Why Is Crown’s $2.2B Sydney Casino Empty Right Now?

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The 2.2 billion dollar Crown building at Barangaroo contains a casino that’s just sitting there, empty right now because Crown were found unfit to run it by an inquiry report.  

There’s been some massive fallout for Crown since the report was released.  

So, what led to this moment for the casino empire? And what does this story say about the broader culture of gambling in Australia?  

Crown Casino Finally Stung By Regulators

The Crown inquiry was kicked off by a series of reports alleging that the casino chain was involved in money laundering and had links to organised crime 

The inquiry basically said that Crown had to completely overhaul its casino business and board if they’re ever going to move into that extremely phallic Barangaroo building.  

They were supposed to open in December last but because of the report that start has been delayed indefinitely.  

It’s been a pretty earth shattering time for Crown, especially seeing as how up until this point the Packer empire felt kind of politically untouchable 

Dr Charles Livingstone (Monash University): “The regulators there have had pretty much a hands-off approach to Crown over the years, all they’ve done is fine them. 

They’re very well connected politically and back in the day when the Packer family also owned serious media outlets in Australia, no one wanted to cross them because it’s a bit like crossing Rupert Murdoch; you don’t want to end up on the poison side of their pen.” 

But the problem goes beyond Crown. What’s happening with the casino should really act as a red flag for the influence that gambling has in Australia more generally.  

Australia’s Relationship With Gambling

Australians’ relationship with gambling – and particularly with poker machines – is no small thing 

In 2017 Australians lost about 24 billion dollars to gambling and every year about 13 billion of that is lost to pokies.  

Problem gambling can destroy lives. It can lead to depression, suicide, relationship breakdown, career breakdown, bankruptcy and crime.  

And casinos enable problem gambling more than any other venues.  

CL: “We know that there are about 1% of the adult population of Australia – so that’s somewhere around 200,000 people – who are affected by gambling directly and that’s serious levels of harm. But for every one of those there’s another six people that are affected so that’s their family, their kids. 

In terms of it being a public health problem, it’s a public health problem that’s about two-thirds the level of alcohol dependency. That’s really high levels of harm.”  

There’s also a well established link between gambling and family violence.  

Even adjusting for all the other factors that can lead to this problem, wherever there are gambling venues there are higher levels of family violence.  

And still, any attempts at minimising those harms are quickly shot down.  

No Political Will For Harm Minimisation Reform

The gambling lobby is incredibly powerful and Charles told me they use massive political donations and public campaigning that’s really reminiscent of National Rifle Association tactics in the US.  

In 2011, Clubs NSW launched a massive campaign against then Prime Minister Julia Gillard when she tried to get on board with harm minimisation technology that would have cost pokie operators a massive chunk of cash.  

They went to war over it and Gillard backed down.  

CL: They’re well resourced. They can make your life hell if you’re a politician. If you go along with them, you can get goodies like donations to your campaigns and so on. They know how to play the game and they know how to play it exceptionally well.” 

Strangely enough, there was another section of the new Crown inquiry report that hasn’t been talked about a whole lot, that could see new harm minimisation reform passed against the pokies industry 

The report said that using a pre-loaded gambling card – sort of like an Opal card for the pokies – could solve the money laundering problem by taking cash out of the equation.  

It could also potentially reduce a bunch of harm if players have to agree to the amount of money they’re willing to give up before they start playing.  

It’s an idea similar to what Gillard was skewered for back in 2011 

But this time, it looks like it could pass.  

The Takeaway 

What’s happening with the Crown is really interesting and what’s going to happen to the Barangaroo site is still totally up in the air.  

This story should really act as a reminder of how the gambling lobby in general has wielded influence in Australian politics, and how they’ve secured this incredibly damaging place in Australian society that we’ve kind of just accepted up until this point.