He has long said the opening of Crown Sydney would be the thing that draws him back to the city.
Wearing a construction hat and hi-viz vest, he tells Seven News during the site tour that he will spend “a lot more” time in the city once the project is complete.
But something else will bring him back much sooner.
A powerful inquiry into Crown Resorts this week said it would call James and some of the Packer family’s longest-standing lieutenants, including senior board member John Alexander, to give evidence in public about the casino giant’s ownership and questionable past behaviour.
Crown announced late on Friday that Alexander would be stepping down as executive chairman.
At stake is not just the licence to operate its high-roller Barangaroo casino. A deal Packer struck in May last year to sell almost half his stake in Crown to Hong Kong group Melco Resorts for a cool $1.7 billion also hangs in the balance.
That deal – to sell a 20 per cent block of Crown shares – would be the most significant step Packer has taken in his retreat from corporate life, following his resignation from the Crown board and his private investment company in 2018 due to mental health issues.
At the time of the sale in May last year, Melco signalled it was interested in taking full control of the company, which could have resulted in Packer making a complete exit. That came hot on the heels of aborted takeover talks with US casino giant Wynn Resorts.
On Tuesday, counsels assisting in the NSW Independent Liquor and Gaming Authority inquiry laid out just how broadly it will use its royal commission-like powers to dig through the inner workings of Crown, Melco and rival group Star Entertainment, as well as the efficacy of regulators who are supposed to keep their operators free from crime and corruption.
“The risk of the infiltration of organised crime into casinos is not only a matter of legitimate public concern and interest but also of significant complexity,” Commissioner Patricia Bergin, a former NSW Supreme Court judge, told the hearing.
That risk was highlighted by reporting in The Age, SMHthe Herald and 60 Minutes last year that revealed Crown went into business with “junket” tour operators backed by Asian crime gangs, which the inquiry will examine in detail.
Two of the five rounds of hearings will be dedicated to whether Melco is a suitable organisation to be involved with the Sydney casino, and whether Crown’s casino licence was breached when Packer agreed to sell his shares.
(One parcel of 9.9 per cent of Crown shares is already in Melco’s hands; the other 9.9 per cent has been put on hold pending the outcome of the inquiry.)
A core issue that counsel assisting Adam Bell, SC, has raised is Melco’s byzantine ownership structure and exactly who gained a financial interest in Crown, and the ability to exercise control over Crown, when it bought Packer’s shares.
The central question will be what links exist, if any, between Melco boss Lawrence Ho and his father, Stanley Ho.
The 98-year-old Stanley, who almost single-handedly built the Macau casino industry, has been dogged by allegations of involvement with organised crime but never convicted of an offence.
Lawrence – who the inquiry will also call to give evidence – insists he is independent of his father. Melco has previously cleared probity checks in NSW and Victoria, from when it ran an Asian joint venture with Crown.
Nevertheless, Crown’s Sydney casino licence explicitly bans a list of 59 companies and individuals deemed associates of Stanley Ho from involvement with Crown. The company must prevent, to the extent it can, anyone on that list acquiring an interest in Crown.
Bell submitted that at least one banned company did gain an indirect interest in Crown when Melco bought its shares – Great Respect Limited, a Ho family trust that owns 20 per cent of Melco Resorts through a holding company.
Bell says Crown claimed it did not know about Packer’s share sale until after it had been executed, and even if it did, it was not in its power to prevent it. However, he also says two Crown directors were instrumental in the deal.
Evidence would establish, Bell says, that Guy Jalland – a Crown director and chief executive of Packer’s private company Consolidated Press Holdings (CPH) – negotiated the deal, and fellow Crown director and CPH finance director Michael Johnston signed off the share sale agreement.
In a sign those in NSW politics could also come out of the inquiry bruised, counsel assisting Naomi Sharpe, SC, used her opening submission to detail the “significant” changes that have been made over the past decade to weaken the independence and power of the NSW gambling authority.
Commissioner Bergin said the public would expect that a “robust” new approach be adopted if the current regulation was found lacking.
If the inquiry concludes Packer’s share sale breached Crown’s licence, or that Melco is not a suitable person to be involved in the casino, or that Crown’s own dealings with shady junket operators render it unsuitable, the outcomes could be significant for all involved.
Some observers say any further restriction put on Crown’s Barangaroo casino licence could challenge a business case that already looks shaky. This is not the homecoming James Packer envisaged.
Hearings resume on February 24.
Business reporter at The Age and Sydney Morning Herald.