The China syndrome

Crown Casino complex in Melbourne. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

There has never been a better demonstration of how corrupt, complicit and hypocritical government institutions have become in their dealings with China than what has gone down with Crown Resorts.  

October 19’s announcement to the Australian Securities Exchange that the govenrment financial regulator AUSTRAC had started an investigation into Crown is no surprise. The bigger question is why did it take so long?

It is 20 years since then-Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett granted Crown the first casino licence in Melbourne. What’s happened since suggests both state and federal authorities in Australia have been running a taxpayer-funded protection racket for Crown and its Chinese high rollers ever since.

AUSTRAC’s investigation involves potential breaches of anti-money laundering and counter-terrorism financing laws, including due diligence failures in monitoring high-risk customers.

These are Chinese VIP guests of Crown’s high-roller rooms facilitated by junket operators. Junkets ferry big spending high rollers to gambling venues globally in six-star, private jet comfort — allegedly with fast-tracked visas facilitated by Australian Border Force (ABF).

Crown is already enduring a public flogging by the NSW Independent Liquor and Gaming Authority’s Bergin Inquiry, which is considering whether the corporation is fit and proper to hold a casino licence in New South Wales for the new Crown casino in Sydney at Barangaroo.

The entire project depends on Chinese high rollers, and is due to open in December. Half the NSW front bench is on the VIP guest list.

The NSW inquiry was triggered not by any transnational law enforcement body (which have had Crown’s Chinese high rollers on the suspect list since at least 2013) but by video footage, leaked company documents and whistleblower interviews aired by the ABC's Four Corners and a joint investigation aired last year by Fairfax Media and Channel 9's 60 Minutes.

It’s all there: bags full of cash; private jets owned by Chinese high rollers waved through customs; moonlighting ABF officers providing bodyguard services; junket operators with known Triad links who help rich people smuggle money out of China and the obligatory bags and bags of cash — including $6.5 million Crown staff “discovered” in a cupboard at Crown behind a cash desk run by Suncity, a Chinese junket operator.

Between the arrest of 19 Crown staff in China in 2016 and an avalanche of bad publicity, it would seem the authorities have finally been embarrassed into action.

The entire affair is littered with premiers from three states, foreign ministers drinking champers with James Packer and Mariah Carey, AFB officers guarding known mobsters and even former Liberal senators. Helen Coonan, the current chair of Crown, was called to testify on October 20. She took the coward’s way out, throwing staff at Crown Melbourne under a bus — presumably one full of laundered Chinese money.

It started in 2013 when then-NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell granted Crown a 99-year licence to operate and fast tracked planning approval to build a VIP-only casino on previously public land at Barangaroo.

The O’Farrell government gifted it to Packer for a license fee of $100 million, plus an agreed percentage of future gaming taxes.

It was approved without public tender, public inquiry or any public interest or benefit being demonstrated. Then O’Farrell was taken down by the Independent Commission Against Corruption over a $3000 bottle of wine and resigned, replaced by Mike Baird.

Meanwhile, Packer was brokering deals with VIP junket operators based in Macau, the only place in China where gambling is legal. This included the Melco Group, which belongs to Stanley Ho's son, Lawrence Ho, who has significant interests in Macau and helped Packer open his prized Macau casino.

Stanley Ho had organised crime links of such concern to the NSW government that Packer's Barangaroo licence had a Stanley Ho exclusion clause banning his involvement.

Packer's favoured junket operator is Suncity, which until last year had high roller rooms in all Australia's major casinos. Suncity is a Macau-based junket operator part-owned by Alvin Chau, who was denied access to Australia over organised crime links.

In 2014, for reasons still not entirely clear, then-Premier Baird signed a deed with Packer that gives Crown the right to financial compensation up to 10.5 times any loss of business caused by any regulatory action by the NSW government over Barangaroo — except for total loss of licence. That would include any regulatory action taken by the current Bergin Inquiry.

If NSW issues fines against Crown, the state would be open to Crown for compensation 10.5 times their value plus compensation for loss of business, also times 10.5.

NSW would probably also have to give back the $100 million license fee Crown has already paid.

To revoke the Barangaroo licence completely — hence avoiding the compensation risk — NSW would have to have proved that Crown is unfit to hold a casino licence. By default that would then apply to Melbourne and Perth operations as well.

That action would cost the states literally billions of dollars in gaming and alcohol revenue, not to mention the impact on big-ticket tourism and thousands and thousands of jobs as well. It is highly unlikely the regulator is going to shut Crown down across the nation.

NSW will have no choice but to take whatever deal Crown offers: they cannot refuse. They bet against the house and lost.

Meanwhile, AUSTRAC’s handling of the banks demonstrates its preference for brokering large fines paid by the institutions instead of pursuing criminal convictions against the individual board members responsible — including for money laundering and child exploitation.

Probably the only sure bet is that it, too, will settle out of court.

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