February 2017


Arrested development

By Richard Cooke
Image of James Packer

James Packer at Studio City Macau. © Justin Chin / Bloomberg via Getty Images

James Packer has been down, but he’s not out

“Ladies and gentlemen, I have made many, many mistakes in my life, but investing in China is not one of them.”
– James Packer, speech to the Asia Society, 14 March 2013.

After walking down streets containing several of the largest buildings in the world, a half-scale replica of the Eiffel Tower, and a full-scale replica of St Mark’s campanile, I found myself fixating on the unmediated patterns of a bitumen car park. It was the first real thing I’d seen in hours. There is something called “Stendhal syndrome”, where tourists become overwhelmed by the beauty of Florence or the Sistine Chapel. To suffer “Macau syndrome” is to be awesomely underwhelmed by imperious scale.

Macanese locals talk about an odd effect where the real city, some of it colonial Portuguese buildings hundreds of years old, has started to feel fake as well. The scale is all so large that everything normal becomes small, as though projected on a green screen. Perhaps it is a kind of projection. City of Dreams is the name of one of James Packer’s casinos here, and it’s a good name, one that captures the relationship between this Chinese special administrative region and mainland China’s desires. So what do one and a half billion people want? Fine watches and gambling on card games, and not a lot else.

I had put on a suit to visit the sparsely peopled VIP rooms at City of Dreams, trying to be inconspicuous. It had the opposite effect – everyone else was wearing leisure wear. I watched a man wearing a windcheater and an Audemars Piguet timepiece play baccarat with a chip stack half a million dollars deep, and thought of the casino from Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale, with its “hidden metronome … ticking up its little treasure of one-per-cents with each spin of a wheel and each turn of a card – a pulsing fat-cat with a zero for a heart”.

This is not the James Bond version of baccarat though. There are no plaques or paddles, no going eye-to-eyepatch with a villain across the baize. Instead it is one of the only casino card games where skill plays zero role. There is barely even any player agency, and the optimum strategy is to bet on the banker every single hand. When a player sits down, their destiny is already written inside the dealing shoe. It is not so much a game of chance as a game of fate.

This quality makes it almost unplayable for most Western gamblers, and favoured by those from Asia. The most fanatical baccarat players sometimes wear red underpants or enter casinos only through the side door. Seats marked with the unlucky number “4” are very rare. There is a ritual where players will peek at their cards, not by turning them over but by peeling them back from the table and bending the corners, and sometimes slapping or even blowing to try and magic the right number of pips into being.

As a game, it is simple enough not to sustain much enquiry, and especially tedious to watch. But as a phenomenon, its effects are almost unbelievable. That corner-bending habit means most Macau casinos will burn more than a million packs of cards a month. The Venetian Macau is really a temple to baccarat. It has more than 850 shops, 3000 hotel rooms and 800 gaming tables, the vast majority dedicated to the game. By floor space it is the seventh-largest building on earth.

The Venetian is owned by the Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, the self-described “richest Jew in the world”. Adelson also owns the Sands Macau casino. Opened in 2004, it was the first outside operation to break the Chinese government–mandated monopoly run by the notorious businessman Stanley Ho. The Sands didn’t exactly have a ribbon-cutting ceremony; instead, a mob of 15,000 people broke down its doors on the first day. One policeman fired shots in the air to try to calm them. The casino cost more than a quarter of a billion dollars to build, a sum recouped in its first eight months of operation.

Four years ago, Macau’s VIP rooms alone saw more than US$1 trillion in chips change hands, almost all of it on baccarat. That is more money than was withdrawn from every ATM in the US in the same period. Perhaps $200 billion in “ill-gotten” money makes its way to Macau every year, according to a US congressional report. At the height of its fortunes, Macau’s gambling revenue was seven times that of Las Vegas.

