After more than two years of scrutiny, Melbourne’s Crown Casino survives its biggest threat

After more than two years of scrutiny, Melbourne’s Crown Casino survives its biggest threat
  • PublishedMarch 28, 2024

In casinos, the odds always favour the house.

In roulette, there are 36 slots for the ball to fall in, half of them are red, the other half black.

But there’s another slot, number zero, that improves the likelihood that people betting won’t win.

That’s how the game is played. And no-one plays the casino game quite like Crown.

A casino with a long rap sheet

Exposed by the media – not regulators – the list of what it has done wrong is long.

Confirmed by the findings of inquiries and a royal commission, it facilitated money laundering on an epic scale and consorted with criminal gangs.

It failed to prevent staff from being jailed in China and shredded responsible gambling laws, all while obfuscating and lying to the regulators failing to hold it to account.

And the only consequence? A demand to do better, and the cost of fixing systems to prevent breaking the law.

The licence for Crown’s Melbourne casino was considered in the balance for a two-year period. The buildings are worth a lot, but it is the licence — a monopoly to run the only casino in Victoria — that brings in the millions.

Two highrise buildings and a row of shops, photographed from the other side of a river.
Crown Melbourne has previously been fined millions of dollars for misconduct.(ABC News: Darryl Torpy)

A “Special Monitor” was placed inside the building that stretches along the Yarra River.

Stephen O’Bryan QC attended board meetings, met staff and made directions.

He has submitted four reports (of which we can only read summaries) and a final report that informed the regulator’s decision.

We’ve been told we’ll see that final report at some time in the future — it’s the one that convinced the regulator that Crown should keep its lucrative licence.

The Victorian Gambling and Casino Control Commission (VGCCC) has hit Crown with $250 million in fines since it was born from the ashes of its beleaguered predecessor — a weak and out-foxed regulator that had been lied to by Crown for years.

The new VGCCC even fined Crown for things the previous regulator had waved away, showing its muscle.

IBAC Commissioner Stephen O'Bryan QC
Stephen O’Bryan has worked as a Special Manager for the Melbourne Casino Operator since January 2022.(Supplied: Independent Broad-based Anti-Corruption Commission Victoria)

Crown remains the only game in town

But the reality remains.

You can commit all the crimes listed above and keep your licence.

No person has ever been held individually responsible for anything that has occurred at Crown. There have been no criminal or even civil charges.

If the regulator acts against someone, all that person has to do to get away with it is: leave their job.

If they no longer work for the casino they become a “former associate” and the regulator can’t take any action against them.

Home free.

The chair of the regulator Fran Thorn didn’t like that characterisation of the situation.

“My message to new management is you didn’t ‘Get away with it’,” she said on Tuesday.

“You demonstrated to our satisfaction that you were suitable to hold the licence. And that is a test that you will have to live up to every day. And if you fail in that we will take very swift action and it will be very painful action.”

The interior of a gaming room at a casino
Crown Melbourne remains the only business with a casino licence in the state.(Crown Melbourne)

Crown has changed over the board. It has got new executives. It has spent money to do the right thing. That’s great — it needed to.

But it keeps its monopoly casino licence. It must follow the law in future. It’s hard to see the real penalty.

Keeping its licence a near-certain outcome

None of this is a huge shock.

The Bergin Inquiry in New South Wales looked at whether Crown was suitable to hold a casino licence in that state, largely based on incidents and problems in the Victorian operation.

A subsequent royal commission in Victoria didn’t re-examine the explosive revelations uncovered up north, but slammed failings on responsible gambling laws and revealed Crown had short-changed the state of millions of dollars in tax

That commission said Crown should keep its licence, but under probation.

Again, no surprise. In the “terms of reference” — what the inquiry is looking into — the key question to be asked was: “Whether Crown Melbourne is a suitable person to continue to hold the casino licence under the Casino Control Act 1991.”

Fair question. But here’s another of the questions:

“If you consider that Crown Melbourne is not a suitable person, or that it is not in the public interest for Crown Melbourne to hold the casino licence in Victoria, what action (if any) would be required for Crown Melbourne to become a suitable person, or for it to be in the public interest for Crown Melbourne to continue to hold the casino licence in Victoria?”

Essentially: If it isn’t up to it, what would it need to do to keep the licence?

A future behind closed doors

Crown is no longer listed on the stock exchange, it was bought out by a private equity fund. So there goes the rigour of continuous disclosure and annual meetings.

The Special Monitor ends his work in July.

That leaves us with the regulator, which publishes a short annual report.

It has woken up to the fact that Crown hasn’t been truthful with its predecessor.

The VGCCC now audits and checks the information it gets from the casino. It didn’t before.

But we’ll likely never get another substantial look into the oversight of the casino or where it has fallen short, beyond substantial interventions the VGCCC deems worthy of a fine and publishing a notice.

So all we have is a regulator that says Crown has changed, and that if there is “regression to the ‘Old Crown'” the full extent of the law will be brought against it.

A woman at a press conference.
Fran Thorn says she remains focused on not letting Crown regress back into past behaviours.(ABC News)

“I’m not going to say ‘trust me’,” Ms Thorn told journalists on Tuesday.

“But, this is a new commission and a new organisation that I can only say is fixated on making sure it does not sit over anything that resembles what happened in the past.”

You have to wish it all the best: that Crown decides to abide by the law and the regulator can pick it up when it falls short.

But would you bet on it?


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