The government encountered a rare spot of bother this week over regulations aimed at creating a new casino in Colombo-and the man at the centre of the controversy is Australian business magnate, James Packer.
Packer’s plans to set up a 450-room hotel and casino complex at D. R. Wijewardena Mawatha in the heart of the city at a cost of 400 million dollars ran into trouble with even partners of the ruling United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) protesting strongly.
Faced with such opposition, the government hurriedly announced that plans to allow the casino have been put on hold. The state run Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC) said that no new licenses for “betting centers” would be granted.
Quoting Investment Promotions Minister Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena, the SLBC said that the government was instead taking measures to moves all casinos to a “special zone” in Colombo, so they could be better regulated. Ironically however, at the same time James Packer was back in Australia announcing the launch of the casino in Sri Lanka and revealing that Australian cricket captain Michael Clarke would be an “education ambassador” for the gaming resort.
" James Packer was educated in elite schools in Sydney but was told not to enter university by his father. “Why would he want to go there? To learn how to smoke marijuana?” Kerry Packer famously asked "
“I look forward to providing a helping hand to support and mentor young people in all parts of Sri Lanka, ensuring Sri Lankans get the training they deserve and an opportunity for a career in hospitality,” Clarke says in a television advertisement that attracted criticism in Australia.
Clarke’s appearance as a promoter of casinos has been condemned because gambling and ‘match fixing’ in international cricket matches has become widespread and many cricketers have fallen prey to the lure of big money bribes.
" James Packer maintains a relatively low profile compared to his father Kerry who was renowned not only for his brilliant business acumen but also for his own gambling habit, for ‘hiring and firing’ employees in an instant and for his temperamental outbursts, all in the full glare of the media "
Controversy, however, must be in the Packer genes. Sri Lankans will remember James Packer’s father, Kerry Packer as the man who revolutionised cricket in the ‘70s, taking on the cricket establishment and launching World Series Cricket, pitting the world’s top cricketers in night time cricket. The move, frowned upon by the International Cricket Council at the time caused serious fractures in the game’s establishment but brought better pay for cricketers and a range of new innovations such as day-night games, coloured clothing and a white cricket ball that have become common place today.
Kerry Packer, for many years Australia’s richest man was himself the son of media tycoon Frank Packer, but is credited with building on his father’s business empire that included the Channel Nine television station famous for its cricket commentaries.
Kerry Packer died in 2005, leaving his businesses in the hands of his only son James Packer, but James had by that time gained considerable experience in managing his father’s enterprises as the latter had been in failing health for some time.
James Packer was educated in elite schools in Sydney, but was told not to enter university by his father. “Why would he want to go there? To learn how to smoke marijuana?” Kerry Packer famously asked. James was sent to a cattle ranch instead to “toughen up and prepare for the world of business”. Just as much as Kerry Packer changed the direction of his father’s business interests from the media to cricket, James has slowly been changing the direction of the Packer business empire towards large scale gambling resorts.
Packer’s record as a businessman is equivocal. After inheriting his father’s businesses, he was Australia’s richest man in 2006 and 2007, but a series of poor investments saw him plunge to sixth position in the ‘Rich List’ in the country. Currently he is ranked third and is worth six billion dollars.
James Packer maintains a relatively low profile compared to his father Kerry who was renowned not only for his brilliant business acumen but also for his own gambling habit, for ‘hiring and firing’ employees in an instant and for his temperamental outbursts, all in the full glare of the media.
However, James Packer’s romances with models and actresses have been well publicised. He eventually married model and singer Erica Baxter in 2007, but announced he was separating from her last month. He is the father of three children, the youngest only one-year-old.
Packer is now the head of ‘Crown Limited’, the company which owns and manages his casinos. It operates major gaming resorts in Melbourne and Perth in Australia and in the tiny nation of Macau under the ‘Crown’ brand. It also owns a chain of casinos in the United Kingdom.
Sri Lanka will be the latest addition to this network. In explaining why he chose the country over destinations such as the Maldive Islands and Singapore, James Packer said that he had great confidence in the country’s future. “It is Sri Lanka’s time to shine in Asia”, Packer said.
Packer is confident that his project would ‘redefine’ Sri Lankan tourism. He hopes that his casino, which will create 2500 jobs, will lead to a surge in tourist arrivals-currently around one million a year-to more than twice that amount. He expects them to be mostly from India and China.
While even critics of the project concede that it will create substantial employment opportunities for Sri Lankans, they argue that it could also lead to many social problems such as gambling, alcoholism, drug trafficking and prostitution, issues that are common in other cities which thrive on gambling.
Among the parties which have opposed Packer’s casino plans are the UPFA’s partners, the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), both parties stating that it would not be in accordance with Buddhist and Muslim religious tenets to promote gambling.
Whether these parties will go to the extent of voting against the regulations catering to the casino project is a moot point: it is expected that they will be modified and among the changes being contemplated is for gambling to be restricted to foreigners.
The government is likely to pass legislation with these caveats and argue that this will bring in economic benefits while ensuring Sri Lankans are safe from the evils of gambling-and James Packer is very likely to be a frequent visitor to our shores as he inspects the latest jewel in his ‘Crown’.