The new ownership of James Packer’s Crown casino empire simply puts a fresh coat of paint on a rotten enterprise, writes Mark Sawyer.
The people of Victoria and NSW should be celebrating this brisk winter night. The US investment house chasing control of Crown, purveyor of fine gaming establishments, is closer to taking control of the casino behemoth. On Thursday Blackstone passed more regulatory hurdles towards full private ownership of the Melbourne and Sydney party palaces – the former the host of the southern capital’s most glittering shindigs, the latter in showroom condition, not having been allowed to open yet.
The people of Western Australia should be joining the party soon, assuming the bid for Crown Perth (formerly Burswood Casino) passes state regulators. Then a date can be set for the Federal Court to approve the transfer.
Blackstone styles itself as ”the world’s largest alternative investment firm”. But the new owner’s bona fides are beside the point. What isn’t ”alternative” is the idea that Australians might just be able to live without these bloodsucking installations. Money talks louder than that. Blackstone’ takeover offer, accepted by Crown shareholders last month, is worth $8.9 billion.
Crown’s Dubai-style tower (an unlovely structure that now dominates Sydney’s skyline) has lain unopened for a year, having failed to persuade regulators that it would not be a haven for criminality. Now its general manager promises that ”this will be the best gambling environment – certainly in the country – and probably in the world.” But wasn’t one casino enough? Sydney already had The Star. Many a teenager has chucked up in front of that palace of sophistication (not that we would imply they were served there).
Australian regulators do sniff out the bad eggs. In NSW in 1987, they twigged to Donald Trump not being a fit and proper person to operate Sydney’s first casino. But the respectability of an operator means little to what goes through the gaming tables and poker machines. It’s like expecting the manager of the restaurants at the SCG or MCG to control the players out on the field.
“Our approval comes with stringent conditions,” Victoria’s gambling commission chair Fran Thorn said.
It surely does. It always does. You don’t have to be a do-gooder (wowser, in olden days talk) to deplore the entrenchment of this phenomenon. Australia has gone from no casinos to 14 in the half century since the first one opened. That was in Tasmania, and if any politicians imagined that Wrest Point would turn the state into an economic powerhouse, they would be disappointed today.
(Maybe it was Ian Fleming’s fault. James Bond in a tuxedo, surrounded by Jacqueline Bisset types, at the blackjack table. The reality of the clientele is a bit less enchanting. But walk past, say The Star, and you are bombarded by images of chiselled hunks and supermodels out on the town.)
It’s not just the money that washes through these palaces of high tack (in his way, Trump was ideally suited) on behalf of criminal enterprises. It’s not just the broken homes, the unpaid debts, the family misery. The punters who die after scuffles with bouncers.
No, it’s not just the illicit fortunes that are built by criminal networks. At least that’s fodder for entertaining movies.
It’s the pathetic relationship between the casino moguls and our rulers. The economics of casinos are so baked in to the budgets of state governments that any windback in the time of anybody alive today is nigh on unthinkable. The last coal mine will have been closed before the last casino goes. But hey, Crown is advertising 1900 job vacancies.
The Blackstone takeover takes Crown out of public hands. James Packer would no longer have a share in the enterprise he founded. It seems like only yesterday that a fresh-faced, less careworn Packer was promising us a concerted program to employ Indigenous people at his casinos. His heart was in the right place. But couldn’t he have stayed in TV and magazines? The Packers knew how to run those.