(Image: Tom Red)

The Victorian Commission for Gambling and Liquor Regulation (VCGLR) is investigating Crown Casino. The question is, what took so long? 

Gaming Minister Melissa Horne says the inquiry will be a “fast-tracked” version of its next major review into the gambling giant’s casino licence in the wake of damning findings by the NSW Independent Liquor and Gaming inquiry.

But it’s hard to see how there is anything fast about the Victorian government’s response to Crown’s gross misconduct.

Crown admitted more than a month ago that money laundering was likely to have occurred at its Melbourne and Perth casinos — revelations that now threaten to bring down the entire James Packer-backed empire.

At the time, the Victorian regulator was more or less silent. Now it says it will make sure Crown’s flagship Melbourne casino “conducts its business in a transparent and appropriate manner”.

But after years of being asleep at the wheel, is the regulator really up to the job?

Toothless tiger

Even before Crown’s admission to money laundering there were concerns that VCGLR was not taking issues at Crown seriously.

In previous reviews of Crown’s casino licence the regulator openly acknowledged the risk of dirty money flowing in through its doors from both domestic and international high rollers, saying in 2018 that Crown needed to undertake a “robust review” of anti-money laundering and counter-terror finance safeguards.

Before that, in 2014, after Four Corners revealed Crown’s joint venture in Macau was bringing in high rollers from China using junket operators with links to organised crime, there was barely a response from the regulator. A year earlier it had waved through its approval of the Casino to hold its licence to operate the Melbourne casino. 

Even after Crown admitted to money laundering last month, the regulator was more or less silent. Premier Daniel Andrews said the casino would not have its licence suspended in the wake of the admission.

Meanwhile an “urgent” investigation undertaken by the regulator in response to the explosive allegations unearthed by The Age, Sydney Morning Herald and 60 Minutes about Crown’s links to Asian crime gangs have languished, with the regulator yet to report back to the government. 

Government influence

Of course Crown’s close relationship with Spring Street is likely to account for much of the inaction by the Victorian regulator. As the NSW inquiry grilled Packer over money laundering allegations via videolink from aboard his yacht, the Victorian regulator issued a “please explain” notice to the company.

Packer 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, who both sit on Crown’s 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.

But Crown’s ties to Victoria go beyond the political. The Southbank casino is a major employer for the state, and provides huge revenues from gambling taxes that props up the state economy.

Gambling campaigner Andrew Wilkie told The Age that the regulator could not be trusted to investigate Crown.

But Monash University governance expert Yee-Fui Ng says the issue goes way beyond regulatory capture.

“There is a larger issue here about how we regulate government influence,” she said. “Part of that is regulating the money that flows to government from big corporations.”