Corporate Australia has perfected the art of capturing governments and manipulating regulators. Across the banking, mining and gaming industries, legions of lobbyists, government relations managers and PR spinners work diligently every day to push their agendas.
It’s a hustle that’s usually hidden from view. But thanks to the spectacular downfall of Crown and the three inquiries that have followed, we now have a much clearer picture of how this engine room of influence works.
The Victorian royal commission into Crown this week delivered more shocking evidence about the casino giant’s behaviour. It has also given us more detail about how it bullies governments into submission.
It was last year’s damning Bergin inquiry in New South Wales that first exposed in gruelling detail how Crown and its once untouchable chairman James Packer won approval for the Barangaroo casino in part by wooing journalists and senior politicians.
Former premier Barry O’Farrell waved through the project in 2012 via a new “three-stage framework” that allowed Crown to avoid a tender process. The move happened shortly after O’Farrell met with Packer at the home of influential broadcaster Alan Jones — a meeting that the inquiry found to be pivotal to the casino going ahead.
Packer used his relationship with some of the most powerful voices in the media to get the outcomes the company wanted from the government. Speaking at a dinner later that year at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art, organised by the Australian Financial Review, he told AFR journo James Chessell that the casino was his chance to “do something special” and follow in his late father’s footsteps. “This is more than just about money for me,” he said.
While Packer was schmoozing his way into building a new Sydney casino, he was also courting the regulator that oversaw his Perth casino. The West Australian royal commission into Crown has now heard evidence that casino inspectors treated Crown with a friendly touch. Lines were blurred between Crown and the regulator, with several inspectors admitting to being married to casino staff. And in 2010, the regulator scrapped rules that would have drastically restricted the casino’s junket operations — long believed to be linked to criminal activity and money laundering — at Crown’s request.
Packer has always insisted that Barangaroo is more than just a casino. His pledge to make the Barangaroo tower a Sydney icon came with all sorts of promises to get the deal over the line. The Bergin inquiry found the company promised the development would see up to $1 billion invested in NSW and a $400 million annual contribution to the NSW economy.
In Melbourne, Crown has always talked up its contribution to the city’s economy. And it has long been known to get favourable treatment from government in return. The Victorian royal commission has already exposed how the state government ignored Crown’s piecemeal attempts to limit problem gambling. One scheme, which allowed gamblers to set their losses at the ridiculous limit of $1 million a day, was touted by the government as a win for problem gambling.
But even before the royal commission began, Victoria’s special relationship with Crown was widely known. Its most famous display was in 2014 when powerful Crown associate Lloyd Williams was caught telling then opposition leader Daniel Andrews that Packer would “kick every goal” he could for the Labor party ahead of the state election. Packer subsequently denied Williams’ comment to Andrews was said on his behalf and denied he was taking sides in that election.
Friends in high places
Packer has always relied on a powerful network of former politicians and well-connected corporate veterans to sell his message and push his agenda. Labor heavyweights Karl Bitar and Mark Arbib walked straight into Crown’s head office after leaving political life, helping the billionaire wield power and influence with Labor governments. Paul Keating, who originally opposed the building of a casino on the Barangaroo site, has also been a vocal supporter.
Over more than a decade, Packer has stacked his Crown Resorts board with senior ex-government officials from both sides of politics. Former Liberal Party senator Helen Coonan was offered a place on the board in 2011, days after resigning from politics. She has now stepped into the role of executive chairman to pick up the pieces left behind by the damning Bergin inquiry. Former John Howard health secretary Jane “children overboard” Halton is also on the board.
At the Victorian royal commission, Coonan has been in the firing line, answering for Crown’s misdeeds over the decades, including a potential $167 million tax rort — something she kept secret from her fellow directors. In the glare of multiple inquiries and a looming AUSTRAC investigation, the era of Crown’s unrivalled power and influence might be coming to an end.