O'Farrell denies favouring Packer
Met with the Premier, Barry O'Farrell, one week before the policy changes were introduced ... James Packer. Photo: Rob Homer
CHANGES to guidelines for when the NSW government can bypass a competitive tender for projects brought to it by the private sector were approved by cabinet before James Packer submitted his proposal for a $1 billion hotel and casino at Barangaroo.
But the government insists that the changes made no difference to the way Mr Packer's proposal was assessed and the timing was a coincidence.
The Premier, Barry O'Farrell, has confirmed that the cabinet's infrastructure subcommittee signed off on new rules for dealing with public-private partnerships in July. The new rules watered down the original Working with Government guidelines that stipulated the government must seek ''independent evaluations'' of a project before deciding it will not go to a competitive tender.
The guidelines form an integral part of the government's ''unsolicited proposals'' policy for dealing with projects brought to it by the private sector.
The changes were introduced on August 17, one week after Mr O'Farrell met Mr Packer to discuss his plans and shortly before Mr Packer submitted his proposal under the unsolicited proposals process on September 6.
The government has sought to distance itself from the changes to its policy by arguing they were ''minor administrative changes and clarifications'' made by the Department of Premier and Cabinet. It insists the changes were unrelated to the Crown proposal.
Commenting for the first time on Wednesday after his return from India, Mr O'Farrell said the changes ''went through the cabinet process in the usual way''. ''I think you'll find it's more coincidence than anything that they were promulgated in August,'' he said.
Mr O'Farrell said he did not discuss the changes with Mr Packer on August 10. ''It was a discussion where he told us what he was proposing and we directed him that if there was to be a firm proposal it should come through the various processes that we have in place,'' he said.
A spokesman for Mr O'Farrell later said that as a result of the cabinet decision, the Department of Premier and Cabinet made ''administrative changes'' to the unsolicited proposals guidelines, which had been in place since January. He said the changes fixed duplication between the Working with Government guidelines and the unsolicited proposals policy that refers to them. ''They made absolutely no change to the assessment process,'' he said.
The government announced on October 25 that Mr Packer's six-star hotel and casino project for Barangaroo has received cabinet approval to proceed to stage two of a three-stage unsolicited proposals assessment process.
Mr Packer wants to include VIP-only gambling rooms in the proposed hotel to make the project profitable and needs the government to issue a second Sydney casino licence when the monopoly licence held by the Star casino expires in 2019. The government has said the casino licence will not go to tender.