Baccarat is also why there are 17 employees of Crown Resorts, several of them Australians, interned in Chinese detention centres on unknown gambling-related charges. Among the many other factors responsible is the ambition of James Packer, Australia’s most scrutinised businessman, and a man who has a tabloid-pleasing habit of suffering financial and emotional turmoil at the same time. The arrests of his staff in November, apparently carefully timed by the Chinese government, also coincided with the breakdown of his relationship with the singer Mariah Carey. It was not the first such coincidence.

It was in fact an echo, almost a copy, of the experience that still defines James Packer in the popular imagination. In 1999, Packer convinced his father, Kerry Packer, and Lachlan and Rupert Murdoch to invest in the telecommunications company One.Tel. It failed not long after, in 2001, and so too did his marriage to model Jodhi Meares. He suffered a deep and well-publicised depression, and garnered a reputation as a naïf who was imperilling the family legacy with bad business decisions. It is not unusual that this narrative is unfair; such is the nature of the media. What is unusual is that this narrative was in part created by James’ own father.

James Packer is not the only foreign businessperson who has found trouble investing in Macau, and it’s instructive to compare his treatment with others. The casino industry can be extremely volatile; so too doing business in China. It is not uncommon for billionaires of all stripes to suffer setbacks or even come close to the shoals of bankruptcy. (Just ask Donald Trump.) But, as far as I can tell, no one has described the $2.4 billion reduction in Sheldon Adelson’s personal worth as “extremely humiliating”, or concern-trolled about his mental health. The Australian media’s relationship with James Packer is unusually, and sometimes grotesquely, emotional, perhaps because his story can be press-ganged to serve a series of clichéd storylines that are irresistible.

One cliché is proverbial: the squandering of a family fortune. “Wealth does not pass three generations” is a Chinese proverb; Andrew Carnegie reiterated it as “shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations”. There are Scottish and Japanese variations, and it appears in the 600-year-old writing of Ibn Khaldoun. James Packer is the fourth generation of wealth – his great-grandfather Robert Clyde Packer founded the family’s media dynasty – and so seems overdue. Forbes magazine asked him directly a few years ago if he had worried, when Las Vegas casino investments were hit by the global financial crisis, about destroying generations of Packer wealth. “I don’t want to answer that,” he replied.

The prodigal-scion angle can’t explain it alone, however. Lachlan Murdoch has never been the focus of the same attention, despite many failures. James Murdoch is anonymous by comparison. Lawrence Ho, James Packer’s partner in the Macau-focused Melco Crown joint venture, is the son of Stanley Ho; few ask aloud whether he is withering in his father’s shadow. James Packer loathes the spotlight almost viscerally, but generates more coverage than any other Australian businessman. The difference is that these other men are working for their fathers, who are still alive. Kerry Packer died in 2005, and James Packer is competing against an image of his father that becomes less and less like the real man every day. Kerry Packer is now less a person than a symbol of another Australia.

This tension between Kerry and James Packer is so Freudian that the best description of it comes from Freud himself. “One’s father is recognized as the paramount disturber of one’s instinctual life; he becomes a model not only to imitate but also to get rid of, in order to take his place,” he wrote in ‘Some Reflections on Schoolboy Psychology’. “Thenceforward affectionate and hostile impulses towards him persist side by side, often to the end of one’s life.” This hostility was rehearsed a generation earlier. The Packer curse is somewhere on the Y chromosome.

Kerry Packer said many times that the happiest day of his life was when his father died. Sir Frank Packer was cold and abusive, and while Kerry was beaten with a polo whip he did not have the worst of it. He was considered the stupid son, or perhaps the more stupid son, a dyslexic who was good at sport and not much else. His elder brother, Clyde, was the dauphin, and suffered accordingly. He wanted to experience higher education, but Frank had other ideas. “You go to work for me. You’ll learn far more in the school of hard knocks.” The knocks were so hard that in time Clyde severed ties with his father, put on a caftan and moved to California, decisions he never regretted.

