James Packer (Image: AAP/Jane Dempster)

Next Tuesday, when a smaller-than-normal gaggle of journalists will be locked up in Canberra reading all about a record-breaking 2020-21 federal budget deficit, an arguably more interesting spectacle will be unfolding in Sydney.

Unpredictable casino billionaire James Packer is scheduled to give evidence to the NSW Bergin inquiry, and based on what has been unfolding so far, it’s going to be a fascinating couple of days.

The Packers, like their frenemies in the Murdoch camp, have long known the importance of staying on-side with governments, which begs the question as to how on earth Packer allowed the NSW government to unleash the legal dogs of war on his beloved Crown Resorts following a Nick McKenzie journalistic hit via 60 Minutes and the Nine newspapers.

The past few days of hearings haven’t been pretty, with a raft of senior Crown executives and Packer-affiliated directors giving evidence.

Yesterday we got closer to the top when former SMH and AFR editorial supremo John Alexander took the stand to reflect primarily on his recent three-year stint as executive chairman of Crown.

Alexander has been James Packer’s most loyal foot soldier since being sacked by Fairfax and joining the PBL empire in May 1998. He has pocketed tens of millions of dollars from Packer controlled companies over the past 22 years and spent three hours giving lots of monosyllabic “yes” and “no” answers yesterday afternoon with a further full day scheduled for today. You can watch it all live here.

It certainly hasn’t been pretty for Crown with counsel assisting Adam Bell SC coming off the long run with each witness, then backed up by his deputy Naomi Sharp SC as they build a case about slipshod risk management, dodgy high roller practices, colourful Chinese associations, money laundering and poor governance. The phalanx of Crown silks are reduced to firing a few Dorothy Dix questions at their brow-beaten clients at the end of each grilling.

There are still many days of hearings to go because most of the Crown Resorts independent directors are yet to give evidence. No ASX-listed company has ever been subjected to such a broad and public grilling of almost 20 of their executives and directors.

When Packer decided he wanted to sell a 20% stake in Crown to the Ho family last year, he declined to formally advise the Crown board until the $1.7 billion deal was already done.

Faced with the dual challenge of the inquiry and COVID, the Ho interests only ended up buying 10% of Crown and have since sold that stake to US private equity firm Blackstone for a loss of more than $100 million, leaving Packer still in control as the largest shareholder.

Crown is ambitiously planning to open its new Sydney casino on December 14 but Justice Patricia Bergin, who delivered a scathing earlier review of the NSW RSL, may have some very stern things to say about that. She is clearly very disappointed in the company’s historically slack approach to money laundering and risk management related to Chinese high rollers.

Based on the tone of questioning from both counsel assisting and Bergin herself, Packer should be nervous about what lies ahead as there is a risk he will be declared unfit to control the Crown Sydney licence.

After all, it was incredibly brazen of Packer to think he could just sell 20% of Crown Resorts to the Ho family when the special Barangaroo licence granted by the NSW Government had specific prohibitions on Stanley Ho being involved. He was quite clearly a partial owner of Melco.

The “I know nothing” defence of the various Crown heavies has been that they all assumed Melco was Lawrence Ho’s company and his “notorious” father — a description used repeatedly by Bell — had nothing to do with the company.

However, there are a variety of publicly available documents linking Stanley Ho to Melco. And how did everyone think Lawrence got his start in the casino business if it wasn’t through his “notorious” father?

The short story of Crown’s Barangaroo indulgence is that after Packer saw how much he was making in his earlier joint venture with Lawrence Ho in Macau, he bullied then NSW premier Barry O’Farrell into letting him build a dedicated high roller casino in Sydney with a plan to divert some of these Macau riches directly to Crown.

However, Packer didn’t foresee Xi Jinping’s brutal crackdown on corruption and the arrest of his Crown China team in 2016, let alone the impact of COVID-19. His $2.4 billion Sydney punt may yet prove to be a financial white elephant — one he may even be banned from operating.