Lawyer questions Perth Casino royal commissioner’s place on panel

By Charlotte Lee Updated
Lawyer questions Perth Casino royal commissioner’s place on panel

A high-profile lawyer has claimed a conflict of interest exists at the Perth Casino royal commissions.

The ABC reports that Geoffrey Watson SC, a former senior counsel for New South Wales’ corruption watchdog, said he “cannot understand” the WA government’s decision to appoint Neville Owen as lead commissioner of the probe into Crown Perth, due to being a close friend of WA billionaire Kerry Stokes.

The remarks were echoed by former WA premier Colin Barnett, who described Mr Owen’s appointment as “unusual”.

Mr Owen, a former Supreme Court judge and royal commissioner into the collapse of insurer HIH, was appointed as chairman of the three-person Crown commission in March.

It followed the government’s decision to expand initial plans for a two-person inquiry which did not involve Mr Owen.

Since commission hearings began, Mr Owen has disclosed on three separate occasions details of his links to Mr Stokes, who controls a business empire including Seven West Media and is reportedly worth more than $7 billion.

Links between Owen and Stokes cause concern

Those links include Mr Owen’s directorship of Clabon Pty Ltd, which is a shareholder of Australian Capital Equity, Mr Stokes’ private investment vehicle.

He also acknowledged one of the witnesses before the commission, Crown Burswood director Maryna Fewster, was chief executive of Seven West Media and reported to the board overseen by Mr Stokes.

Since then, the commission has interrogated former Crown executive John Alexander, who sits on the Seven West board.

Mr Stokes is also close to Crown’s major shareholder James Packer and ran the casino mogul’s personal affairs in 2016 during the dissolution of his engagement to pop star Mariah Carey.

Mr Watson, who led inquiries by NSW’s Independent Commission Against Corruption into the dealings of former Labor powerbroker Eddie Obeid, said the links were a potential problem for the royal commission.

He said there was no doubting Mr Owen’s legal pedigree and personal integrity but royal commissions needed to be “utterly independent” and beyond reproach.

“When appointing a royal commission, it is absolutely essential that the candidates for determining the matter be utterly independent of the people and the issues and the consequences of what they’re going to do,” he said.

“Royal commissioners have to answer some awesomely difficult questions.

“You’ve got to remember a royal commission is different to judicial proceedings but that rule of absolute independence doesn’t waver.

“And the first thing that would ever happen is that the person who is going to preside over a commission, just as they would with a case, would immediately disqualify themselves if they had a connection with one of the parties.”

In disclosing his links to Mr Stokes in July, Mr Owen declares his confidence that no conflict exists in his job as a royal commissioner.

“None of this raises in my mind a conflict of interest,” Mr Owen said in Perth in July.

“I am satisfied that neither Ms Fewster’s appearance as a witness and any other aspect of my personal association with the chairman conflicts with my obligations to or in this Royal Commission.”

Asked about the questions raised by Mr Watson and Mr Barnett, Mr Owen said Mr Stokes “is not the subject of this inquiry.”

“I have nothing further to add,” he said.

Premier backs appointment of Owen in Perth

WA Premier Mark McGowan has backed Mr Owen in Perth, describing him as an “eminent jurist” and saying he was chosen because of his experience handling complex legal and financial cases.

Mr McGowan has also lashed out at questions about Mr Owen’s fitness for the job, saying they were part of an “internecine media war” and amounted to “character assassination”.

“When you’re someone who’s lived in Western Australia for years and years and years, chances are you’ll know people, chances are you’ll have a lot of friendships, lots of acquaintances, you may serve on a board or have worked in businesses or the like,” Mr McGowan said.

“We’re not a big enough place to avoid that, so I’m not particularly concerned about this.”

According to Mr Watson, the royal commission had the power to recommend Crown lose its lucrative Burswood Casino licence, highlighting the stakes at play.

He said any real or perceived conflict of interest risked jeopardising the credibility of the commission’s findings.

“The perception counts for everything,” Mr Watson said.

“Nobody would be suggesting, and I’m not suggesting, that Neville Owen would do anything other than a good, straight-down-the-line job.

“But the problem is, it’s the perception it creates of a person sitting at the back of the room, which is the test they literally do apply.

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