“I was sick of lugging this Packer persona around with me,” Clyde said later. “It was like going away for the weekend with three steamer trunks … I suppose it was privacy I was looking for.” The prospect of becoming a captain of industry had become more and more nauseating. “You become enmeshed in the tycoon syndrome. It’s self-destructive. You lose yourself. Your personality becomes smaller and smaller. I think it’s a giant cover-up for inferiority.” It was Kerry who would become the tycoon instead.

Kerry was determined not to repeat Frank’s mistakes, and tried hard. But there was a similar streak of cruelty to his fathering. “I’m sure that in his heart he really loved James, but he damn well didn’t show it,” the former Packer executive Al “Chainsaw” Dunlap told Paul Barry. James’ former fiancée Kate Fischer told friends that Kerry would sometimes bully his son so badly he would cry in the shower, and his ex-wife Jodhi Meares spoke of late-night abusive phone calls that put a strain on their marriage. There was a tiny equilibrium point of absolute approval, one impossible to maintain. If James was making money, the bullying would stop. If he made too much, Kerry seemed to become almost jealous of his son, and the public dressing-downs would begin again.

Compare this with the trajectory of Lachlan Murdoch, another gilded son who lost family money on One.Tel. Both sons convinced their mogul fathers to invest, and both lost hundreds of millions. But Rupert Murdoch’s response was wry. When James Packer apologised to him at a party, Murdoch senior only said, “It’s okay, James. Just make sure you learn the lessons.” Meanwhile, as Pamela Williams reported in the book Killing Fairfax, “to the outside world Kerry Packer seemed to take satisfaction from his son’s failure”. When the dotcom bubble burst, Packer senior was not chagrined but elated. “I told you you’d fuck it up,” he snarled. James had a pervasively publicised breakdown.

Eventually, realising how serious matters were, Kerry tempered the schadenfreude. When Fairfax newspapers reported on James’ crisis, and his subsequent succour in the arms of Tom Cruise and Scientology, Packer senior even sent a copy of the United Nations Human Rights charter to Fairfax CEO Fred Hilmer. But the concern didn’t diminish the vindication. The old school had triumphed. The internet was bullshit. Pay TV was bullshit. The telecommunications industry that really counted was still Channel Nine.

Hidden was the fact that Kerry had signed off on the One.Tel agreements as well. He knew the figures. And over the same period James had made far-sighted decisions for the family company. He had personally seen off the Super League split, and commandeered some of Foxtel as a result. He was recognising the potential of the internet, something his father would never understand, and later invested in some of its best “standalone” classified portals, such as seek.com.au, bleeding Fairfax in the process. He had effectively bought Crown Casino in Melbourne for less than its build cost. But these successes were lost in the court proceedings (which Kerry did not attend) and the emotional fallout.

In court, One.Tel’s founder, Jodee Rich, claimed that James was taking things so hard because his moment of emotional emancipation had been taken away from him. He was no longer his own man.

Rich told the ABC that James was a “loving son” and that “Kerry was an extraordinarily evil father”.

“I think it was a very complicated father–son relationship, and James told me once that he said to Kerry, ‘I don’t need your money anymore, I have my own independence. Jodee and One.Tel have bought me my own independence.’”

James Packer has denied this, but at least one other Packer senior executive, former Publishing and Broadcasting Limited man Daniel Petre, agreed that Kerry had let James “take the fall” to cut him down to size.

Certainly Kerry’s voluble displeasure covered up many failings of his own. When Al Dunlap was brought in to cut waste at PBL, he found Kerry had been buying companies almost at random. There was a shipbuilder in Amsterdam, a fluorescent lamp manufacturer in Hong Kong. No one had any idea of the real state of the assets. Kerry had also lost huge sums on currency trading. In 1993 alone he lost half a billion dollars this way, but quietly and without recriminations. And then there were the gambling losses.

“Packer can’t play baccarat” was a piece of graffiti scratched into the lifts of the old Australian Consolidated Press building in Sydney’s Park Street, insolence the boss was especially displeased by. In Las Vegas his punting assumed legendary status, and his hit-and-run presence was feared by casinos. He played cards for huge stakes, sometimes working multiple hands, placing prop bets and eating hotdogs all at the same time. Casinos occasionally banned him for winning too much, something he took great pleasure in.

