JACK WATERFORD. Half-hearted inquiries into casino crime

Aug 6, 2019

Where were the former politicians and apparatchiks who became Packer lobbyists when the spotlight focused on Crown?

There can hardly be anyone, in politics, the media or the public, who can be greatly surprised that the casino industry has dubious connections with people providing to them the so-called “whales” willing to gamble millions. Or that these whales are treated as valuable commodities, including travel, accommodation, credit, prostitutes and alcohol as well as anything to make their experience a happy one.

Nor does one have to be a great cynic to imagine that the very nature of casinos, such as their ability  to launder money, and their intrinsic vices attract figures from the underworld, the demi-monde as well as arrangers, procurers, panderers, urgers, and other rent seekers. Likewise that there would be vaguely more respectable people whose incomes came from introductions, commissions  and a slice of the action.

Perhaps Australia, alone of all countries, has discovered ways of keeping out organised crime, professional criminals and bribed, blackmailed, compromised or compliant public officials. But it is fairly safe to bet that a good many Australians understand that the very business of making money from gambling, mostly from those who can ill afford to lose, involves a terrible corruption of the spirit for all concerned, and not uncommonly, the illegal exchange of money or favours.

Casinos may be at the glamorous end of gambling, although the legal ones take a relatively small percentage of the money legally gambled in Australia.  There is also racing and sport, including, these days, the on-line enabling of it, and the poker machines in clubs and pubs specialising in consciously impoverishing a proportion of their customers by holding out the pretence that they can gamble to win.

From the point of view of government, any guilt about the enormous misery and suffering inflicted, mostly on the poor, is more than made up for by vast sums, now in the billions,  gathered in taxes on gambling, particularly by state governments.

In the event that a small number of politicians cannot avert their gaze, there are any number of former politicians, and former officials of political parties, particularly from the Labor Party employed by the gambling industry to remind old colleagues of the social dividend involved. An enormous number of these have, over the years, worked for the Packer family. Packer political influence and clout has made state and federal politicians, on both sides of politics, quake, rushing to offer the family free real estate, exclusive licences and monopolies, including historically in television stations.   Such folk, like many miners, are great champions of markets and unbridled capitalism, yet have made their fortunes in demanding, and getting, protection from competition in a free market. That James Packer no longer has media power, and has withdraw from active management of his affairs, may be emboldening some of the criticism.

Would be gambling operators press their cases for licences or concessions (such as, in Canberra, poker machines) arguing they will bring money into the local economy, particularly from tourism but also from the employment provided by the casino, and the food, accommodation and entertainment that will be a part of the package. The money going out of the economy (or into the casino’s pockets) will not, it is said, be coming primarily from locals, but from high-rollers from abroad, anxious to spend their money here. At most casinos, in fact, virtually all of the money comes from locals, and not a few of them have hopeless addictions, as well as difficult relationships with folk ancillary to the casino industry, involved in providing credit, and, not uncommonly, in collection of debts.

The disclosures by Nine journalists during the past week raised questions about whether Border Force and other public officials had been compromised. It might be through the provision of easy visas and easy and unsupervised entry into Australia, or by generally facilitated entry and exit of gamblers from abroad.  Others might have been compromised by the entry and exit of cash, credit or other commodities provided to whales and high rollers. Discussion of the arrests and punishment in China two years ago of a score of Crown Casino employees and associates also invited questions about the knowledge of the owners and controllers of the casino of any external illegal practices, and their connivance at trying to frustrate foreign laws. What ministers, past and present,  knew and had done to facilitate any corruption or abuse of power, and the role of cops, those involved in monitoring and tracking dirty money, including, possibly, terrorist money, was also being canvassed.

The only initial surprise for me seemed to be the absence of the usual urgers and lobbyists on behalf of the industry. Their silence may not have been of embarrassment; perhaps their machinations, on politicians and officials, were continuing in private, in the normal fashion.

A later surprise was the pretence by ministers and officials that the questions invited by the disclosures were new to them, even if they did not really merit any public panic. There were bold souls who suggested that the whole problem underlined the need for some broad-based federal anti-corruption commission, along the lines of  the NSW (or Hong Kong) Independent Commission Against Corruption, but the government complacently said that any issues of corruption by Commonwealth law enforcement officials, including in Border Force, Home affairs or immigration, could be dealt with by the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity. It was said, even by Mark Dreyfus, Labor’s shadow spokespussycat on such matters, to have powers akin to a royal commission.

To those who pointed out that ACLEI had no remit outside the federal law enforcement community, and no powers to make inquiries about the activities of politicians, compromised officials outside ACLEI’s jurisdiction, or what was done by state politicians, bureaucrats or police, the Attorney-General, Christian Porter said that if ACLEI found any evidence of corruption by such people, it had the power, and perhaps the duty, to report such matters, either to other folk inside the “Integrity community”, or to governments.

Porter and others did not seem greatly concerned about the fact that ACLEI’s definition of corruption, as interpreted by it, tended to mean only provable breach of the criminal law, and to not  embrace much discreditable conduct involving poor stewardship of public resources, the exercise of power for improper purposes, the failure to do one’s duty, or reckless, incompetence or improvident management of resources.  That, of course, is quite consistent with the coalition’s approach to demands for an integrity framework going beyond the law enforcement community.  It favours one of very limited powers, jurisdiction and accountability, consciously hobbled as to who could complain, who be heard, and who could know of what had happened. Pretty much like the ACLEI, in fact.

