Owen in the spotlight for Crown Perth royal commission appointment

By Ethan Anderson Updated
Owen in the spotlight for Crown Perth royal commission appointment

The appointment of former WA Supreme Court judge Neville Owen to the Crown Perth royal commission was contentious at the time and it’s been revealed that Mr Owen nominated himself.

The Sydney Morning Herald reports that his appointment sparked questions because of his close friendship and business associations with Seven West Media chairman Kerry Stokes, whose senior colleagues would be scrutinised in the royal commission, and his friendship with former Crown majority shareholder and chairman James Packer, who would also be grilled.

Correspondence obtained under freedom of information laws has finally cleared up who suggested Mr Owen, but not why the Premier and former gaming minister provided contradictory explanations when questioned on it.

The correspondence also shows Mr Owen’s interest was reported less than three hours after he was invited to a meeting with the State Solicitor’s Office to discuss joining the probe, prompting suggestions from shadow attorney-general Nick Goiran the leak came from within the SSO or from a senior government minister.

As Mr Owen’s links to Mr Stokes were unveiled during the commission, the state government faced pressure to explain why it chose him as a late addition, given the potential for such significant conflicts.

Former gaming minister Paul Papalia said it was WA Premier Mark McGowan who raised Mr Owen’s name with him, but Mr McGowan repeatedly refused to answer questions on the topic, only saying the name was “put before cabinet”.

Owen volunteered himself to lead judicial inquiry

The email trail between Mr Owen, Solicitor-General Joshua Thomson’s office and the State Solicitor’s Office reveals Mr Owen put his hand up hours after Mr Papalia announced the probe.

“I have read reports that the government is considering a ‘judicial’ inquiry into the Perth operations of Crown Casino,” Mr Owen’s email to Mr Thomson read.

“I thought I would let you know that if that is the case and if the powers that be are looking at the ranks of retired judges, I would put up my hand. I think I have one inquiry left in these ageing bones!”

Mr Thomson’s office forwarded the email to the SSO, which was establishing the inquiry.

Six days later, the SSO arranged for Mr Owen to meet state solicitor Nicholas Egan the next day.

He was announced as head of the royal commission on March 5.

Greens MLC Brad Pettitt said the saga was getting “stranger and stranger”.

“Given it’s emerged that he put his hat in the ring of his own accord, it’s baffling that the government couldn’t just be upfront and say that, rather than pretend they had approached him,” Mr Pettitt said.

Mr Goiran said the McGowan government needed to come clean on the appointment process.

He questioned the obfuscation from the Premier and his senior ministers late last year.

“They have a duty to set the record straight and there is no good reason why they cannot do that immediately,” he said.

Stokes-Owen friendship was well known

In July, Mr Owen declared his friendship with Mr Stokes and that he was director of one of his companies but said they would not affect his obligations to the royal commission.

The declaration revealed he sat on the board of the Stokes family company Clabon, which had majority shareholdings in Seven West Media through its wholly owned Stokes investment vehicle Australian Capital Equity.

Mr Owen is also a director of two other Stokes family companies, but he is yet to publicly acknowledge these positions.

Maryna Fewster, currently the chief executive of Seven West Media in WA, joined the Crown Perth board in 2019.

As Crown’s newest board member, her evidence was critical of the company for not informing the board well enough of the happenings within the Perth operations, and of the board itself for not providing good enough oversight.

John Alexander, currently a Seven West Media director and formerly Crown’s chief executive and chairman, was found to have “led Crown to disastrous consequences” with his stewardship in the NSW Bergin Crown inquiry.

Mr Owen oversaw questioning of Mr Alexander and Ms Fewster regarding their time as Crown directors.

His final report will assess their effectiveness as such and will ultimately recommend to the WA government whether Crown is fit to operate a casino.

Back to top