A Crown with thorns - Packer's casino empire is not 'fit and proper'

I have been musing on the fortune of the Crown Casino business. Of recent days Justice Bergin made some momentous findings about the culture, governance and money laundering at Crown Casino and declared it was not a fit and proper company to hold a Bangaroo Casino licence without changes. Curiously though her findings were largely based on its Melbourne activities it remains fit in Melbourne.

That prayer was quoted on the front page of the Age. It is the last time I remember a prayer making the front page.

Christians have long been at the forefront of seeking to hold Crown accountable. In 1995 I remember the opening of the Melbourne Crown Casino and the then Premier Kennett saying this was a gaming led recovery for Victoria and the Casino was a beacon of hope and represented the new spirit of Victoria. I was shocked as the words ‘hope’ and ‘spirit’ are morally serious words and biblical concepts. Here they were being applied to a Casino. Along with others we immediately organized the Inter Church Gambling Taskforce and were the only body in the State challenging Crown’s dominance of the culture for its first twenty years. Nick McKenzie and the Nine newspapers took up the cudgels and this became front page news and exposés on Nine’s 60 Minutes.

The Churches taskforce’s first public rally was on the banks of the Yarra near the new Crown complex and the Anglican Archbishop opened it with prayer. That prayer was quoted on the front page of the Age. It is the last time I remember a prayer making the front page. We then organized the ‘Not the Casino party’ with musicians like Archie Roach and speakers like actor Rachel Griffiths to declare that spirit and hope were not to be found in a Casino.

The Catholic Archbishop Frank Little declared in his Christmas sermon that we will not be dominated by a Casino culture and Premier Kennett who was attending that mass was furious. Whilst our churches Taskforce focused on the spread of Pokies through the poorest postcodes it often came back to the ‘gaming led recovery’ epitomized in Crown. Why? Because it was so dominant in both the politics and the culture. Crown is two times bigger than the biggest Casino in Las Vegas and more insidious being in the centre of Melbourne; the catchment area for a huge population. In Vegas it is for destination gambling and you need to fly in and fly out – not stroll downtown!

The capture of both sides of politics, the Victorian regulator and the wider culture as it hosted the Brownlow Medal and every main celebrity event only increased Crowns’ arrogance and impunity. But now, thanks to the Bergin enquiry, these strongholds are being broken. As a Melbourne boy let me say ‘thankyou’ Sydney for this fearless enquiry.

In Sydney it is has been Church leaders taking the initiative.

But less prominent in the Bergin report was her recommendation that cash should be removed from Casinos and replaced with a cashless identity card for anyone who gambles. She extended this to the pokies as NSW has 10% of all the world’s pokies and enabling organized crime to launder their money applies equally to them. In the UK casinos are bound by ‘Know your customer’ policies and this is one of the reasons they do not have a big high roller clientele. Dirty money will always oppose revealing its identity which is why they have flocked to Macau or Crown in Melbourne. A cashless card to play and which you must top up will also be a mechanism according to Bergin to assist problem gamblers.

In Sydney it is has been Church leaders taking the initiative. A letter in Fairfax supporting the cashless cards made news. Signed by many leader including both the Anglican and Catholic Archbishops and Hillsong’s Brian Houston bravely took on the gambling industry to protect the community. This will be a tough fight as NSW got to 10% of the world’s pokies by the gambling industry owning too many politicians on both sides. But Minister Victor Dominello is an honest and courageous politician in pushing the cashless card which is no more a State intrusion than having an Opal card to travel.

As Jesus warned there are those that prefer the darkness to the light. We long for the day that what is done in secret, such as laundering proceeds from selling ice to the ruination of many kids’ lives, will  be fully exposed to the light and greedy connivance to prey on the addicted will be shouted from the rooftops.

Tim Costello is a senior fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity. He is the author of A Lot with a Little, and seven other books.