Can the stench left by scoundrels and money launderers be cleaned up in time for Star’s big party?

Plagued by all manner of construction delays, industrial disputes and government investigations, the  suitability of the Queen’s Wharf casino ownership will be laid bare in the coming weeks. The impact will spread far and wide, writes David Fagan

Feb 20, 2024, updated Feb 20, 2024
The Queens Wharf project was on target for an April opening (image supplied)

The Queens Wharf project was on target for an April opening (image supplied)

The bombshell report that determines who will own Brisbane’s casino complex when it finally opens by this time next year is sitting on a George Street desk, awaiting delivery to the Queensland Attorney-General.

It finds whether concerns about the associations of the major Queen’s Wharf investor Chow Tai Fook are enough to force the sale of its 25% holding in the city’s biggest property development and state’s largest private sector investment.

This is a document that has been more than 18 months in the making and its completion and delivery comes at a crucial time for the casino operator, Star Entertainment, which is battling its own probity allegations in NSW and still facing court action over industrial-scale money laundering allowed at its three casinos. It may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

Star’s share price has already been hammered and it has been forced to raise more than $1 billion in the past year to help cover the costs of fines imposed by two state governments and looming through a Federal Court action brought by the money laundering agency Austrac.

Construction of Queen’s Wharf has been a slow journey, punctuated by cost blowouts, construction slowdowns, criminal investigations, bad weather and more disruption than the public expected to the western end of the CBD.

The investigation that will determine if Chow Tai Fook will be at the opening party was kicked off in August 2022 when the ABC reported that there were questions about the associations of one of the Hong Kong based company. The reports were sufficient for the then Attorney-General Shannon Fentiman to announce she would seek an investigation.

It then took months to kick off and it’s now been well over a year since the Office of Liquor and Gaming Regulation commissioned a global investigator, PKF Integrity Services, to do the job.

Depending on its findings, this could be a devil of a problem for the state government. If Chow Tai Fook is considered unsuitable then the state must insist it sell out its interest in the Queen’s Wharf project. This would almost certainly set off a legal challenge as Brisbane is not the only casino the company is invested in.

If the findings are that it is suitable, then it is reasonable to ask why it has taken so long to complete the investigation. A major investor in Queensland would rightly think that its confidence in the state has been repaid ungraciously.

The Office of Liquor and Gaming Regulation has told InQueensland the investigation is complete and is in the hands of the government. The Attorney-General’s office says it is waiting for both the results and any recommendations, action that should be imminent.

The necessity to investigate Chow Tai Fook (which passed probity checks when Star was issued the Brisbane licence in 2015) and the money laundering activity since uncovered at Star’s Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sydney properties illustrate the peril of large scale gaming activity.

This had fresh light shed yesterday when the NSW Government announced a review of whether Star’s city casino had cleaned up its act enough to be able to keep operating under current ownership.

While casinos create jobs and generate much associated economic activity, the sheer volume of money and the willingness to break the law means they also need serious policing.

The level of laundering activity that was allowed under the Star business model before Austrac called time on it last year shows both a breakdown of the business’s culture and serious failure by regulators.

Unwatched, this makes the centre of our city a crime hub – just at a time when the community as a whole is deeply troubled by crime. And there is a link. A lot of the crime in Brisbane’s suburbs is aimed at raising money to buy drugs.

The drug dealers have to find a way to launder their money and, from what we know, regular trips to the casino are a too easy way to do it.

The casino part of this problem (as does general application of the law) now sits with the Attorney-General Yvette D’Ath, enjoying her second spell in this portfolio. Ms D’Ath has many detractors, mainly due to her poor retail skills in turning the the sow’s ear of the Health portfolio into any sort of purse.

But as Attorney-General, she has good form. Her resolution of the conflict when the Supreme Court was in uprising over the Newman Government’s appointment of an inexperienced political favourite, Tim Carmody, as Chief Justice was elegant.

She will need such skills to resolve what is to happen if the time taken on this investigation is a measure of the issues surrounding Chow Tai Fook.

Amid all this, there is reason to celebrate some of what has been achieved with Queen’s Wharf. If you haven’t yet, take a walk along the riverfront between Queen Street and QUT for a taste of how ugly urban space can be made attractive and useable. On that front, at least, everyone’s a winner.

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