James Packer fronts Perth Casino royal commission

By William Brown Updated
James Packer fronts Perth Casino royal commission

The Perth Casino royal commission heard from Crown’s billionaire majority shareholder James Packer last week.

The Age reports that Packer told the royal commission that he has no objective to an order from Victoria’s royal commission to sell down his shares in the Crown Group.

The Victorian commissioner Ray Finkelstein recommended Mr Packer’s company, Consolidated Press Holdings, sell down its 37 per cent stake in Crown to five per cent or less by September 24, 2024.

Mr Packer did not appear in the Victorian inquiry but at an early morning hearing for the Perth proceedings he said he did not object to the requirement put forward by Mr Finkelstein.

The billionaire did say he was unsure if the date should actually be 2026 to stay in line with a different order in New South Wales, but he would rely on his legal counsel for advice.

“I’m very reluctant to in any way argue with Commissioner Finkelstein. So I prefer to leave it at that,” Mr Packer said.

Crown examined in three states

Crown has been under fire in all three states in Australia that it runs casinos, with both New South Wales and Victorian royal commissions finding the company was unfit to hold licences in their respective states following revelations of money laundering.

Mr Packer admitted “many oversights” were made by the Crown Perth board, which he chaired for several years, as he faces WA’s royal commission into the casino’s operations.

The major shareholder for the Crown parent company beamed in from an unknown location where he faced a grilling on the casino’s governance from Patricia Cahill SC.

Packer was the chairman of both Crown Resorts and Burswood Limited, which was supposed to oversee the Perth casino, from 2007 to 2015.

Under questioning from Ms Cahill, the billionaire conceded it had been an oversight during his time on the Burswood board to not have any directors with expertise in anti-money laundering.

“Looking back there are many oversights,” he said.

“Things that should have been done differently.

“I did not believe at that point in time that Crown Perth was engaged in money laundering.”

Packer expresses regret over Crown oversights

Mr Packer said he had been unaware of any risks of illegal elements until he was notified about the arrests of 19 staff in China for illegally promoting gambling in 2016.

He accepted his absence as chair of Burswood for three years, from 2013 to 2016, had possibly impacted the culture at the Perth casino and the prospect of matters such as ANZ closing a bank account tied to a subsidiary called Riverbank, which has been linked to money laundering issues, being reported to the board.

Despite Mr Packer saying the Burswood brand was supposed to oversee Perth Casino, he said ultimately the parent company made the decision on big developments and capital expenditure.

He said in hindsight the board should have had a majority of independent directors instead of senior executives and this has been a poor governance structure which meant Crown Perthw as overseeing itself.

Mr Packer disagreed with previous evidence provided by former director and chair of the Burswood board, John Poynton, that it did not have the power to direct the Perth casino how to operate.

Mr Poynton described the job as being more of an “ambassador” for Crown Perth with decisions made higher up.

Packer disagrees with Poynton’s remarks about role of Burswood limited

But Mr Packer conceded there could be a misunderstanding among directors as to their role on the board, given there was no charter.

He said the need for a charter had been overlooked.

Ms Cahill quizzed Mr Packer on the corporate structure underlying the Burswood company, but he said he could not remember it now but might have known in 2006.

The Perth Casino royal commission has heard evidence Crown may have underpaid its tax in WA and did not act to stop money laundering and problem gambling issues.

Mr Packer rejected submissions by Ms Cahill that state agreements regarding the Crown Melbourne operations, establishing it as the company’s flagship casino, could be to the detriment of the Perth casino and commitments to the WA government.

“Burswood was never going to be bigger than Crown Melbourne. That’s just farcical,” he said.

“I was financially and emotionally committed to Perth and I wanted Perth. Perth was very important to me. It was the first casino that PBL had bought outside of Melbourne.”

Mr Packer was slow to respond at times and often asked for questions to be repeated during the hearing.

His written witness statement stated he had suffered significant health issues since 2016 and he continued to take strong medication which he believed impaired his ability to recall past events.

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