An influential ginger group of rank-and-file ALP members are demanding a 1% “Packer tax” on revenue from Crown’s proposed $1 billion Barangaroo gambling den be siphoned to the arts to better align a second casino licence with Labor values.

This week, NSW MPs from both sides of the chamber lined up to back a second licence for Sydney in 2019, effectively green-lighting James Packer’s plans for a 170-metre high waterside whale sanctuary aimed at Asian high rollers.

The Sydney Arts Alliance, convened by leading Labor left figure and Lord Mayor preselection heavy-hitter Damian Spruce — and including Evan Hughes, the son of famous artist and gallery owner Ray Hughes — is fighting back, dispatching emails to shadow arts minister Nathan Rees, Paul Keating (who reckons Packer’s “dancing diva” should be higher) and Liberal gaming minister George Souris to secure a multi-million dollar chop out.

In a proposal letter sent to Rees and Keating and obtained by Crikey, the SAA says 1% of revenue from the new casino should be paid into an “Arts Acquisition and Grants Fund” to purchase art for leading institutions, and provide grants for local creatives. A board of trustees comprising representatives from the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Art Gallery of NSW would administer the fund. Packer was holding court at the MCA last night to explain how the high-roller haven would be “something special” for Sydney.

At present, there is no guarantee how much largesse Crown would end up returning to state coffers. Current licence holder Echo Entertainment paid $100 million for the right to its monopoly licence but Barry O’Farrell hinted yesterday that because the VIP vice hub wasn’t a proper casino it could well be waved through gratis.

Labor’s shadow cabinet, led by Labor Left planning spokesman Luke Foley, ended up independently supporting plans for a second Sydney licence, despite Labor Right glimmer twins Karl Bitar and Mark Arbib’s ineffective attempts to agitate for their lap-banded boss behind the scenes. Foley told Crikey this morning that he was “aware of the proposal and it’s certainly worth serious consideration as Labor develops policy for the 2015 election”.

Crown says the new casino could inject $400 million into the state economy, although it is unclear how the benefits of the bonanza would actually be divvied up. O’Farrell said yesterday the Asian gambling-tourism trade is worth $1 billion.

In its letter, the SAA notes that Sydney sole licence holder Echo Entertainment’s $1.6 billion revenue last financial year would translate into $16 million for the fund — a small hit to the group’s bottom line but a substantial sum in the arts world.

The idea has been on the table for six months and has sought input from a number of high-level Harbour City arts figures. In a 10 point internal memo sent this week to senior Labor figures, Hughes argues that the Art Gallery of NSW is falling behind other institutions like Queensland’s GOMA, Victoria’s NGV, the NGA and David Walsh’s MONA due to a lack of government support. O’Farrell has made it clear that state revenue will not be used for AGNSW acquisitions.

Hughes says the 1% Packer levy would also let Labor counter the progressive drift to the Greens and Clover Moore: “The Arts industry has always traditionally been loyal to Labor, the artists have always been traditionally loyal to Labor and it is time for the party to make a move which could be extremely positive PR as well as a highly meaningful amount of money to bolster the arts economy in NSW which is failing.”

The plan draws inspiration from the United Kingdom where 28% of lottery revenue goes to “good causes” with an additional 12% going to consolidated revenue — around 850 million pounds is slated to be invested between 2011 and 2015. In Chicago, the Percent-for-Art Ordinance mandates that 1.33% of the construction or renovation cost of public buildings be set aside for original artwork.

ALP Surry Hills branch president and SAA member Blake Briggs told Crikey the proposal would support Packer’s claims to be a staunch defender of Australia’s culture:

“James Packer has spent big on TV ads promoting Crown Casino as contributing to Australia’s culture. Here is his chance to show that he is genuine. The arts in Sydney has great potential, but is underfunded due to government budget pressures. This is an innovative solution to that problem that the government can get behind. The amount of money we are talking about is small feed for the casino industry, but it would re-energise arts in NSW,” Briggs said.

Despite its lack of numbers in the Legislative Assembly, the decision by NSW Labor to support the Packer plan adds to its momentum and appears to guarantee any related bill safe passage if it were to come before the upper house.

Interestingly, Foley, a former ALP assistant general secretary, was keen to de-emphasise the role played by Arbib and Bitar, saying that the NSW opposition was mature enough to liaise directly with Packer. During their time as ALP general secretaries, the duo were notorious for denying Foley basic resources, at one point banning access to the party’s membership database.

Crown’s Bitar did not respond to Crikey‘s request to comment on the matter this morning.

Peter Fray

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