James Packer during the NSW casino inquiry (NSW) (Image: AAP)

Lawyers old enough to remember what it was like appearing before Patricia Bergin, when she was Justice Bergin and chief judge of the Commercial List in the NSW Supreme Court, knew there was a solid chance she’d do some serious damage as head of the inquiry into Crown’s fitness to hold the Barangaroo casino licence.

I remember. It was like fronting the headmistress with your pants already down.

And, well, Bergin did not disappoint. She found that Crown is not presently a “suitable person” to hold the licence and its CEO Ken Barton “is no match for what is needed at the helm of a casino licensee”. She made it very clear that, in her view, Barton and two other directors — Andrew Demetriou and Michael Johnston, both aligned to James Packer — will have to go. Others have already gone.

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This morning, Crown announced that Johnston and fellow director Guy Jalland have resigned, with no word as to why.

It’s not the complete end of the world; Bergin laid out a pathway for Crown to regain its suitability, if it is prepared to swallow some unpleasant medicine. That’s in addition to the public shame which she has already doled out.

Bergin described Crown’s corporate “attributes” in these terms: “facilitating money laundering, exposing staff to the risk of detention in a foreign jurisdiction and pursuing commercial relationships with individuals with connections to triads and organised crime groups”.

“It is obvious that such attributes would render an applicant quite unsuitable to hold a casino licence in NSW,” she went on.

Bergin was scathing on many fronts, including how Crown had responded to the media investigations which led to the official inquiry.

“Corporate arrogance … is an apt description,” she noted.

As to what Crown has to do, that will include a “purging” of the whole board (except, intriguingly, company chair Helen Coonan), a comprehensive audit to ensure that there’s no remaining criminal infiltration lurking in the company’s accounts, and probably a sell-down of Packer’s effective controlling interest.

In addition, the casino industry needs its own standalone regulator with the powers of a standing royal commission. The scourge of “junket” operators — basically, pimps for the casino industry’s offerings — should be banned.

Given the stakes (sorry), there’s little doubt that overtime will be worked within the NSW government to ensure that Crown is able to get back to “suitability” and Sydney’s second casino can open as planned. Business will return to normal.

Nevertheless, what Bergin has done shouldn’t be underestimated: she’s publicly smacked a Packer.

In Sydney, that’s never been a done thing. The monstrosity on the Barangaroo shoreline viscerally reminds us of this. The rule has always been “what the Packers want, the Packers get”. As Bergin recorded, the original unsolicited proposal for the casino complex was made in person by Packer to then-premier Barry O’Farrell in 2012, “at the home of media identity Mr Alan Jones”. Mmm hmm.

Of course, there remains a necessary level of cognitive dissonance in all of this; the idea that a casino is something for the running of which anyone can ever be suitable. It is, after all, the perfection of a purely antisocial purpose: the relieving of wealth from people who mostly can’t afford it, by an institution which is guaranteed to always win. Pragmatic justifications for the existence of gambling houses can be found, but none that are connected to a genuine social good.

Not that I personally mind the existence of casinos. I’d just prefer we were honest about what they do and why they exist. That approach would more securely support the type of regulatory rigour for which Bergin has called, and might have avoided the slackness at all levels — governments, regulators and licensee — which allowed Crown to slide into the amoral corporate sewer where Bergin found it has been living.

It should be pointed out, in fairness, that Crown has never operated a casino in NSW. Its failings to date have happened in other jurisdictions, principally Victoria. The opprobrium Bergin has dished out should fall, substantially, across the border.

For NSW, it should be a proud day. A wolf has been kept from a door, at least momentarily. Commissioner Bergin has done the state a service of generational value. Time will tell whether the state takes up the challenge she has laid down.

This story has been updated to reflect the resignation of Guy Jalland and Michael Johnston.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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