He is rumoured to have broken the bank at London’s Aspinalls Club and to have been declared persona non grata at the MGM Grand Casino in Las Vegas after reported baccarat wins totalling almost $30 million. Still, the losses ran deeper. Following media stories about a $34 million bath in Vegas, Mark Latham criticised the “Big Fella” under parliamentary privilege: “Notions of public morality and justice are under threat when it is possible for one person to accumulate such extraordinary wealth and then use it in such an extraordinary way.” Packer pointed out that it was his money, and he had given more to hospitals.

“Some of the happiest times I ever saw my dad was times when I was with him in the casinos and he had a good night,” James Packer told Forbes in 2014, and there has been plenty of speculation since about the emotional nexus gambling represents between father and son, perhaps a sense that James may be “siding with the house” in some final effort to exercise control over his own destiny. There’s a further layer of tangled feeling: one of James’ closest friends, Ben Tilley, became a semi-permanent gambling buddy of Kerry’s – the mogul came to regard him as a bit of a lucky charm.

But psychoanalytic explanations aren’t necessary. There’s every chance that James simply took an unsentimental view of his father’s empire when he inherited it. He has a better sense of figures than he is often credited for. Media stocks were overvalued. Gaming stocks were not. He had no interest in being a media proprietor, especially when limelight was a by-product. Unlike Kerry, he had no special emotional attachment to Channel Nine or the Bulletin magazine or any of the rest of it. And a tilt at a global empire, something very few Australian businesspeople had managed, would require a global industry like gaming.

There was another option at the moment of inheritance: to do nothing. He could permanently become “Jamie”, the polo-playing playboy, and live off the interest on billions. In 1994, aged 27, he told Peter FitzSimons in a rare interview that such an option would ruin him. First through decadence and then through guilt. He worried he would “self-destruct”, through “gambling, fast cars, alcohol, drugs, whatever it happens to be”. He also spoke about the weight of genetic expectation.

“If I sat back and decided to sell the product of my father and my grandfather’s work, like a leech, you know I wouldn’t be able to look at myself in the mirror … I want to be able to look at my father in ten years’ time and say, ‘I’m proud of you, and you should be proud of me.’” This relationship between pride and business success was so close that one of James’ friends later said that “his self-esteem is the net present value of his assets”.

But the familial tangles that drive James Packer’s ambition can be distracting. The real story is not Jamie Packer overshooting his Australian roots, not Jamie Packer trying to beat Kerry by becoming the house, but James Packer as an aggressive and prescient businessman, sometimes too prescient. His two biggest failures were caused by the dotcom bubble and the global financial crisis, and they were scarring, not mortally wounding.

What can we say, really, of his failings? That telecommunications wasn’t a growth industry in 1999? That there is some doubt about the growth potential of the Chinese middle class, and its enthusiasm for gaming?

How Sydney decided that a casino for Asian high rollers belongs at the heart of its harbour is a tragedy, but not an Oedipal one. It does not have that grandeur, or that pedigree.

In 1980 only two US states, Nevada and New Jersey, had legal casinos. Today you can gamble in 24 states, with others set to follow suit. In December last year, Japan legalised casinos, after 15 years of debate, even though polling shows that only 12% of Japanese people support this. Singapore’s long-time leader Lee Kuan Yew once said that casinos would be legalised only over his “dead body”, but eventually two resorts opened in 2010, some of the most expensive buildings ever constructed. Lee justified his reversal by telling parliament that “we cannot prevent the outside world from affecting us”. Besides, they were for overseas gamblers, and Singaporeans had to pay a US$70 fee to enter. There is a long tradition of jurisdictions with legalised gambling trying to quarantine their own citizens; locals are still banned from the rooms of the Casino de Monte-Carlo.