It is sometimes suggested that ACLEI has been tremendously successful in keeping corruption and misbehaviour outside the Commonwealth law enforcement system, which embraces, beyond the AFP, bodies such as the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission, and Austrac (which tracks money movements) as well as Border Force, and law enforcement functions in a number of agencies including agriculture.  ACIC seem suddenly galvanised to a major investigation of illegal gambling, although it is hard to imagine that it has never had interest, or understanding, in the risks. ACIC head, Michael Phelan spoke of state and federal police and intelligence agencies having uncovered damning insights into vulnerabilities within casinos in Australia.  Of course, every state has casino control authorities supposedly protecting the public interest, as well as keeping out criminals, but some have seemed rather more partners in casino operations than serious watchdogs, particularly in monitoring problem gamblers.

ACLEI has enormous powers of bugging, surveillance, compulsory questioning, and various forms of legal blackmail on people in durance vile. As might have been noticed from the prosecution of the girlfriend of a former Border Force commissioner this week, it has the power to order people not to disclose even by pillow talk that one has been or is to be questioned. It has the power to hold open hearings, although it has never held one. Its public reports are sanitised and devoid of detail. Most of its catches are small fry, and well below the quality and quantity picked up by anti-corruption bodies in other jurisdictions throughout the world  — inviting one to think that there is something peculiar in the federal sphere that makes all but minor deviance from propriety unlikely if impossible. But even insiders paid for independence of judgment, such as the Auditor-General, have been scathing about its management, sense of purpose, efficiency and effectiveness.  That there is official pretence otherwise is testament either to complacency, or to the actual desire that any integrity measures are weak and ineffective.

Meanwhile, there are any number of other integrity matters not readily able to be passed on to ACLEI, or to the sort of toothless integrity model the Commonwealth favours, even if its model had advanced since last Christmas. Calls for an inquiry into the management of upstream water in the Murray Darling system were temporarily stilled by a request that the Auditor General investigate, even if the Auditor has limited power to investigate corruption, or the involvement of politicians, as is frequently alleged. There are also serious allegations about decision making with some small-scale infrastructure and electorate grants.

And energy minister Angus Taylor has made very heavy water of defending his interventions on grasslands, and in denying the existence of any conflicts of interests. So badly indeed has he been doing it, that Labor might prefer to have him remain, asserting his innocence, rather than have him fall on his sword.

All of these matters are, of course, partisan ones, if not on the basis that rorting, or potential rorting is the exclusive preserve of the coalition, and that Labor, or independents, are entirely pure.  Indeed Scott Morrison’s focus on union integrity has yet to come to the potential that union power has for corruptly affecting pre-selections, or votes on issues before parliament. Strange, for example, how reforms to poker machines, promised to Independent Andrew Wilkie by Julia Gillard as part of her 2010 deal to form minority government got quietly strangled inside the party councils.

Naturally, a dispirited Labor Party is keen to get some scalps and score some hits in the parliament, not least on the issue of corruption. It might be better if there was more effort focused on the general principle of strong integrity controls, and less on immediate advantage, given that no short-term outcomes, or hits, are likely to affect its capacity to win the next election.

The next federal election will not be until 2022. All things being equal it seems unlikely that Labor can so organise its own affairs that the tactical positions it takes in parliamentary debates over the next few months are going to determine whether or not it can win that election. It should be asking itself why Scott Morrison is campaigning right now as if that election were to be tomorrow, trying to commit Labor to positions it does not want while he keeps his own options as wide as possible.

There will always be Labor purists who will see some betrayal of party principle if Labor does not fight to its last breath against any coalition proposition contrary to some position the party has had as policy, or which it regards as basic to its philosophy. The coalition has the numbers in the House of Representatives, the primary forum of parliament and can, thus, to a degree determine the agenda. It is presently crafting legislation it describes as urgent merely for the purpose of embarrassing the opposition. It is designed to commit Labor to policies upon which it failed at the election, or to have it admit that the coalition had it right, or to rub its nose in issues and policies which divide Labor, or which separate Labor from some of the constituencies which it wants to win back.  Scott Morrison would very much like to win the next election, like the one he won some months ago, by making the opposition record and policy the issue, rather than his own.

It’s a trap an opposition does not have to fall into, particularly if it accepts a limited mandate theory, at least so far as the House of Representatives is concerned. There need not be a division on every clause of a bill, which has the effect of letting the opposition be verballed or pinned to some particular approach taken by the government.  There is nothing to prevent Labor waving through legislation  — at least in the representatives —  while making it clear that it would, in government approach the matter differently. A time will come before the next election at which the government and the public will have the right to demand some close detail on alternative approaches, but, in the meantime, Labor would be better in putting forward a general philosophical approach to the way we are governed. The next federal election is not going to be decided on casinos, but it might be on integrity in government.

Jack Waterford is a former Editor of The Canberra Times


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