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Issue #1538      7 March 2012

Packer barges into Barangaroo

In a new stage of a sordid saga of greed and corruption, gambling tycoon James Packer has unveiled plans for a huge new casino/hotel to be built smack in the middle of Barangaroo, the former stevedoring site just west of Sydney’s central business district.

Packer’s proposal violates the site’s current planning guidelines, which have themselves been the subject of fierce criticism for their favoured treatment of big business interests,

Barangaroo’s northernmost section comprises underground structures covered with landscaping which is intended to resemble the point’s original landscape. The southern section is to be built with very tall buildings used for commercial, hotel and residential uses.

The central section is zoned for cultural, educational and recreational uses, In contrast, Packer’s proposal would involve construction of buildings used for very different purposes, grossly exceeding the current height limit, and chomping up 40 percent of the area.

What makes Jimmie run?

Many years ago Packer decided that his family’s newspaper and media empire was too complicated and risky, and he invested in the parasitic gambling industry, in particular Melbourne’s massive Crown Casino complex.

However, within recent years the initially huge profits sagged, because of overseas competition, particularly from Singapore’s Marina Bay casino.

The answer, Packer concluded, was to build a magnificent hotel/casino, with six-star accommodation and services, but with stunning views to Sydney Harbour, offering the Asian high rollers an experience they couldn’t get elsewhere.

Subsequently, the newly-elected Liberal premier Barry O’Farrell decided to critically re-examine the proposal by Barangaroo developer Lend Lease to construct a huge new hotel, at the end of a pier jutting into Darling Harbour from the southern section of the site. That proposal had raised bitter objections from the public, and from the shipping industry, which wished to continue using the ocean liner terminal at the southern end of Barangaroo.

O’Farrell then announced that the pier hotel proposal was not acceptable, providing Packer with a golden opportunity to submit his own proposal for a hotel within Barangaroo.

Packer is particularly interested in the central section, which is still crown land and undeveloped. Above the roofs of the terraces on the adjacent Kent Street ridge, this section offers a magnificent view eastwards to the Sydney heads, northwards and to the west up the Parramatta River.

The southern section does not offer the same advantage, because of the presence of very high buildings along the Kent Street ridge immediately east of this section. Work has already commenced on construction of the northern section, so development there is not a possibility. That leaves the central section.

Crashing through the barriers

Packer’s plan faces a number of obstacles. The current zoning of the central section excludes hotel or casino uses, and the building height is limited to 35 metres, about eight storeys.

Approval would therefore require a complete rezoning, to conform to Packer’s requirements. In a recent discussion, former prime minister Paul Keating told Packer this would be completely unacceptable and that he (Packer) had no alternative but to negotiate with Lend Lease for use of land at the northern periphery of the southern section (which Lend Lease has allocated for its own use), or for the use of other land within the southern section.

This wouldn’t suit Packer, because of the relatively limited views available from these locations. It probably wouldn’t suit Lend Lease, either, since construction of one hotel in the southern section has already been proposed. It is also possible that Lend Lease will take legal action against the premier’s decision regarding the pier hotel proposal, which has already been approved by the Barangaroo authority.

Packer, however, has gained the enthusiastic support of O’Farrell. The central section casino plan was “an exciting proposal which could add extra life to Barangaroo, give Sydney another world-class hotel, generate jobs and boost tourism … the sort of tourism-related investment we want”, he gushed.

Another problem concerns the casino licence. Echo Entertainments currently runs the Star Casino in Sydney’s Darling Harbour, and no other licence will be available until 2019.

However, Packer now has a ten percent stake in Echo, and has applied to NSW and Queensland authorities for a bigger holding. Gaining a controlling interest would allow him to move some of the gambling tables from the Star Casino, or else to close it down in favour of the Barangaroo facility. He might even lobby the government to vary the current regulations.

Packer must also gain approval from other authorities. However, with O’Farrell’s backing this is unlikely to be a problem. Taking his cue from previous Labor governments O’Farrell might even override their objections, on the grounds that the project is of state significance.

A symbol of corruption

According to the Australian Financial Review, “(Packer’s) Barangaroo plans have not been dealt a death blow on ideological grounds. There was a fear within the company that Mr Keating could have come out with a wholesale rejection of any development concept that included gaming tables.”

Fat chance! Keating’s objections, although valid, did not, apparently, include consideration of the adverse social consequences of the gambling industry, which has wrought havoc with the lives of thousands of Australians.

The impact of Packer’s proposed mega casino would certainly not be limited to visiting high rollers. Plenty of Australians of low to medium incomes have been financially crippled by the existing casinos, just as they have by poker machines, of which we now have the greatest number per capita of any nation on earth.

The gambling industry leaves behind physical as well as social wreckage. Many of the gross edifices constructed in the gambling heyday of Las Vegas are now redundant and stand as weird, decaying symbols of a vicious, parasitic industry that produces financial ruin far in excess of its claimed worth as entertainment.

Packer’s Barangaroo casino proposal is a symbol of the corruption that has dogged the redevelopment of this potentially magnificent site. The proposal should be rejected, but to do so we will need to replace the government that favours and fosters the corruption that has engendered it.  

Next article – Women’s liberation and labour’s emancipation

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