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Cosy deal for casino patricians but dice loaded against proles

Date

Sydney Morning Herald columnist, author, architecture critic and essayist

View more articles from Elizabeth Farrelly

<em>Illustration: Edd Aragon</em>

Illustration: Edd Aragon

When James Packer had his stomach stapled the event made national headlines. We were supposed to be impressed that, unable to master his own appetite, he paid someone else for surgical help that would change the look while leaving the core infant intact.

This desire to cheat nature, while all too human, usually ends in tears. Ask Lance Armstrong. Now that same uncontrolled Packer hunger threatens to materialise on The 'Roo. Can it be a good thing?

There is understandable public outrage at the blatant exercise of Packer born-to-rulism, underlined as it is by symbolic coincidence of Crown land, Crown casino and faux-royal prerogative.

But product outlasts process, and this product is clearly inevitable. Packer's capacity to produce a billion-dollar erection is the only reason we care about the capacity of his stomach. So the question becomes, what's in it for us? Has a Packer ever made anything beautiful?

Our interest in Packer's weight loss flags a weird dichotomy. We play the faceless proles even as we sharpen our sickles for the tsars' beheading.

For we're getting uppity, too, we proles. From Twitter to clicktivism, from Destroy the Joint to people's choice awards, events and technologies foster the people-power illusion. But be not fooled. On the ground, where it matters, the tsars still have their way with us.

The new planning act, promised for January, pirouettes on its promises of ''community engagement''. Yet, while we wait politely for the white paper, the planning system as we know it is being unbolted and carried away.

Debate over Packer's casino brings this into crisis. Several issues are entwined - economy, environment, equity, public land, beauty - all, in theory, dealt with by the planning system. But so vigorous has the dismantling been of late, we no longer have a planning system to speak of.

Barry O'Farrell swept to power on his opposition to Part 3A. Since, however, his own grab for personal discretion - personal control of the 20-year state infrastructure strategy, unlimited ''step-in'' control of major projects, systematic undermining of councils' planning powers (in an act shoved through Parliament in an afternoon), defunding of the Environmental Defender's Office and the ''unsolicited proposals'' provisions that allowed Packer to penetrate Cabinet directly without passing Go - makes 3A look like kid stuff.

O'Farrell runs the usual good-cause argument. It's all about "getting NSW going again". But the beneficiaries so far are the big, not the little.

I've lived in Sydney 24 years, so I can do cynicism with the best. Of course the filthy rich run the show. Nudge, guffaw. Of course wealth is the natural hierarchy. What other order is there?

Yet deep down I am still dismayed by how readily a culture invented to overturn the power of privilege swallows its own tail. Dismayed, too, by the old rissole assumption that when money is at stake everything else - culture, climate and even the rule of law - becomes dispensable ballast.

Packer argues that we "need" a second casino because we need six-star tourists. These people, poor darlings, can stay only in six-star hotels which - for reasons that escape me - cannot survive alone and so, in turn, need the support of a six-star casino.

(Note that we're not talking green stars here, but luxury stars. On the green front, Packer's proposal relies on Barangaroo's stated "goal", namely, "to be the first precinct of its size in the world and certainly the first CBD precinct in Australia, to be climate positive." But really? Other people's unenforceable goals? That's it?)

And the tourist-dollar trickle-down is anyway unconvincing. Such super-tourists can be expected to spend most of their money within the casino itself. Why else would a hotel even be proposed, when another is anticipated in nearby Darling Harbour?

Equity is the issue that gets us all riled. Packer, we seem to think, should have to apply for his casino licence and his development approval like anyone else.

But that was never going to happen. It's not a competitive situation. The minute Packer made his offer, Keating was always going to shove it south, Lend Lease was always going to welcome it with a billion-dollar hug and O'Farrell was always going to think the whole thing a spiffingly good idea.

Once the Lend Lease deal was inked-in, further, no tender was ever going to be possible.

And it's not as if the one-casino rule has any moral content. Rather, it was an ambush marketing deal to protect Star City, as it was, which has now blotted its copybook.

In fact it's all so cosy, so all-round win-win for the big boys at the head table as to look almost arranged.

Transparent? I think it's pretty transparent, as a window onto some boarding school dorm scene. Packer says bend over. The rest hold the toys and lubricant.

As to public land. I find it hard to care if a bunch of rich low lifes want to wallow in sex, booze and financial risk in a harbourside tower. So what?

But it is public land. Packer's assertion that the casino will sit on Lend Lease's "commercial site and not on public land" fudges this issue. The land is still publicly owned, notwithstanding a 99-year lease.

