James Packer conceded publicly for the first time that his ambition of expanding Crown Resorts into an international casino and hotel empire had failed.
“In terms of the list of Australian companies that have gone offshore and come back to Australia with their tails between their legs, I think we’re at the top of the list,” Packer said at Crown’s AGM last week
“We didn’t succeed in the global strategy,” Packer added.
However, Crown’s overseas bets still paid off to the tune of billions of dollars for Crown investors.
Crown pulled back from overseas after staff were imprisoned in China for marketing casino tours in violation of the country’s strict anti-gambling laws. Crown sold its stake in the former joint-venture casino, Melco Resorts and Entertainment in Macau and abandoned plans to expand in Las Vegas. More recently, Crown has played down the prospect of bidding for new casino ventures in Japan.
With the focus now firmly on Australia, Mr Packer was upbeat about the prospects of Crown’s new Barangaroo casino (pictured), saying VIP revenue was starting to bounce back as wealthy foreign gamblers returned to Australia in larger volumes.
Adding to Mr Packer’s troubles in the past year have been the launch of a landmark Federal Court lawsuit alleging the casino’s poker machines are designed to feed an addiction, and, most recently, allegations by laid-off casino technicians that they were ordered to tamper with poker machines on the gaming floor.
James Packer dismissed those allegations as “a lie”.
Independent Senator Andrew Wilkie made international headlines last week after tabling evidence under parliament privilege from three former Crown Melbourne staffers who claimed management had ordered them to illegally tamper with poker machines and to look the other way as the casino helped high-rollers avoid scrutiny of financial transactions.
Wilkie has also claimed that a fourth whistleblower had come forward – despite being “in fear for his life” – with fresh evidence of Crown’s misdeeds.
But Government Minister Christopher Pyne refused to allow Wilkie to table his new evidence, saying parliamentary privilege wasn’t intended to allow MPs to spread “slanderous or defamatory” material.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull took his own shots at Wilkie’s calls for a parliamentary inquiry into the allegations. Turnbull noted that gaming regulators in the state of Victoria, as well as the Australian Federal Police and the financial watchdog agency AUSTRAC were already conducting separate investigations, and thus Wilkie’s contention that these inquiries would be aided by a parliamentary probe “almost beggars belief.”
Other commentators have noted that Crown had outsourced its pokies maintenance contract to an outside party last summer, which led to a protest campaign by the Electrical Trades Union. Wilkie has refused to confirm whether his original three whistleblowers were among the 16 union members fired by Crown, saying he wasn’t going to “say anything that might help identify these people.”
Sources: Reuters, Australian Financial Review, The Australian, Bloomberg, Calvyn Ayre