Former Federal Court judge Ray Finkelstein, who has been commissioned to run a rapid fire royal commission into Crown Resorts, has been a favourite of senior Victorian Labor figures since retiring from the bench in 2011.
In 2014, he gave legal advice that the Liberal Napthine government’s rushed East West Link toll road contracts weren’t enforceable.
This allowed then-opposition leader Daniel Andrews to go to that year’s election promising to tear up the contract without consequences — which didn’t prove accurate in the end as more than $1 billion in compensation was eventually paid.
In 2011, then-prime minister Julia Gillard and her communications minister Stephen Conroy also appointed Ray to run the Finkelstein Inquiry into media regulation following the Murdoch media phone hacking scandals.
Get Crikey FREE to your inbox every weekday morning with the Crikey Worm.
This didn’t end up going anywhere and sparked a ferocious backlash from News Corp when Finkelstein recommended the establishment of a News Media Council which could lead to court sanctions for media companies.
Compared with the hours of evidence that Rupert Murdoch gave at the UK phone hacking inquiries, Australia’s equivalent was a missed opportunity as Finkelstein didn’t even call Murdoch to give evidence, even when Murdoch happened to be in Melbourne during the opening days of his inquiry.
For his Crown inquiry, due to report by August 1, Finkelstein should sign up the same counsel assisting who delivered so spectacularly during the recent Bergin inquiry, and then call everyone from James Packer to Helen Coonan, Jeff Kennett, Daniel Andrews and various former Victorian gaming ministers and regulators.
Melbourne-based private equity player Ben Gray should also be required to explain Packer’s threats to him when their proposed $9 billion Crown privatisation deal fell over in 2015.
The relationship between Andrews and Packer should also be closely examined. It has been close for many years, dating back to Andrews’ time as a party official involved in fundraising. It flourished when Andrews served as gaming minister for two years shortly after Kerry Packer’s death in late 2005.
Damon Johnston produced a nice wrap of the Packer-Andrews relationship in The Australian today, including the 2014 quote from Dan where he admitted that “I’ve known James Packer for years”.
During his five-plus years as premier, no sector has received a softer run from Andrews than the gambling industry and Crown has been central to that, as Nick McKenzie pointed out in The Age today.
Andrews claims to respect good governance but in 2017 tolerated an outrageous planning process that saw the premier personally intervene to greenlight a 323 metre skyscraper at Queensbridge Square adjacent to Crown Melbourne, despite objections from Planning Minister Dick Wynne and City of Melbourne. The permit ended up lapsing after Crown failed to start construction within two years.
It was telling that Andrews failed to turn up at the royal commission press conference yesterday, leaving it to the recently installed Gaming Minister Melissa Horne who was only elected to Parliament in 2018.
Horne’s predecessor as gaming minister Marlene Kairouz was privately opposed to taking any meaningful regulatory action against Crown but resigned after last year’s gob-smacking 60 Minutes hit on her factional colleague Adem Somyurek. Kairouz is now in the Federal Court fighting her expulsion from the Labor Party over branch stacking allegations.
Horne is clearly a very different gaming minister. She has impressed long-time Crown critic and gambling reform advocate Tim Costello, even consulting him on the details of the royal commission ahead of yesterday’s announcement.
They clearly haven’t been satisfied by Crown’s response to the Bergin inquiry. And why would they be pleased to see Sydney-based former Liberal senator Helen Coonan emerge as executive chairman of Crown Resorts on a ridiculous $2.5 million a year despite having served 10 years on the board, including a stint as chair of the key governance committee.
With Harold Mitchell’s belated resignation from the Crown board yesterday, the company is down to just five directors, none of whom live in Melbourne, which is contractually required to be Crown’s head office.
Company secretary Mary Manos was the latest executive to depart last week so it is not yet clear who is actually going to be running the company, let alone serving on the board.
James Packer is showing no signs of being prepared to sell down his 37% stake in Crown but the upcoming WA and Victorian judicial inquiries into Crown will make it much harder for him to hang on.
Ultimately, Crown needs to emerge from all these inquiries with a majority of new directors, none of whom are affiliated with James Packer.
At that point the company itself or a group of Crown shareholders should sue Packer and his cronies for badly mismanaging Crown’s affairs and imperilling its licences, particularly when it came to industrial-scale money laundering in partnership with organised crime-associated junket operators.
The Bergin inquiry has already delivered truckloads of evidence for such a court action against Team Packer and the Finkelstein royal commission should aim to build on this foundation.