Where have all these casinos come from? They are partly the result of a moral deregulation, as traditional religious opposition to gambling has waned. But they are also the result of a political re-ordering. As governments scrounge for sources of revenue, gambling taxes offer a painless, if profoundly regressive, means of avoiding spending cuts or other tax increases. This also results in a quandary. As the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt put it, “in their capacity as regulators, state governments are charged with protecting the public from the very business practices that generate revenue for the state and which the state is actively co-sponsoring”.

In the US the gaming industry employs more people than airlines do, but there is still an ongoing debate about whether the economic benefits (which are arguable) are worth the associated social harms. Gaming was once considered a “recession-proof” industry. In the post-recession West, however, it has plateaued, especially among women over 50, once a stalwart demographic. In their current incarnations, casinos are now strange artefacts of wealth inequality. They target the poorest with video poker machines and the richest with trips to offshore VIP rooms; these two customer classes may never cross paths.

In Australia, the most slots-heavy jurisdiction in the world, this duality is only too familiar. In 2014–15 poker machines saw $73 billion worth of play in New South Wales, despite a decline in the number of machines overall. The Fairfield area in Western Sydney alone accounted for more than $7 billion of this. Estimates of problem gamblers in Australia run to half a million people. There is something especially hypocritical about these machines being housed in “community clubs”, which enjoy tax breaks and other benefits because of their supposed social role.

The ascendancy of poker machines has provided a salient lesson in what Australia and its leaders value, and becoming a gaming lobbyist is almost the de facto post-political career for any Labor “headkicker”. But the appointments are bipartisan. Karl Bitar works as a lobbyist for Crown, as does Mark Arbib, and former Howard government communications minister Helen Coonan sits on the company’s board. The newly assembled lobby group Responsible Wagering Australia (Crown’s online gambling portal, CrownBet, is a foundation member) immediately secured the services of outgoing Labor senator Stephen Conroy as its head and roped in former Liberal senator Richard Colbeck as chairman. In the same week, former NSW premier Barry O’Farrell became head of Racing Australia. His predecessor was ex-Nationals MP Peter McGauran. Peta Credlin, Tony Abbott’s former chief of staff, is also a Packer employee.

Casinos in Australia already enjoy an unusual status. In Sydney, the Star, for example, is sui generis. It is exempt from New South Wales’ lockout laws. It is probably the most violent venue in the state, but as a “premier tourist destination” does not have to suffer the indignity of serving liquor in plastic cups. A leaked report showed the Star was not reporting assaults to police, and nothing happened. There is a “Three Strikes” rule for venues that breach their licensing conditions, but the Star breached them 12 times in 12 months without censure. The Star’s high-roller rooms do not have to observe tobacco control laws. It is perhaps the only place in the state where the footling interferences of the NSW government cannot be found.

Still, to truly appreciate just how lubricated the wheels of government are for gaming, it is a project not yet completed that provides the best example. James Packer’s “integrated resort” at the centre of Sydney’s Barangaroo development has been described as “a phallic symbol of greed and kitsch with a vengeance” and an “opalescent dildo”. It will be the second-tallest building in the city. But Barangaroo is not really going to be built in Sydney at all. It is going to be built in a different place, with different laws.

“The old man told me to ring … this is the message. If we don’t win the casino, you guys are fucked.” In the tendering process for the first Sydney casino in the early 1990s, James Packer was tasked with intimidating John Fahey’s Liberal government into ensuring the licence ended up in Packer hands. But it didn’t, and the Fahey government folded not long afterwards.

James Packer would not make the same mistake twice. Despite deals that the Star would not have a city-based rival, he had long eyed a second Sydney casino, and consummately lobbied politicians to bring it about. In August 2012 he went to see the then premier, Barry O’Farrell, and made his case forcefully.

O’Farrell salivated over the idea, and told Packer about a process that would ensure there was no tender for the proposal. It’s supposed to be for “unique” ideas where competition would be of little benefit. The idea of a second Sydney casino is hardly unique, and no one knows how Crown prosecuted this argument. It was done in private. Just a week after the O’Farrell meeting, the need for independent reviews over the process was done away with, something the government told Fairfax Media was a “coincidence”.

