Australia’s newest gambling palace, Crown Sydney, is finally open after years of controversy about its development, its ownership, the business practices of its owner in Melbourne, and the need for even more ways to lose money.
On the latter at least, Crown (like its fellow gaming duopolist Star Entertainment) has made much of its focus on VIP gamblers, the very wealthy high-rollers who aren’t as troubled by the loss of a few bucks as the punters who frequent its gaming-machine floors.
Casino companies have entrenched themselves in every major Australian city, with little attention paid to their business practices or their impact on the communities they loudly proclaim to serve.
Nowhere is this more the case than Brisbane, where Star has managed to get its hands on 10 blocks of the CBD fronting the Brisbane River to build a $2.5 billion complex of apartments, hotels, restaurants and gaming floors.
Well take a deep breath — because that looks likely to change soon.
Amid a range of inquiries set up by the Palaszczuk government — that has recently discovered integrity is an issue — is a very broad inquiry into the suitability of Star to hold casino licences in Queensland. It bounces off the Bell inquiries in NSW which saw Star lose not only its board but most of its executives.
Along the way, Star conceded its shortcomings had made it unsuitable to hold a casino licence in that state, although it claimed to have rectified them to a point where it could now pass muster. Star directors in their evidence to the Bell inquiry said they had acted in belief they were culturally different from Crown, whose problems were earlier revealed. (If only that was an excuse for shoplifters.)
Queensland was slow to react but finally set up its own inquiry led by former Supreme Court Justice Robert Gotterson in May.
That inquiry will burst into the public view next week and focus on a number of issues that will determine Star’s future. They include whether the same practices that allowed widespread money laundering in Sydney were replicated in its Gold Coast and Brisbane casinos. Of particular interest — according to an opening statement by counsel assisting, Jonathan Horton QC — is whether gamblers barred in Sydney were simply shipped north to play in Star’s Queensland casinos.
It will also look at the impact on the community of the expansion of Star’s gambling footprint, which was allowed by the Palaszczuk government without a single moment of community consultation. And, just as importantly, it will consider whether casino regulation has kept up with what was considered stringent control when the state’s first casino opened in the mid-1980s but just hasn’t kept pace with modern developments — particularly with regard to money laundering.
The Star development is heading towards domination of the Brisbane skyline but things haven’t been smooth sailing. Completion is the better part of a year behind and construction costs, due to poor weather and COVID, are 10% above the original $2.5 billion.
The ownership of the Brisbane casino is also interesting. While Star is the operator, it is a development partner with two Chinese property and retail companies, Far East Consortium and Chow Tai Fook Enterprises. Both seem unaffected by the Chinese property downturn but, along with Star shareholders, they will be asked to help fund the extra development costs of the Brisbane project.
Gotterson, like the NSW commissioner, will have a range of remedies available if he finds Star in Queensland suffered the same shortcomings as Star in Sydney. Indeed, it would be truly amazing if a business with shared management, board and customers did not suffer such shortcomings. If the gamblers banned by NSW regulators were encouraged to set up shop on the Gold Coast (famously a sunny place for shady people), the shortcomings could be even more profound.
His remedies go all the way to declaring it unsuitable to hold the licence, a decision which would then leave a big hole in Brisbane’s CBD as it is unlikely the four hotels, 50 cafes, restaurants and bars, and 2000 apartments in development can be viable without the magnet of a gaming floor packed with high-flyers.
But this is a prospect that must be contemplated. And, as is so often the case, it could have been avoided if the corners hadn’t been cut. For decades, we’ve poked fun at Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s habit of counting the cranes on the skyline as a mark of progress. But nothing much has changed, really. On working days, there are up to 10 cranes on the Star site. And it will be issues of integrity that decide who they will be working for.
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