A series of explosive reports about alleged efforts by Australian gaming giant Crown Resorts to lure Chinese high-rollers to its casinos has led to calls for the federal government to tackle corruption and create a national anti-corruption agency.
In recent weeks, Nine's newspapers and television station have aired numerous reports alleging that Crown partnered with crime-linked "junket" operators.
The reports, apparently based on court files and thousands of leaked internal documents, said Crown had allegedly paid a money launderer to bring Asian gamblers to its casinos and had failed to adequately scrutinise its junket partners.
Crown's alleged activities to lure Chinese gamblers reportedly led to 19 staff members being arrested in China in 2016 over breaches of Chinese law which bans gambling and promotion of gambling.
The reports also revealed that Australian consular officials fast-tracked short-stay visas for Chinese gamblers.
And two government ministers allegedly lobbied the Department of Home Affairs for "arrangements which smoothed out the processes" for VIP private jets to enter Australia.
Crown has vigorously denied the reports. Its board of directors took out full-page newspaper advertisements saying the allegations were deceitful.
"Much of this unbalanced and sensationalised reporting is based on unsubstantiated allegations, exaggerations, unsupported connections and outright falsehoods," it said. It insisted it had a "robust process for vetting junket operators".
MORE TO COME
The allegations that we know of so far are just the tip of the iceberg.
INDEPENDENT MP ANDREW WILKIE
Crown is Australia's largest gaming company and operates two of its biggest casinos, in Melbourne and Perth. It is currently building a new luxury hotel and VIP gaming room in Sydney. The firm is part-owned by Mr James Packer, one of Australia's richest people.
He recently sold a 20 per cent stake in the firm to Mr Lawrence Ho's Hong Kong-based firm Melco Resorts and Entertainment. Mr Ho, the son of casino tycoon Stanley Ho, previously partnered with Mr Packer to operate ventures in Macau.
The New South Wales gaming authority is investigating Mr Packer's sale of shares to Mr Ho as well as the allegations raised by the Nine reports.
Melco said yesterday that Mr Stanley Ho was not involved in its business, following reports that the authority had barred him from involvement in Crown's Sydney plans over his alleged links to organised crime.
The revelations about Crown have prompted calls for the ruling Liberal-Nation Coalition to urgently set up a corruption agency. All states already have such agencies.
Australia was ranked 13th in Transparency International's most recent international corruption perception index. But its ranking has dropped in recent years.
The Coalition last December said it backed the creation of an anti-corruption body, to be called the Commonwealth Integrity Commission. But critics say the proposed agency would be too weak and exclude most civil servants and bodies from public scrutiny.
Independent Member of Parliament Andrew Wilkie said the allegations about Crown showed the need for an anti-corruption body "with teeth". He told Parliament: "The allegations... concerning Crown have been nothing short of breathtaking... Allegations such as the casino's links with organised crime and the Chinese ruling elite; the fact that wanted international criminals are flying in and out of Australia on private jets to gamble at Crown Casino; allegations of money laundering; allegations of sweetheart deals with consular officials to facilitate hundreds of visas for Crown patrons every year."
He added: "The allegations that we know of so far are just the tip of the iceberg."
Political commentator Laura Tingle expressed concern about the "extraordinary silence" of both the Coalition and the Labor opposition party following the "shocking" revelations about Crown. "The Crown revelations this week have exposed for all to see the problems with the existing structures for investigating corruption at a national level," she wrote on ABC News website.
Both the Coalition and the Labor have received political donations from Crown. The firm has also hired senior former ministers from both parties.
Tellingly, the politicians who pressed the Government for a wide-ranging investigation into Crown were independent MPs and members of the Greens.
These cross-bench MPs called for a parliamentary inquiry into the Crown revelations but the Coalition and Labor resisted the move. Instead, the Government referred the claims to the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity (ACLEI), which will involve a more limited inquiry into the conduct of law enforcement agencies.
Political commentator Peter Hartcher said the ACLEI inquiry lacked the power to investigate "ministers, MPs, business people, drug traffickers, money launderers, agents of Communist Party interference, casino managers".
"Until and unless a serious and powerful National Integrity Commission is in place, Australia, in the eyes of its own people, has no integrity," he wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald.
"How can Australia possibly justify having an independent anti-corruption watchdog in every state, but none federally? Does a magic circle of saintly virtue repulse all temptation at the border of the Australian Capital Territory?"