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Can State Government stare down Star as it tries to tighten casino laws?

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Casino operator Star has put the State Government on the spot by requesting changes to tough new amendments to the Casino Control Act writes Robert MacDonald.

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We’re going to find out soon if the Queensland Government has finally stopped caving into the financial might of the casino industry.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a column about the 40-year campaign by the state’s casino operators to water down Queensland’s casino oversight laws – once regarded as the toughest in the country.

Just three days later, Attorney-General Shannon Fentiman introduced legislation to Parliament to put some steel back into the Casino Control Act.

At last, it seemed, the Government was standing up to an industry that had successfully bluffed lawmakers for years with the potent argument of, “Give us what we want, or casino jobs, investment and taxes will dry up”.

But we’re not there yet.

The state’s biggest casino operator, Star Entertainment, is pushing back.

Star’s submission to Parliament’s Legal Affairs and Safety Committee, which is currently considering the legislation, proposes a very substantial legal loophole.

The draft legislation, as it stands, imposes a new duty on casino entities and associates “to do everything necessary to ensure that the management and operation of a casino is conducted fairly and honestly.”

You wouldn’t think you have to write into law a requirement that businesses “do everything necessary” to be fair and honest.

But on all the evidence of appalling behaviour revealed in recent casino inquiries in southern states perhaps you do.

And so there it is in black and white – “Do everything necessary” to be fair and honest or face substantial fines.

Too black and white for Star, which “respectfully suggests” an amendment.

It proposes that instead of doing “everything necessary”, the new section should read, “do everything reasonably necessary”.

In other words, replacing certainty – “everything necessary” – with equivocating weasel words – “everything reasonably necessary” – to create a loophole big enough for a truck driven by a clever lawyer to drive through.

Star argues that “reasonableness” qualifications are common in legislative instruments, and that it doesn’t consider “the inclusion of the same would detract from the objective of the amendment”.

Perhaps, but it takes a certain amount of chutzpah for a company so roundly embarrassed by the recent New South Wales inquiry into its Sydney casino operations to be splitting legal hairs with Queensland regulators.

Star also doesn’t like the idea that, under the new rules, the responsible state minister could issue “a letter of censure” for bad behaviour without first issuing a show cause notice.

“A censure letter obviously has the capacity to reflect negatively on a casino entity,” The Star says in its submission.

It wants to be able to comment on any proposed letter of censure before it’s issued, “consistent with natural justice and procedural principles”.

And if that’s not enough to sway the State Government’s thinking, it also plays its ace, the one the casino companies always use when they’re leveraging one state of against another.

“Consultation prior to the issuing of a letter of censure is consistent with the New South Wales and Victorian positions, where show cause notices precede letters of censure.”

The draft Queensland legislation also proposes that regulators be able to consider the findings of interstate or federal inquires when judging the suitability of local casino operators.

Again, Star feels this is unfair.

“A Queensland casino entity may not have necessarily had the opportunity to be heard before, or make submissions to, the State or Commonwealth inquiry whose findings the Minister is considering,” its submission says.

“That potentially denies the Queensland casino entity procedural fairness in decisions the Minister is making as to Ongoing Suitability.”

It proposes the new legislation allow for a “procedural right of replay” in the event the responsible minister decides to use interstate inquiry findings to consider Star’s fate in Queensland.

Star walks a fine line in its submission.

On the one hand, it has to show it fully supports efforts to ensure a law-abiding local gambling industry.

“The Star would welcome the opportunity to continue to engage with the committee, the Office of Liquor and Gaming Regulation Queensland and the Queensland Government more broadly on opportunities for further legislative reform for the gaming industry in Queensland,” it says.

On the other hand, it needs to protect its own interests.

Star casts its proposed changes to the draft legislation as little more than drafting changes intended to provide more clarity and procedural fairness.

Intriguingly, the Government had already consulted Star and the other Queensland casino operators during the preparation of the new draft legislation.

So presumably, some or all of the drafting changes proposed by Star have already been considered and rejected by the Government, which means Star is fighting a rearguard action for whatever purpose.

Either that, or the proposed new law is in fact poorly drafted.

In either case the State Government is facing a dilemma.

It either hangs tough and sticks to its proposed new legislation to finally prove it can stand up to the casinos.

Or it backs down, either because the casinos have once more won the bluff (“think of the money”) or, more prosaically, because of poorly drafted legislation.

We’ll find out soon enough.  The committee report on the draft legislation it due on 22 July.

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