WA gaming royal commission kicks off

by Charlotte Lee Last Updated
Former WA casino chief set to front royal commission

The West Australian royal commission into Crown Resorts has commenced, with commissioner Neville Owen chairing the state’s first royal commission in 20 years.

WA Today reports that Mr Owen said the inquiry will examine “grave matters of private and public interest” and report on two interconnected issues, the regulation of casinos in WA and whether Crown Resorts is a suitable licensee of the Perth casino.

The royal commission and a concurrent one in Victoria follow the key findings of the NSW Bergin Inquiry, which ruled Crown unfit to hold a licence for its new $2.2 billion Sydney casino.

The NSW inquiry found Crown facilitated money laundering through two company bank accounts, went into business with figures linked to powerful Asian crime syndicates, and disregarded the safety of its staff in China before 19 were arrested and jailed there in 2016.

The Bergin inquiry found James Packer, who owns 37 per cent of Crown, had a “deleterious influence” over the company, which has since received a $8 billion takeover bid from Blackstone, a US$800 billion asset manager that already owns 10 per cent of the gaming group.

The NSW inquiry triggered sweeping changes at Crown, including the resignation of chief executive Ken Barton and five directors.

In a statement in March, Crown said it would “fully cooperate” with the WA royal commission.

Mr Owen, a former Supreme Court Justice, said he and fellow commissioners Lindy Jenkins and Colin Murphy were mindful they had “serious matters to consider” in the public interest.

“The Perth casino is of course a private enterprise concern and due recognition must be given to the private interests of the Crown group and to those who invest in it,” Mr Owen said.

“We recognise the contribution that the Crown facilitates at the Burswood complex make to employment and recreation for people in Western Australia and to the tourism industry.

“However, the Crown group only operates a casino within that complex because it holds a statutory licence, issued by the government of Western Australia on behalf of the people of this state and the nation generally.”

Mr Owen said this rendered Crown’s gaming activities a matter of public interest.

“So far as we are aware, this is the first time since the grant of the casino licence in 1988 that there has been an inquiry into these issues and given social changes in over 30 years, there is an increased importance to an inquiry of this kind,” he said.

Senior Counsel Assisting the Commission, Patricia Cahill SC, said expert evidence was likely required on whether WA’s casino regulation legislation, which was enacted in the mid-1980s, remained best practice.

“We anticipate that it will be necessary for us to obtain evidence, in particular of an expert nature, about the current and emerging issues relevant to the operation of casinos and what is current best practice, both in Australia and internationally, to address those issues,” she said.

The commissioners are due to provide an interim report focused on casino regulation by June 30 and a final report on all issued by November 14.

Hearings, which are expected to commence in May, will be live streamed on a dedicated website and the public is invited to make submissions.

Mr Owen said some sessions may have to be held in private or require confidentiality arrangements.

The first month of hearings will predominantly focus on WA’s regulation of casinos, including the operations of the regulator, the Gaming and Wagering Commission, the Department of Local Government, Sport and Cultural Industries.

The issue of Crown’s suitability will be covered in more detail in hearings in July, August and September.

The commissioners will return on April 19 to hear applications for leave to appear before the royal commission.

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