How the media world has changed. A decade or so ago, could anyone imagine that 60 Minutes would have been involved in a full one-hour attack on former proprietor James Packer’s casino empire? Particularly by a Fairfax journalist like Nick McKenzie, swinging in as a guest reporter for Nine’s flagship Sunday night program.
But so it was over the weekend when Nine unleashed its first major multi-platform investigation since the Fairfax takeover; Nick McKenzie, Nick Toscano and Grace Tobin took on Crown Resorts on the front pages of The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, plus on 60 Minutes. Pre-merger, this would have likely been a joint investigation with ABC’s Four Corners.
So what exactly did they dig up? The allegations include Crown striking up business relationships with triad-connected operators who help bring high rollers to Australia, plus involvement in the laundering of drug-trafficking proceeds. Today’s installment in print even detailed Crown’s connections with the cousin of Chinese President Xi Jinping, which may undermine his reputation as a hard-charging corruption fighter.
This will put considerable pressure on traditionally passive state-based gambling regulators and the federal authorities — particularly Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton who present as being family-friendly and tough on crime.
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The integrity of Australia’s immigration system is also under question as Crown appears to have been getting special fast-track treatment to bring in high rollers of dubious character. It was ironic indeed that just as the first hits were landing in the Nine papers on Saturday, Morrison spent part of the day at Crown’s Perth casino, addressing the Liberal Party’s WA state conference.
James Packer, through his defamation lawyer Mark O’Brien (a specialist in suing the old Fairfax newspapers), has been distancing himself from the allegations stressing that he hasn’t been a Crown executive since 2012 and only has a “passive” involvement in the company.
What we do know, however, is that James Packer has been in complete voting control of Crown Resorts for the last 12 years, thereby influencing votes for directors and key executives at company annual general meetings. His Crown shareholding over this period has been close to 50% and there has been no one else competing for control or influence over the company.
The burst of negative publicity coincides with regulatory reviews by the WA, Victoria and NSW gambling authorities into the proposed sale of a 20% stake in Crown Resorts by Packer’s personal companies to companies controlled by Lawrence Ho. Lawrence Ho is the son of Stanley Ho, who is banned from holding casino licences in various jurisdictions and whose family has reigned over Macau’s controversial casino industry.
So, what should Australian authorities do in response to all of this? Independent Senator Jacqui Lambie is calling for the fast-track establishment of a federal ICAC.
A joint federal-state commission of inquiry into the money laundering and immigration allegations would be a good start, all of which would inform the question of who is allowed to run and control Crown Resorts going forward, from the board down.
John Alexander is a Packer loyalist who serves as executive chair of Crown Resorts and has been on the Crown board for the entire 12-year period since it was de-merged from the old Packer media business in 2007. Given James Packer is pleading the “I’m not involved” defence, surely it is incumbent upon Alexander to front the media today and respond to the avalanche of allegations.
As of 10.30am this morning, there has been no ASX announcement by Crown Resorts, even though the share price tumbled 2.8% on the opening, wiping $230 million off the value of the company. After hitting a low of $12.20, the stock stabilised to be 18c down for the day at $12.49 by 11am. James Packer sold his 20% stake to Lawrence Ho at $13 a share. Investors are rightly concerned about what looks like the biggest data leak of sensitive documents from a major Australian listed company. How will regulators respond? Is this going to damage the high roller business to have customer information leak like this?
Asked why Crown was able to maintain its public silence this morning, an ASX spokesperson told Crikey: “ASX is monitoring the situation closely, including movement in the share price, and liaising with the company as we do as a matter of course.”
Packer would be well-advised to get out of Crown (or at least get off his luxury yacht). However, handing control of Crown to Lawrence Ho is not the answer either. For mine, the best way to limit the power of both men would be for the NSW, Victorian and WA government to agree on the introduction of a maximum shareholding provision of 15%, which comes with a maximum of one seat on the board.
They should also push for a complete overhaul of the Crown board and senior management ranks so that the new leadership of the company are not tainted by events of the past. The problem Crown’s existing board and management team has got right now is that none of this looks good and they don’t know what Nick McKenzie’s team will hit them with next.
Crikey understands the revelations are likely to keep flowing for several days yet. Hold onto your hats, it’s going to be one hell of a ride.
Stephen Mayne is the founder of Crikey, and previously worked part-time at The Alliance for Gambling Reform.