Why should taxpayers foot the bill for another casino inquiry?

The past three years has produced a long roll call of failings from almost everyone involved in the Australian casino sector. The daddy of all mistakes was the decision by the governments of Victoria and NSW to allow the dominant players Star and Crown to retain their licences.

Sleepy state-based or even captive regulators had allowed casino miscreants to operate virtually unchecked for 10 years until the media exposed the scandals – warts and all.

The Star faces another inquiry.
The Star faces another inquiry.Credit: Steven Siewert

The subsequent public inquiries into both these operators found an egregious litany of licence abuses and misconduct sufficient to deem them unsuitable to hold a licence.

Surely that should have triggered forfeiture. Instead, state governments were anxious about the impacts on their respective economies, employment and tourism, and the loss of the rivers of tax they received from the casinos.

They were paralysed into a position of attempted reform.

Now, the NSW regulator has seen fit to hold another inquiry into Star – the outcome of which could be to strip the company of its NSW licence or extend the imposition of a special manager to oversee its rehabilitation.

At one point The Star’s financial situation was so dire that it publicly contemplated selling its flagship casino in Sydney.

Star has twice been given an extension of time because the regulator, the NSW Independent Casino Commission [NICC], wasn’t satisfied Star was progressing its remediation process at a sufficient clip.

It’s akin to death by a thousand regulatory cuts.

Advertisement

Both casino groups have been hit with hundreds of millions in fines imposed by regulators and financial intelligence agency AUSTRAC, and both have experienced financial pressure as these imposts, combined with the cost of the remediation programs, have impacted heavily on profits.

Crown reported a $199 million loss in 2023 – a far cry from the $401 million profit it made in the 2019 year before the first inquiry into operations began.

It is difficult to gain any real additional insight into Crown’s financial position given it is no longer a public company, after it was acquired by US private equity giant Blackstone.

Blackstone’s bet on Crown must go down as one of the worst acquisitions in recent history. The end of the era of junket operations has rendered the big-spending Asian gambling market near-extinct – in doing so it has skewered the economics of Crown’s VIP Sydney casino.

In the coming months Crown will receive a report from the regulatory-imposed special manager on whether it has complied with its rehabilitation program.

Crown had a close scrap with scandal recently when its chief executive, Ciaran Carruthers, was accused of allowing patrons back into the Melbourne casino after they had been removed by security. He has since been cleared by the company and the regulator of breaching any regulations or laws.

But Star appears to be in a far more troubling position.

It is hard to describe how far this company has fallen since the heady days of 2021, when the share price traded at $3.75 and the company proposed to rescue its competitor Crown, which had been beset with money-laundering scandals.

Last year it raised $1.5 billion to replenish its coffers and stave off financial ruin – and in the process deeply diluted its shareholders, who are starved of dividends until the regulatory fines are paid.

At one point the company’s financial situation was so dire it publicly contemplated selling its flagship casino in Sydney.

In response to Monday’s move by the NSW regulator to undertake another inquiry (that will take 15 weeks) Star has called for a halt to share trading.

Guessing where the share price will land when trading resumes will be a crap shoot.

“There is much at stake for The Star, so the NICC is giving the casino every chance it can to demonstrate whether it has the capacity and competence to achieve suitability,” says the NSW regulator’s chief commissioner, Philip Crawford.

“This includes meeting its financial obligations under the casino licence and funding its remediation program sufficiently.”

If the inquiry finds that Star hasn’t or can’t achieve regulatory match fitness within a reasonable time frame, it could take the nuclear option of forfeiting its licence.

The ramifications of such a move would be enormous for all stakeholders.

The Business Briefing newsletter delivers major stories, exclusive coverage and expert opinion. Sign up to get it every weekday morning.

Most Viewed in Business

Source: Thanks smh.com