Sparks will fly over casino deal

by Chris Griffith
Published 22 November 1992 in The Sun-Herald


my face


Place your bets! The sparks will fly when state parliament debates a small, 10-page Bill introduced this month designed to fast-track Brisbane's casino on the Treasury site.

The Brisbane Casino Agreement Bill will further fuel the conflict that has existed since May when Cabinet awarded Jupiters preferred applicant status to build a complex with 169 rooms, 102 tables, and 1220 gaming machines at a then-estimated cost of $205.2 million.

First, there was a complaint Jupiter's tender did not comply with the plan's original requirement of a minimum 200 room-hotel, and Jupiters failed to meet a minimum founder shareholding of 40 per cent once its founding partner Daikyo had left.

The Government, too, was accused of breaching the international Burra Charter guidelines that govern the restoration and development of heritage sites.

The Senate also heard allegations of alleged Yakuza influence in Daikyo, claims of insider share trading, and concern about the exchange of 1.7 million Jupiters' shares in the two weeks before the May announcement. The authorities have established no improper activity.

Attention this week, however, will move to the Bill itself, in particular clauses that will fast-track the development and shield decisions on both the Casino's development and operation from challenge in the Courts.

Underlying everyone's concern is the fate of Brisbane's historic 106-year-old Treasury Building and Lands Administration Buildings on sites reserved for government purposes since 1824.

The normally low-key National Trust of Queensland, a 50-strong Architects group of members of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects, and the Green Party have formed a Coalition to save these buildings from this fate.

Also gunning is the National Party, which despite its Deen Brothers heritage credentials, when in Government announced a plan to restore the Treasury Building for Crown use for only $13 million. This was to be funded from leasing another Government-owned site for private redevelopment.

Of course, gambling in Queensland is a lucrative source of government revenue. The Treasurer's Annual Statement for 1991-92 showed the Government received $36.5 million from Casino Tax, $95.3 million from Gold Lotto, $55.5 million from the Golden Casket, and $3.5 million from Machine Gaming Tax.

In the Casino's case, the successful tenderer's licence fee will fund the exhibition and convention centre built on Brisbane's South Bank. Whether this justifies the Bill's major departure from legislative principles is another matter and something the government must consider seriously.

Let us examine in detail what is proposed. First, the Bill declares the Casino is a Crown development, and not a Jupiters' Ltd development. In doing so, the Heritage Council's role under the Heritage Act is changed from a determining body on the Casino project to an advisory one.

Secondly, the Bill says a decision on the Casino's development or its operation "is final and conclusive; and cannot be challenged in any other way, under the [Judicial] Review Act or otherwise (whether by the Supreme Court, another Court, a tribunal, an authority or a person)".

Nor is the development or operation "subject to any declaratory, injunctive, or other order of the Supreme Court or another court, a tribunal, an authority or a person on any ground."

These clauses have angered the National Trust and Architects group who have described the Bill as "draconian" and "an outrage".

There is also general concern that the Goss Government has now departed openly and unashamedly from the accountability measures recommended in the Fitzgerald report.

In his report, Fitzgerald recommended that the Electoral and Administrative Review Commission (EARC) explore a right for anyone to challenge government decisions in the courts, and made particular reference to tendering and contracts.

Fitzgerald outlined controversial contracts such as the Bundaberg Maternity Hotel, the Winchester South Coal prospecting lease, and the Brisbane Rail Electrification project, which would have benefited from public scrutiny and questioning.

EARC conducted a review on this matter in 1990. As a result Parliament last year passed the Judicial Review Act to provide a right to court review in legislation.

In response, Mr De Lacy says a Casino is "a very special circumstance", one of very few that justifies waving this right. He says the government has "never made any secret of the fact that some standards and normal rights are curtailed in the operation of casinos". "You just need to look at the Casino Control legislation, and see what the operators are subject to, and what the employees are subject to. It's just the way it is, but there is a greater need," he said.

Yet in its report EARC said it had considered the arguments against judicial review applying to government tendering and contract decisions and found the concerns expressed were "probably greatly exaggerated".

In July 1990, EARC officer Greg Sorensen presented a paper on this issue at a Commission public seminar.

There is also concern the Bill breaches the Government's Cabinet Handbook guidelines, and further, the "fundamental legislative principles" in the new Legislative Standards Act.

This is another Fitzgerald report-inspired Act passed only this year designed to ensure all new government legislation is consistent with natural justice and the principles of open and accountable government.

Queensland Council for Civil Liberties president Terry O'Gorman says he will bring the whole issue back to EARC's attention. He says the Government's action shows a Bill of Rights is the only mechanism that can guarantee a person's right to remedy in the Courts.

He says it shows the rights provided in legislation such as the Judicial Review Act can be revoked as easily as passed.

"Excluding anyone who has a complaint about the way the Casino is developed and operated from going to the Courts is to encourage the very corruption and malpractices the Treasurer claims the exclusion of the courts is designed to prevent."

Again Mr De Lacy argues the Casino is a special case. "There is scope under the Legislative Standards Act for Casino legislation and other very special cases for those standards to be modified", he said.

Meanwhile, the National Trust, the Architects, the Green Party, and local history groups have already presented a petition to parliament, and are now planning a candlelight vigil outside the Treasury Building at 7.00 pm on Friday December 4th.

The ominous sign for the Government is this broad coalition may capture the public's imagination. If so, the Government could be in for a long hot summer.