Crown in Controversy Over High Roller Secrets

New South Wales has censored portions of its agreement with Crown Resorts relating to VIP gaming at the company’s proposed Sydney megaresort (l.). Crown says they contain trade secrets. They also contain information about crime-related risks, and opponents say that should be made public.

Controversy over James Packer’s political influence in Australia has spread from his home base of Victoria to New South Wales, where at least one state lawmaker has demanded that censored information be made public relating to the potential for organized crime influence at his planned high-roller casino in Sydney.

Agreements between the state’s Independent Liquor and Gaming Authority and Packer’s Crown Resorts setting out the rules for the casino, including who may enter, the types of games that may be played, minimum bet limits and tax rates were made public in September. But sections of one document—the “VIP gaming management agreement”—were redacted by the authority, which claimed their release could be commercially damaging to Crown.

Crown Sydney, as the Darling Harbour resort is known, is slated to open in November 2019 with a license awarded by the NSW government on the basis of the company’s pledge that it will operate as a “restricted gambling facility,” without slot machines, and will cater to members only.

Packer has said the casino will be marketed to wealthy Asian high rollers to the casino, predominantly from China, meaning Crown is likely to partner with Chinese junket operators, and that has raised concerned about the possibility of involvement by organized crime groups and money laundering.

The NSW Parliament’s upper house, the Legislative Council, was scheduled last week to vote on whether to release the secret material, and Greens MP John Kaye obtained an opinion from an independent arbiter appointed by Parliament that says it should.

“It would be an insult to accountability and transparency if the parliament were to reject his findings,” Kaye said.

The Department of Premier and Cabinet and the ILGA have sided with Crown’s argument against the release, which contends that “competitors would become aware of the significant commercial restrictions imposed on Crown Resorts and would be able to misuse this information to their advantage”.

Down in Victoria, meanwhile, the government is defending a 35-year extension of Crown Melbourne’s license that includes a controversial provision for compensating the company at taxpayers’ expense for future problem gambling measures that would hurt its profits.

Crown won the extension, which also allows for expanded gaming, in exchange for A$900 million in payments over the life of the license, $250 million of it up front.

Opponents are fuming over the deal, which would reimburse Crown up to $200 million in lost profits, claiming it ties the hands of future governments in legislating restrictions designed to mitigate problem gambling and protect consumers.

But the state’s minister for gambling regulation, Edward O’Donohue, said, “Importantly, pre-commitment is not affected by the deal with Crown, and that is on track to be rolled out at the casino and every electronic gaming machine venue in Victoria by 1 December next year. Importantly, statewide gambling initiatives are also not affected.”

Pre-commitment, which allows slot players to limit their wagers, comes into force in Victoria next year. But further action such as lowering maximum bet limits to $1, as recommended by the Productivity Commission, would appear problematic under the deal.

The Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation estimates that 30,000 state residents have a gambling problem, and more than 100,000 are at risk of developing one. Slot machines are considered the leading cause, although the foundation is also concerned by the growth of online gambling.

Tom Cummings, a former problem gambler turned reform advocate, said both Liberal and Labor parties in Victoria have responded with “half-baked” policies.

“We know we can drop bet limits because it was done in Victoria a few years ago, when it dropped from $10 to $5,” he said. “It was simple and easy. But suddenly $5 to $1 is the hardest thing on Earth.”

O’Donohue has countered that the new agreement with calls for only “modest increase in the amount of gambling at Crown” while providing “regulatory certainty”.

“I’ve been to Crown’s responsible gambling area and met with people who work in this area,” he said. “I know it’s a matter they take seriously.”