had bought him a set of golf clubs and taken him for golf lessons, in order to give him some exercise.

Culpan, the former union representative, said that because players frequently urinate under tables to avoid leaving the game, they had to have a “bodily fluid” clause inserted into the enterprise agreement for contract cleaners.

Of course, gambling has always been a vexed issue for Australian governments — just ask Julia Gillard and Andrew Wilkie. Australians are the biggest gamblers, per capita, in the world, losing more than $19 billion a year. The six state governments reap more than $5 billion a year in gambling taxes; hence the problem — why look a gift horse in the mouth?

Ward, a 16-year veteran of The Star, painted a portrait of Vaikunta, the man who oversaw the $850 million revamp of the casino late last year:

“There was actually … several  incidents … where I believed  that he was under the influence of drugs during those meetings or conversations. His behaviour was erratic. He was … glassy eyed, eyes dilated, licking his lips, a particular twitch and a sniff which is actually how he became known as ‘Sniffing Sid’.”

She also said she believed that there had been a “cover-up” of a drug-related incident in the high-rollers area because the person involved was a close friend of Vaikunta’s:

“The player had had a friendship with Sid. It is my belief, and I base this on Sid’s behaviour as well, that they possibly had a social habit together, and that by the player being outed by calling the police, by investigating a little bit closer, there was a possibility that Sid was going to be outed.”

Vaikunta said in a statement last night that her “defamatory remarks about me are untrue”. “I have never been a cocaine user,” he said.

Ward also gave evidence that Sid had changed the dress code to give the female dealers shorter skirts like the cocktail waitresses and even created jobs for podium dancers. In a meeting, he said to her that she needed to “loosen up” and “bring on the pussy!”.

Star’s response, so far, has been to personally attack the credibility of any witnesses who are critical, and vigorously deny any wrong-doing. It may work in the short-term, but the current Wilkie-related debate about gambling and its consequences is starting to have an effect on the Australian psyche. Opinion polls are starting to show that Australians are increasingly concerned about the issue and want governments to do something about problem gambling and its consequences.

In the end, Ward, who is a good witness, was able to sum it up very simply:

“The fact that we bring food and alcohol to the tables is certainly of concern. You need to actually break them from playing at the tables and get them to move away so that they can reassess, have time to think before they go back. If we bring food and drink to the table it gives them no opportunity to leave the table and have a break from that gambling.”

Ward was then asked by counsel assisting, Michael Wigney SC: “You are experienced in casinos. Aren’t drinks and food brought to players at the tables in just about every casino in the world?” She replied: “Does that make it right?”

The inquiry continues, with the chief executive of (Star’s owner) Echo Entertainment, Larry Mullin, to give evidence.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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