Crown royal commission highlights Packer’s relationship with state heavyweights
Plans for a royal commission into Crown Melbourne has been the talk of the town recently, with the relationship between Crown’s majority shareholder James Packer and Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews firmly in the spotlight.
The Australian Financial Review reports that the relationship between Andrews and Packer dates back years and when the Premier served as gaming minister for two years, shortly after Kerry Packer’s death in late 2005.
The pair’s relationship speaks to the incredible political and cultural pull Crown has in Melbourne, sitting on the Yarra at the heart of the city’s Southbank precinct for 24 years.
That influence is clear just from considering the potential witness list for the newly announced royal commission, starting with Andrews and Packer.
“Melbourne’s culture and political torchbearers and gatekeepers were all enlisted, co-opted and in some cases paid by Crown; it has been a total brick wall while they all walked in lockstep,” Tim Costello, anti-gaming advocate and brother to former treasurer Peter said.
“Crown just became too entrenched and was seen as too big to fail.”
Costello believes the royal commission could finally change that equation, if Packer is forced to sell down his 37 per cent stake and a cleanout of the board truly signals that Crown is losing its grip on power in Melbourne.
The signs are all around.
Andrews, who political insiders say was wedged by the NSW Bergin report and new gaming minister Melissa Horne, will struggle to provide much political protection, despite pointing on Tuesday to the jobs it creates as the state’s largest single-site employer.
“Some people want to bulldoze the joint,” Andrews recently said, incredulous.
Recently ousted directors, including former AFL boss Andrew Demetriou and well-known Melbourne media man Harold Mitchell are likely to give evidence, but will be focused on protecting their own reputations.
Crown chair and former Liberal MP Helen Coonan is expected to bear the brunt of the inquiry, with insiders wondering how long she can survive two Labor-led inquiries in Perth and now in Melbourne.
Former Premier Jeff Kennett, who approved the casino in 1994, could also be called.
As could Melbourne private equity king Ben Gray, seen this weekend at the tennis with union powerbroker Luba Grigorovitch, to explain Packer’s threats to him when their proposed $9 billion Crown privatisation deal fell over in 2015.
Crown links to some of Melbourne’s biggest identities
There are also a number of Melbourne identities Crown has long relied on, from the daughter of past Liberal leader Andrew Peacock and Michael Kroger’s ex-wife Ann Peacock, as the public face and voice of Crown, to recently ousted Collingwood president and Crown’s favourite MC, Eddie McGuire, another Andrews’ mate along with Lindsay Fox.
There are Crown Melbourne’s deep links to Labor through the likes of former Labor secretary Karl Bitar and staffer Chris Reilly.
That’s before the legal showdown between former judge Ray Finkelstein, described by Crown insiders as “no pushover” and the leading Melbourne QC for Crown, Neil Young, cheered on by Melbourne’s legal Mr Fixit, Leon Zwier, and an army of lawyers.
Some are holding the line, such as Melbourne’s leading breakfast radio host Neil Mitchell, who argued that Melbourne “cannot lose Crown.”
“I think Crown is one of the best things to happen in Melbourne in the past 20 years,” he said.
“I don’t gamble, I hate the casino part, but the restaurants, the hotel, the superb function rooms, all of this built on what was a mud flat on the Yarra.
“The danger is if the licence is revoked and a new owner comes along is it could be foreign ownership that doesn’t understand Melbourne or some type of equity fund that runs it down.”