The bid was secured in seven weeks, probably record rapidity, and former Commonwealth Bank CEO and Packer wedding guest David Murray was employed to give it a rubber stamp in another private review process. It was given a favourable tax rate and green-lit without anything as embarrassing as a public meeting. The project tried to damp down controversy by targeting overseas high rollers only, especially those from Asia, with VIP-only membership rules and minimum bets on baccarat starting at $30 a hand.

According to Michael Brodie of the Independent Liquor and Gaming Authority, the probity check of Crown took just three months. He described it as “one of the fastest assessments of a casino applicant in history”. The development applications were similarly expedited, and Crown and the developer Lendlease made numerous changes to the applications after they were already approved, cannibalising public parkland and significantly increasing the floor space. A community-based legal challenge failed.

“We were talking in broad concepts of a six-star hotel funded through a small high-rollers room,” one anonymous source told Fairfax. “Then MOD 8 [the modification to the concept plan] came along and the casino turned into a large podium and a stonking big residential sold to billionaire property investors.”

Crown also lobbied the Productivity Commission to introduce express visas from China, and the Turnbull government obliged. Like the Star, the Barangaroo casino won’t be subject to alcohol restrictions or smoking bans. James Packer has described one of the fastest application processes in the world as “a marathon process”. “We proposed the hotel almost four years ago and we are miles behind our opening date schedule,” he said. “At our end we really want to get moving.” He has spoken of his love for Sydney, his long-standing affiliation with it, and his desire to leave a mark there. These days he mainly lives in Israel and Los Angeles.

The American think-tank head David Blankenhorn coined the phrase “gamble-speak” for the careful language pruning that accompanies the industry. Executives talk about gaming rather than gambling, customers rather than players, and “integrated resorts” rather than casinos. This is more than a series of euphemisms (though, as Blankenhorn himself points out, “gaming executives” almost never game themselves; James does not seem to share Kerry’s joy at being on the other side of the table). It can also reflect legal realities: for example, it is illegal to promote casinos in China, but it is not illegal to promote the “resorts” attached to casinos.

This can lead to some seemingly absurd insistences. For example, The Audition, the Martin Scorsese–directed ad for Melco Crown’s Macau Studio City and Manila City of Dreams, was scheduled to screen at the Venice Film Festival in 2015. When criticised, the Venice festival director, Alberto Barbera, told the Hollywood Reporter, “It’s a Scorsese film, not a commercial. The casino paid for the film, but it’s not in the film at all.” You could be forgiven for thinking the black limousines and the towers of neon were the scene of a casino, but they only depicted a resort. There was nothing as indecent as a roulette wheel.

The simplest theory about the Crown arrests is that Crown promoted its businesses, especially its Australian businesses, too directly. “It often amazes me that so many senior corporate leaders, public servants and MPs have not made the trip to China and still view it as a communist state,” Packer said in his Asia Society speech, not the kind of compliment Beijing forgives. China has a way of reminding foreign businesses that it remains a communist state, especially those who operate in the concentric ring of loopholes sometimes called “the grey”.

Consider the “grey” Crown and Melco Crown operated in. Gambling is illegal in mainland China and promoting offshore casinos is forbidden as well. It is illegal for those visiting Macau to take more than US$3200 into the territory, and there are restrictions on ATM withdrawals. For the heaviest gamblers, lines of credit are required, which is always a risky proposition, but even more so when debt collection agencies are illegal as well.

Casinos in Macau and in Australia rely on junket businesses to co-ordinate high-roller trips from the Chinese mainland. The junket operators also do the business of offering cashbacks on losses, sidebets outside the casino economy and, most importantly, collecting debts.

There were clear warnings that the grey zone junkets operated in was becoming smaller. As early as February 2015, Hua Jingfeng, deputy head of China’s Ministry of Public Security, publicly told reporters that casino marketing would be targeted. “A fair number of neighbouring countries have casinos, and they have set up offices in China to attract and drum up interest from Chinese citizens to go abroad and gamble. This will also be an area that we will crack down on.”

