When we learnt, via the Crown royal commission, that former Daniel Andrews adviser Chris Reilly had ordered the company’s head of corporate affairs to threaten the Victorian gambling regulator with going over their head to the minister, we were given a glimpse of “old Crown”, as it’s now termed. The Crown that treated regulation as a voluntary exercise and the regulator as a minor inconvenience, and that wielded its political connections to prevent any impediments to its profit-making.
“Old Crown” is a thing of the past, the company, led by chair Helen Coonan, now insists. Indeed, according to the narrative offered to the royal commission yesterday by Coonan, it would have been even further in the past if she’d had her way, but she didn’t have the numbers on the board to dump its former CEO Ken Barton, or cooperate more with the Bergin inquiry in NSW, or defy the advice of Crown’s lawyers, who exercised a strange power over the board that, as counsel assisting suggested, seemed more akin to their being clients of Crown than the other way around.
But old Crown seems very much alive and well, and going to the minister over the head of the “regulator” remains a standard tactic, if yesterday’s revelation of Coonan’s letter to the Victorian gaming minister last week is anything to go by. We have only hints of what is contained in the letter, but Coonan used it to warn Gaming Minister Melissa Horne of the “catastrophic” consequences if Crown lost its licence, and that it was “not in the public interest for Crown to fail”.
Royal commissioner Ray Finkelstein was furious. The letter “seems to have one stated rather than unstated purpose, which is to avoid a particular finding that the commission might make, which will have the consequences that you set out in the letter,” he said.
Coonan tried to argue the letter was really about what safeguards Crown and the government could put in place to ensure Crown never went back to its old ways. Finkelstein disagreed, saying the letter seemed “on its face, plain old ordinary English language meaning, to mean, ‘make sure that the commission doesn’t make a particular finding’.”
The letter isn’t merely a catastrophe for Crown, it puts more pressure on Finkelstein, who now can’t make a finding that Crown should retain its licence subject to certain conditions and undertakings being met, without the suspicion that it is an outcome engineered by Crown and the Andrews government, rather than his own independent assessment of what is required.
Not many companies can write to a government to which they have contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations, whose former staffers they employ, whose leader is known to be close to that company, and warn they are too big to fail — right in the middle of a royal commission into them. Even fewer would think that was a sensible course of action. But as we’ve seen from other industries that were protected by politicians, once you’re inside that bubble of favouritism, your judgment starts failing and the line between pushing your luck and behaving utterly outrageously blurs fast.
There’s one difference, though, between new Crown and old. Old Crown wouldn’t have needed to write a letter to the minister. A phone call would be sufficient, perhaps from a well-connected director, if not from the chair, or from James Packer himself. Coonan put it in writing, leaving the evidence to filter out to Finkelstein, and showing that old Crown dies very hard indeed.