Even without a functioning planning system, this is power we can use. As at East Circular Quay, property rights outweigh planning powers every time.

Packer has promised an "international design competition" for his casino but, as we know to our cost, this can be worse than catastrophic without intelligent briefing and jurors.

Two things we should insist on from the Packer priapism. One, we should tax the bejesus out of it and hypothecate the revenue stream to urban improvements. Two, we should demand a building that is ultra-green and ultra-gorgeous.

It should be as luxurious as Babylon, green as the sun god and as gorgeous as, well, a Brancusi. This should be Packer's challenge. If he can get that up, with or without surgery, I'll be impressed.

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55 comments

  • Like you, Elizabeth, I'm heartily sick of the "good for the NSW economy" justification of barely-concealed selfish commerical pursuits. The only economy that benefit from these megaplexes is the personal economy of hyper-inflated developers. Sure, there'll be a few local jobs generated, but the tiny trickle down effect of that is mere crumbs off the feasting table of excess that the Packers of the world will enjoy.

    Commenter
    Phil J.
    Location
    Seaforth
    Date and time
    November 08, 2012, 8:30AM
    • why does Packer wont to build this? it will make him richer, plain and simple. Regarding Tim Collins response to an earlier Farrelly article it seems as though the Hartcher / O'Farrell camp have simply given him a spin unit to write it for him.

      Commenter
      Franky
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      November 08, 2012, 9:24AM
    • O'Farrell has his eye on life at the big end of town after politics. It's straight out of the Obeid Standard Operating Procedures manual.

      Commenter
      doh
      Date and time
      November 08, 2012, 10:03AM
    • Ofarrell wants to make NSW number 1 again, now I know what he meant,
      number 1 pokies;
      number 1 High Roller;
      Number 1 suicidal rate in Australia (after you lost all savings, close relatives savings, the best way is killing yourself so you do not have to face them),
      What is sad state of NSW is, Liberal mob not much difference compare to Labor mob, may be all politicians are the same? birds same feather flock together? Promised alot of thing to get their foots in there, once they are in there they are just looking after their rich mates benefits, safe guarding their mates wealth, the poor voters like us can go to hell.

      Commenter
      Elite
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      November 08, 2012, 11:45AM
    • Phil J, I'm not sure you have grasped how the capitalist system works. Do you want the crumbs or not?

      Commenter
      Tom
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      November 08, 2012, 12:47PM
    • Tom,
      not if it means the greedy get to eat at tables on public land paid for by my taxes.

      Commenter
      Phil J.
      Location
      Seaforth
      Date and time
      November 08, 2012, 1:16PM
    • @PhilJ,

      That "public land" you and Ms Farrely refer to is no longer public once the government sell a 99 year lease on it........ at least until a century has lapsed. Whoever owns the lease can do what they want, and can restrict access to it, within the guidelines of the lease and the planning laws, much the same as you can restrict whoever enters your rented house and land within the guidelines of the rental agreement.

      Commenter
      BAG
      Date and time
      November 08, 2012, 3:58PM
  • Personally I can't stand casinos. I hate Star City. It's an RSL club on steroids devoid of life and soul. A friend had to spend 15 minutes convincing me to go from Darling Harbour to there because it had a nice ice cream shop (ok, it was pretty good).

    Having said that I think Packer is right. Australia is too far and too expensive to attract the average tourist. We need something to attract the wealthy. Looking at a bridge and some house isn't going to do that. A casino and 6-star hotel will possibly do that.

    Moreover, the tax dollars generated (from the gambling), employment opportunities for the relatively unskilled (hotel and casino staff) and construction jobs will be a welcome shot in the arm that NSW needs. The more the better. NSW is a relatively stagnant economy shackled by high state and federal taxes and poor infrastructure.

    You're not going to get something that's pretty and it's not your expectations that have to be impressed. Frankly, I find most of Brancusi's stuff to be hideous. Art is little more than opinion and not something to be a goal, especially for a building. Most French people thought the Eiffel Tower was an eyesore....most Australians thought the same of the Opera House.

    Commenter
    Bender
    Date and time
    November 08, 2012, 8:49AM
    • The Eiffel Tower was a radio tower that was going to be torn down, not some beautifully designed building

      Commenter
      Franky
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      November 08, 2012, 9:22AM
    • I have yet to met a single Australian who considers the Opera House an eyesore.

      Commenter
      Warren Pease
      Date and time
      November 08, 2012, 10:31AM

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