James Packer (Image: AAP)

The current inquiry into the fitness of Crown to retain its casino licence in NSW is not the real question. The real question is how it got one in the first place.

After all, we already had one large casino in Darling Harbour, and Star had an exclusive deal with the government to be Sydney’s sole operator until 2019.

But then along came James Packer in February 2012 with an unsolicited offer that then premier Barry O’Farrell obviously couldn’t refuse.

(In January 2013 a senior Crown executive was even allowed to rewrite a media release before it was issued by the hapless O’Farrell announcing government backing for the billion dollar Barangaroo boondoggle).

By November 2013 the NSW government had brushed aside the widespread outcry and granted all approvals for a giant edifice that would cater exclusively to the Chinese VIP high rollers.

But it took years for even more outrageous aspects of the deal to become public. As Nine newspapers reported last month, in 2014 O’Farrell’s successor Mike Baird signed a deal with Crown which entitled it to claim compensation worth 10.5 times the estimated negative financial impact from “any action” the NSW government takes which changes its licence.

In other words, NSW taxpayers could be forced to pay millions if this inquiry leads to new controls or restrictions to limit any criminal activities at Crown.

And in case you thought Crown would not have the hide to seek compensation for any regulatory changes stemming from the inquiry, please note that only last year it sued the NSW government, claiming another development at the precinct threatened its precious views.

The touchiness about views probably had nothing to do with James Packer’s personal palatial two-storey penthouse which was unveiled only this August with stories about its “panoramic” outlook.

But given Packer seems to have no desire to visit his homeland anytime soon, despite how accommodating the government has been with his new abode, the penthouse might remain as empty as the VIP gaming rooms below it.

Sydneysiders have dubbed the blot on the landscape that is the Barangaroo casino “Packer’s Pecker”.

Meanwhile, despite the damaging inquiry, the company continues to behave as though it’s business as usual.

On September 29 the dogged Nine investigators Nick McKenzie and Patrick Hatch reported that Australia’s Crown Resorts has poached the man who oversaw recent investigations into its VIP and junket operations as the company’s new anti-money laundering adviser.

Yes, in the midst of the inquiry, Crown hired one John Yates: operations manager for the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC) in Melbourne.

The story explained “the ACIC, Australia’s peak crime-fighting body, has spent the past three years targeting Suncity, Crown’s key partner and high-roller tour operator. Mr Yates, a respected intelligence investigator, oversaw much of that work”.

Crown denied there was any conflict of interest.

The company is experienced at batting away pesky conflict of interest claims. For example, it strenuously denied any such thing when it hired Helen Coonan as a director only days after she resigned from the Senate in 2011. Last year she rose to be chair.

In 2006, as communications minister in the Howard government, Coonan loosened foreign ownership rules in the media sector. This allowed Packer to reap $4.5 billion by selling half of the Nine Network to private equity group CVC — a deal he did on the same day the media laws passed parliament.

Another Crown director, former top public servant Jane Halton, was confronted with conflict of interest allegations raised in a story by Crikey in July this year (Halton declined to respond to questions from Crikey at the time).

Finally this weekend came the headline “Crown vows to open Barangaroo casino before decision on licence”.

Of course it would.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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