This was not an idle threat. In October 2015, 13 South Korean casino employees and 34 Chinese associates were arrested, as part of an investigation into what state TV called “criminal gangs”. It was alleged that sexual services were being offered as part of the junket-style operation. Perhaps Crown thought this style of inducement was too different from theirs to worry about, but this now looks like a huge miscalculation. Its staff face 16 months in Chinese jails, on top of time already spent in detention, and the company has engaged legal firm Minter Ellison to investigate its own management. One executive told the Age it was “an act of corporate, legal and reputational arse-covering of the first order”.

Exactly why Crown proceeded with its high-roller strategy while this storm gathered is unclear. Perhaps, in the grey, the line between what was and wasn’t allowed wasn’t clear, or shifted over time. Some of the speculation runs to almost conspiratorial lengths: that Crown was singled out as collateral punishment for Australia’s role in the South China Sea legal case. But capital flight has been a concern of the Chinese government for years, and a foreign company falling foul of the Chinese Communist Party needs no special explanation.

Whether or not the arrests were the final catalyst, the volatility was too much for Packer. Earlier in 2016 he had reduced his stake in Melco Crown from 34% to 27%. Now he reduced it to 14%, and abandoned Las Vegas plans. More than one media commentator said the events capped an “annus horribilis” for Packer. Underneath the front-page histrionics, the business press were more even-handed. There was no doubt the sell-offs were a change of strategy from someone formerly intent on global domination. Crown is now a firmly Australian company. But the shedding of risk and heavy returns won respect. James Packer had quadrupled his investment, and knew when to cash out.

Less certain is the outlook for those Australian arms of the business. Analysts have already downgraded VIP expectations on the back of the crackdown. After all, the new Crown casino in Sydney’s Barangaroo development is aimed solely at Asian VIPs. The same strategy that wound up with Australian executives in Chinese jails will be repeated, and this time the whole city has signed on.

Kerry Packer built his fortune on the back of an uncanny ability to divine the tastes of the Australian public, which really meant appreciating just how much they liked sport. He modernised cricket in the process, but was perhaps most proud of the elements in his empire such as the Bulletin magazine, the Sunday current affairs program, and 60 Minutes when it was at the height of its powers. He cared enough about his media to ring producers and complain about the way credits rolled.

Instead, Packer junior’s analysts direct phone calls to the financial press, urging corrections or expressing displeasure. James occasionally calls journalists himself: he phoned the Sydney Morning Herald gossip columnist Andrew Hornery to emphasise the genuineness of his relationship with Mariah Carey, and his love and respect for her as woman and performer. (In a typically analytical touch, the latter affection referenced her album sales figures.)

But James has no interest in being a media mogul, partly because he doesn’t like the media, and with good reason. The limelight has not been kind to him. He has also swapped profiting from Australia’s pastime – sport – for Australia’s vice – gambling – and there is a sense of uneasiness about that. No bookmaker is a folk hero.

“Sport was better in the ’70s,” sang The Drugs, and it’s a familiar refrain that sportspeople have been homogenised, that there are no “characters” left anymore, that agents and nannyish league administrators and scandal-randy journalists have ruined it. That seems true of business as well – the gulf that separates Kerry Packer from James Packer is not just about two different men, but two different times, and two different cultures as well.

It’s hard to say exactly what the public image of James Packer is in Australia. “Kerry Packer’s son” just about covers it, but he is definitely seen as one of the rich kids. (Paul Barry’s book about the One.Tel collapse bears the same name.) Strangely Kerry is not seen as one of the rich kids, even though he was, perhaps because his childhood was marked by so much emotional privation he seems self-made.

He made a modest media company into the largest personal fortune in Australia, and did it with a scrappiness and belligerence that seemed to typify Australia in the 1980s. Kerry Packer also fulfilled the timeless, cartoonish ideal of an eccentric billionaire: handing out wads of cash to the homeless and capriciously tipping service staff, keeping gold bars in his office, a Glock in his drawer and a mistress down the street, watching cricket on four TVs at once, yelling down phones, dressing down associates, generally being “larger than life”, and proving it by spending decades on the brink of death.

