While ICAC has delivered bombshell evidence that has ensnared a standing NSW premier, a simultaneous inquiry unfolding in Sydney has exposed one of the most egregious examples of how business is done in Australia.
Led by former NSW judge Patricia Bergin SC, the inquiry into Crown has unearthed a laundry list of crimes and misdemeanors that makes Daryl Maguire’s wrongdoings seem petty.
Money laundering, junket operators linked to organised crime gangs, and secret bank accounts set up to avoid regulators were just some of the topics to receive airtime.
It’s forced some of Australia’s most powerful business identities to submit themselves to a level of scrutiny, interrogation and public humiliation that they’ve never experienced before. The dishevelled figure of James Packer dialing into the inquiry from his yacht off the coast of Tahiti resembled nothing of the business oligarch that once ruled the country with impunity.
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In many ways the Crown inquiry reveals corruption at a more sophisticated and endemic level than what’s been revealed at ICAC. While ICAC has given us brown paper bags of cash, Crown has showed us a much more pervasive problem: the gritty underbelly of corporate Australia, and how the political and bureaucratic elite can get co-opted in.
Crown is the story of a business titan who surrounded himself with power, only to watch it all come crashing down. Packer’s political connections have underpinned everything he’s created. Even on the surface, the billionaire has filled his empire with legions of well-connected members of the political class, including John Howard’s former cabinet minister Helen Coonan and former health secretary Jane “children overboard” Halton. Both sit on the Crown board.
The political connections don’t stop at the board. Crown’s advisers are Mark Arbib, the former federal minister and powerful Labor operative who quit politics in 2012 and swiftly joined Packer’s Consolidated Press Holdings, and Karl Bitar, the former ALP national secretary who is now a senior corporate affairs executive at Crown.
Even as damning evidence was being aired at the inquiry last month, Crown poached a senior government gaming investigator, John Yates, as its new anti-money laundering adviser. Yates had until recently overseen a money laundering investigation on behalf of the government into the casino firm’s own high-roller operations.
Not even a star-studded board has been enough to bring the company back from the brink of catastrophe. Famed adman Harold Mitchell and former AFL boss Andrew Demetriou proved in many ways to be the weakest witnesses in the inquiry, showing ignorance or disregard about the basic duties of a director.
Packer has also surrounded himself with a close group of business confidantes, whose loyalty to the Packer dynasty has been key to its success — and downfall. We’ve watched as the empire folded in on itself, with Packer’s top lieutenants admitting they fed confidential information to Packer, revising financial forecasts at his request, and describing a corporate structure built on one massive conflict of interest.
For decades Packer has wielded power through political donations and the revenue flows from his casinos that have made governments afraid to stand up to him. Now the jewel in Packer’s crown — the Barangaroo development and casino licence — is on the line. If Crown and its directors had hoped to save the licence before their appearances at the inquiry, they will be far less confident now.