Raymond Newland: What ever happened to the casino control authority?

Jul 14, 2022
Crown_Sydney_from_Millers_Point,_NSW,_May_2021,_02
Image: Wikimedia Commons

The Bergin Inquiry in NSW has recommended the creation of an “Independent Casino Commission” after allegations that high rollers which Crown Casino knew had a history of money laundering, lost $1.1 billion dollars to the casino since 2016, some of which was carried in plastic bags and shoeboxes. How did we get here?

At this point you may be feeling a sense of déjà vu. Didn’t we used to have an independent casino regulator?

In the dying days of the Greiner government in 1992, the NSW parliament passed the Casino Control Act, constituting the Casino Control Authority and provisioning for NSW’s first Casino, then called Sydney Harbour Casino. The Authority was given sweeping powers and operational independence including a chief executive, independence from the minister, information gathering powers, and the ability to hire its own staff hold its own inquiries.

Throughout the 90’s as gambling was largely deregulated in Australia and gambling losses skyrocketed, particularly from poker machines which had just been legalised in VIC and expanded to pubs in NSW, there was growing public concern for the social impact of problem gambling.

In 1998 the Carr government with Michael Egan as gaming minister commissioned a report from the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal (IPART) into gambling in NSW, particularly around the structure of the regulators.

The report recommended the establishment of an “Independent Gaming & Liquor Control Authority” which would absorb the functions of the Casino Control Authority and the Liquor Administration Board. Importantly, the Authority would have the same power and independence of its predecessors and would engage in technocratic, merit based assessments of casino, club and hotel operations and licensing applications, as well as provide an annual report to parliament, and conduct research on the social and economic impacts of gambling.

In response to this report and another related report in 2004, the then Iemma government with Graham West as minister, passed the Casino, Liquor and Gaming Control Authority Act in 2007. This act decommissioned the Casino Control Authority and the Liquor Administration Board, and constituted their replacement, the Casino, Liquor and Gaming Control Authority (CLGCA).

This new regulator followed the report’s recommendations in some areas but critically, it could not hire its own staff or control its own budget.

This achieved the opposite of what the report intended. Now we had a regulator with less power, and double the workload. In the first five annual reports released, then chairperson of the board and human rights lawyer Chris Sidoti lamented these two issues which were never addressed through legislation.

Another of the 1998 IPART’s recommendations which was ignored was that the Authority maintain “comprehensive in-house expertise” in “all matters relating to the duties assigned to them”, a sentiment endorsed by the Casino Control Act which required members be experienced in such areas as information technology, human services, community work, consumer protection etc.

Today the board consists almost entirely of accountants and lawyers. Because if there’s anyone better equipped to assess the social impact of gambling and casinos, it’s a group of people whose area of expertise is exploiting the legal system for money…

In 2011, during the height of the national debate on casinos and gambling when then Prime Minister Julia Gillard was negotiating for supply with outspoken Tasmanian independent Andrew Wilke who made gambling regulation his key consideration, the newly elected NSW O’Farrell government amended the act to change the name of the Authority to the Independent Liquor and Gaming Authority (ILGA). Despite the new name asserting its independence, the authority was still unable to hire its own staff or control its own budget.

The biggest legislative challenges to the Authority however, arrived shortly after the 2015 election when Troy Grant was sworn into the Baird government as Deputy Premier and Minister for Racing. In November 2015, the Gaming and Liquor Administration Amendment Act passed, the final nail in the coffin to the independence of ILGA. The changes included:

  • Abolishing the Chief Executive
  • Clarifying that the Authority cannot employ staff
  • Making the Authority “subject to the control and direction of the Minister”
  • Requiring that the Authority consider submissions from the Minister’s department
  • Clarify that the Minister’s department secretary can make some of the decisions that are usually the responsibility of the Authority and
  • Allowing the Authority’s decisions to be reviewed by the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal

Since its inception, ILGA has been handed the mammoth task of regulating Casinos, liquor, and gambling, yet has not been provided with the resources necessary to operate efficiently and independently.

It has always been reliant on its parent department for staff and funding, and that department has changed from Department of the Arts, Sport and Recreation, to Communities NSW, to the Department of Trade and Investment, Regional Infrastructure and Services, Department of Justice, Department of Industry, Department of Customer Service, and now sits within the Hospitality and Racing cluster of the Department of Enterprise, Investment and Trade.

The ILGA in its various forms has been slowly eroded and sidelined, constantly tossed between departments, never able to catch a breath.

Despite gambling losses and alleged criminal activity being at an all-time high, there is very little appetite within the NSW government to take meaningful steps to regulate the industry. The words gambling, casino, or even gaming no longer feature in the title of the relevant minister.

With the NSW government accepting the recommendation of an Independent Casino Commission, we have now returned to the regulatory environment of the early 90’s. Now we’ll see if we can do it properly this time around.

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