A grubby and corrupting traffic in misery

Feb 17, 2021

Commissioner Bergin’s report did not devote a word to the sleazy and improper way James Packer was effectively given Barangaroo by a new Liberal Premier, Barry O’Farrell. And not a word about the slew of former Labor and Liberal Party apparatchiks who moved on to make their fortunes prostituting their inside knowledge and their access to politicians.

Credit – Wikimedia

If I were asking if Australian casino managers were fit and proper people, I would begin with an analysis of their relationships with government, not with organised crime, so far as that is not the same thing. There’s a good chance that the former is the more corrupting, the more corrosive of the public interest, and the more a cancer on the lives of thousands of Australian families.

There were more than 600 pages of tight commentary and analysis of power structures and processes in Crown casino in commissioner Bergin’s report on whether the operation was being run by fit and proper people. She thought not. But she did not devote a word or a sentence to the sleazy and improper way by which James Packer was effectively given Barangaroo by a new Liberal Premier, Barry O’Farrell.

Not a word about the stable of former Labor and Liberal Party apparatchiks who moved on to make their fortunes prostituting their inside knowledge and their access to politicians so as to enhance his fortunes. Only passing reference to the way members of the Packer family have adopted, then dumped, prominent sports players, television “personalities’’ and even journalists over the years. Nor the others making their money by representing other gambling interests, hotels and clubs, the wine and liquor industry. It is a dirty and a shameful business, not in the least better or more honourable because of the supposed regulation of some lobbying, or the fact that perfectly decent people, even former politicians, become advocates for more respectable causes or businesses.

The mental health problems, and more recent effective withdrawal from public life, of James Packer may deserve him some public sympathy and perhaps some understanding. But in many respects his personality and business history, including a history of abuse and threats of people who stand in his way, are all of a one with the careers of his father and his grandfather, both feared and revered as great businessmen. Yet James’ father Kerry, seen as a bold entrepreneur, not least with cricket and football, and his sale and re-purchase of Channel Nine, was over-rated as a businessman. Had he bought government bonds with what he inherited from his father, Sir Frank, he would have died a richer man. I doubt James will be able to say even that.

The Packers, the Fairfaxes and the Murdochs were never great capitalists operating on free markets. They have always sought shelter from competition, even now from Google and Facebook. Their wealth was built on monopolies, mostly given free by government.

Owning newspapers mostly meant they could dominate markets for advertising, or advertising of a particular sort. But it was the granting of commercial TV licences that took their wealth to new levels. Governments, usually Liberal ones, handed out the licences to the established media players because of fear of their power and influence, real or imagined, over voters. In many cases, as now, favours have been given even before they have been asked.

The biggest problem of successive ministers for communications, including Helen Coonan, has been in anticipating the need for changes in the rules so as to accommodate media barons – often a difficult task if the agendas of particular barons clashed. At times over the years, extra monopolies – particularly over gambling – have been conferred, usually without any public quid pro quo for the value of the licences given.

Pre-emptive buckles, or a genuine common belief in the particular regulatory environment temporarily being sought (for advantage) by politicians, rarely earns long-term loyalty in return:  those seeking return favours are asked not what they have done to deserve it, but what they have done lately.

But if the Bergin inquiry had many missing chapters, it also had many missing points. After ploughing to about half-way, the reader might have been forgiven for thinking it an inquiry into whether Crown was well owned, or directed or managed, rather than whether the public interest was served by having them, or anyone else, given a pick-pocketing licence.

It  has been simply taken as read – via a “trust us” decision by a deeply compromised government – that new players should operate in the market. The question was whether Crown had so far demonstrated the integrity, probity and purity of heart, to be the one.  What sunk it most of all was that senior managers – mostly associated with original Packer control – were willing to talk the talk about tough controls to keep things fair and to keep criminals out.

But when choices were called for that might have had made the casino less attractive to big money, criminal or not, managers were reluctant, resistant, and had a tendency to look to the letter, rather than the spirit, of the law. In the spirit of just that, managers also tried to hide adverse reports behind claims of legal privilege, having laundered them though the law firms.

The first chapters of the books on government corruption, bribery, jobbery and misuse of public resources, were written on the history of gambling, grog, blackmail and sexual sin. Under the modern regime the potential for graft and improper “earns” is increasing exponentially, as, probably the prospect of post-career employment. No wonder there is so little official interest in making the system more honest. Only public outrage can overwhelm this.

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