Andrews throws Crown a lifeline disguised as punishment

Andrews throws Crown a lifeline disguised as punishment
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The need to conduct three separate independent and expensive inquiries is the best argument yet for creating a national casino regulator.

Like NSW, Victoria has appointed a highly credentialed judge (Ray Finkelstein) to conduct the inquiry and will doubtless draw on much of what was uncovered during the NSW hearings and what was contained in the NSW report by Commissioner Patricia Bergin.

When Victoria’s royal commission is completed there is a reasonable chance that Crown’s transformation to make itself suitable will be sufficiently progressed that it will be suitable enough to satisfy the Victorian government.

Andrews should have pursued the more appropriate course of action and announced a proper independent inquiry back in 2019 when Nine media outlets uncovered evidence of money laundering and the infiltration of organised crime at Crown’s operations.

If that wasn’t enough, the Tasmanian Independent Andrew Wilkie’s claims of money laundering at Crown Melbourne – complete with footage of freezer bags of cash being handed over inside a Crown casino high roller room – should have raised the alert within Victoria’s casino regulatory circles.

The action by the NSW regulator has shamed Victoria into action. And last week’s decision by WA made Victoria’s inaction all the more glaring.

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Victoria and WA coming late to the investigative party has allowed the casino to keep its doors open in both states, enabling Crown to have avoided any serious financial consequences of years of licence abuse.

The delay in opening its doors in Sydney will deprive the company of some revenue for maybe a year but the Victorian casino is Crown’s cash cow. Having the doors of Crown Melbourne closed for much of the six months to December resulted in the parent company’s $120 million loss for the period.

(It is noteworthy that Crown’s share price fell only 2.5 per cent on Tuesday. If shareholders perceived any real threat to its gaming revenue, the stock would have been in free-fall.)

Rather than being punished for the sins of the past, very Crown-favourable agreements entered into by the NSW and Victorian state governments have created a legal minefield if either government seeks to commercially punish the casino group through disciplinary action.

For example in NSW, once the regulator found Crown unsuitable to hold a licence, it had an obligation to work with the company on a path to rectification. So the NSW regulator has found it necessary to work with Crown’s chairman Helen Coonan to implement reforms. This is despite the fact that Coonan has been on the Crown board for 10 years.

Meanwhile, Andrews described any attempts by his government to rely on the unsuitability finding in NSW as akin to a “lawyers picnic”. His reticence until now to move on Crown can be explained by the fact that the company is a generous source of state tax revenue and the largest single-site employer.

Andrews worked the loudhailer on Tuesday to assure the public that he is willing to rip up Crown’s licence if the royal commission finds it unsuitable.

There is a chance the Victorian inquiry might find something even more sinister than what was uncovered in NSW by Bergin. If not, Andrews will then be able to piggyback the reform agenda being undertaken in NSW.

Funny how that works.

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