You can isolate any vignette from Kerry Packer’s life and know its entirety. In 1990 he collapsed unconscious playing polo and was clinically dead for several minutes (there was “nothing fucking there”) before being revived by one of the only paramedic crews in New South Wales with a defibrillator (they happened to be passing). The patient then paid for every ambulance in the state to be fitted out the same way. There was the time he heard a Texas millionaire bragging about his wealth in a high-rollers’ room, and said, “I’ll flip you for it.” The visit to Vegas where he paid off a waitress’ mortgage. What story does, or could, define his son in the same way?

Significantly, the tale told most often about James is really a story about Kerry. It’s the story about the bowling machine – in fact, a baseball pitching machine – installed in the Packer garden. Kerry would insist it was set to the maximum pace, 190 kilometres an hour, for him and for James. Even the Test cricketer Clive Lloyd refused to face it, but James would.

That image seems lasting, the teenaged James fending off skidding deliveries, a cricket-flavoured shorthand for hard parenting, a different kind of six of the best. But the rest of his story is more fragmentary: his breakdown, his interest in Scientology (L Ron Hubbard’s statements about the ills of gambling may have helped to cool his ardour), a series of failed marriages and engagements to models and pop stars, and a public punch-up with his best friend and former best man, David Gyngell. He has not led a colourless life, but it has often seemed to be the wrong colour. In a 2013 television interview with Mike Willesee, he said that “it sounds very self-indulgent when a rich man talks about the search for happiness”, and cried several times while talking about his father and his lowest moments.

Willesee steered clear of religion, and whether or not James Packer has made a slow return to Scientology is an open question. The Daily Mail ran the headline ‘Scientology wrecked my engagement says Mariah’, citing claims that former Church spokesperson Tommy Davis had fouled their relationship. In February last year Packer employed Davis as his general manager in North America for Consolidated Press Holdings. There is an ecosystem of websites chronicling the movements of former Scientologists, and speculation ranges from Davis having himself left the Church to a deep cover operation aimed at bringing Packer back into the fold.

There are other explanations for the breakdown in the Carey relationship as well. It was an unusual match, and friends and family were sometimes said to find it uncomfortable. There were reports that Packer’s mother, Ros, tried and failed to find common ground. Leaks by Carey’s “camp” to TMZ blame the breakdown on an unspeakable incident involving one of the singer’s underlings on a Greek yacht. Meanwhile, Packer was said to be allergic to the prospect of appearing on Carey’s reality show, Mariah’s World. He appears in the first episode, clinking a champagne glass, a gesture he performs with the ease of a man being handed a bad X-ray in an oncologist’s office.

He can hardly be blamed for treating the publicity in this way. When news of the break-up appeared on the website of Woman’s Day, it was accompanied by a cruel social media metric: “169 people laughed”.

Meanwhile, Packer has returned to the board of Crown after stepping down just 17 months ago. He will drive the Barangaroo project, possible online ventures and the attempts to rescue his imprisoned employees. John Alexander, a former PBL and Fairfax executive and long-time Packer family confidant, will oversee cost-cutting.

“I think I’m a psychologist’s wet dream – who knows why the mind does what the mind does?” Packer told John Lehmann in a 2013 interview. Whatever is driving Packer’s peripatetic ambition, it has not shown signs of enervation as he turns 50. He spends up to 1200 hours on a plane a year, and constantly moves between Los Angeles, Tel Aviv and wherever he is doing business. There will be plenty of business to do in Sydney, where the project will continue, Chinese high rollers or not. There is the suggestion that the tower may be turned into apartments instead, if the VIPs are detained elsewhere. The mind of a tycoon may be a mystery, but the ways in which money and power operate are by now well understood.

Richard Cooke

Richard Cooke is The Monthlys contributing editor. 


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