Focus on Asia: Taking a gun to a fistfight

April 3, 2024 8:00 AM
Photo: Shutterstock
  • Ben Blaschke — Managing Editor, IAG
April 3, 2024 8:00 AM
  • Ben Blaschke — Managing Editor, IAG

IAG attended gaming industry regulatory conference Regulating the Game in Sydney last month, and some of the rhetoric coming out of the conference, and elsewhere in Australia, was so astonishing that I felt compelled to write another editorial on what’s happening to our industry in Australia. It may serve as a cautionary tale for other jurisdictions.

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It was a few years ago when a former gaming regulator said to me, “If you want to be an effective regulator, you can’t be anti the industry you are employed to regulate.”

It seems an obvious comment given the need to balance the necessary oversight of industry operators and their practices with the need to allow those operators to run a sustainable business.

In Australia, the bad behaviours of casino operators Crown Resorts and Star Entertainment Group have undoubtedly led to a line in the sand moment, yet recent comments from some regulators are cause for concern, suggesting the only lines being drawn right now are battle lines.

Raising many eyebrows in mid-February was an announcement by the New South Wales state regulator – the NSW Independent Casino Commission (NICC) – that it would hold a second inquiry into the suitability of The Star Sydney to hold a casino license, to be conducted by the same man, Adam Bell, who had found Star unsuitable following the first inquiry just 18 months earlier.

The second inquiry was in itself no shock, with the former head of Victoria’s regulator, Peter Cohen, telling IAG that the NSW model – whereby a Special Manager has been placed in control of Star’s Sydney casino – was problematic in nature and that a second inquiry was therefore essential to arriving at any reasonable determination. This, Peter explained, is because the Special Manager, rather than Star, has been running the Sydney casino, making it extremely difficult to determine whether Star is doing a better job than before.

But the fact Star was caught off guard by the announcement speaks volumes about the lack of communication between the operator and regulator. Industry insiders have told IAG they are amazed Star wasn’t at least given a heads-up before a second inquiry was made public.

Just as concerning was an Australian Financial Review puff-piece on NICC chairman Philip Crawford that ran in the ensuing days, which described the commissioner as staging a “One man crusade against Star”.

In the lengthy piece, Crawford denies he is now making amends for a lack of action previously, stating, “They (Star) went to great lengths to hide stuff from us and tell us things that were not true – the guts were taken out of regulation of casinos. I’m not going to be lined up about the fact we didn’t do our job at the time. Some people have tried to raise that – it’s total crap.”

But he also said the second inquiry is “undoubtedly” about specific executives still working at The Star Sydney, and he promised to “hold [Star] accountable.

“If they can get through Bell, fine. If they can’t, we have a lot of work to do,” he said. Star has since announced the departure of four more senior executives, including Managing Director and CEO Robbie Cooke, as the regulator’s purge continues.

Perhaps even more worrying were comments made by one state regulator during a presentation at the recent Regulating the Game conference in Sydney, where they outlined their expectation that pubs and clubs should be encouraging their patrons to utilize their non-gaming facilities rather than their poker machines. In other words, these pubs and clubs are expected to offer a perfectly legal product and then discourage their patrons from using it.

Regulators obviously need to wage war on problem gambling, but not on gambling in and of itself. While gambling certainly needs to be treated as a “risky product”, there is also a time to let adults be adults – a concept that appears to have been forgotten in Australia’s halls of power.