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Packer behind Mahinda-Abbott friendship?

| by Upul Joseph Fernando 

( May 7, 2014, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Suspicion is building up with regard to the relationship between casino king, James Packer and the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime. The government introduced a Bill last year that facilitated Packer to start casino clubs in Sri Lanka. However, the Bill was withdrawn from the Parliament agenda due to protest by the Buddhist monks and the patriotic elements in the government.

Recently, the government passed another Bill titled Strategic Development Project Act, amidst protests of the Mahanayake Theras of the three Nikayas. Basil Rajapaksa assured in Parliament the Bill would not pave the way for casino. However, ruling UPFA coalition partners, Minister Champika Ranawaka and MP Athuraliye Rathana Thera, voted against it. Forty-nine MPs of the government were not present in Parliament on the day the vote was taken. MP Namal Rajaksa and several MP friends of his were touring in Korea those days. After the Bill was passed, ABC Radio Network said that James Packer would not arrive in Sri Lanka unless he was granted a licence for his casino project. The report was as follows:

Sri Lanka's refusal to allow James Packer to build a casino here will not be a major setback for his Asian expansion plans for Crown Casino, according to analysts.

"The Sri Lankan Government has caved into pressure from community and Buddhist groups opposed to any additional casino licences in the country. Packer and two other developers had their plans for casinos knocked back.

Brian Han, a senior research analyst with Fat Prophets, says Packer hopes to expand his lucrative high roller business around Asia. "(In) Macau, he's building another property over there, so that will be the principal focus," he said. "There's also talk of him entering Tokyo – that will be a major project if that gets the go-ahead because that will be a US$ 5 billion property. On top of that.... he's looking at Sydney, which he will get into in a few years time – and then there is of course the US market."

Packer has been extending his business empire away from its media base and into casinos. Han says the Asian expansion is a long-term strategy.

"What he's trying to do is spread his irons right across the world, so that he has a real attractive offering to premium high rollers to visit all these cities," he said.

Govt. still has hopes

While the government leaders keep mum, Minister of Investment Promotion, Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena said Packer had not given up the project in Sri Lanka.

It is clear that the government is split regarding Packer. The government wants to appease Packer ignoring the protests of the Chief Buddhist monks and the internal elements of the government that are against casino. But the government is afraid of doing so.

The development indicates that the government has had Packer done some work and feels guilty since it cannot deliver what was promised to him. Perhaps, the government may have had Packer done the job and now it is evading returning the benevolence.

"What help did Packer grant to the government?"

The government's woe to appease Packer shows that the help was not a simple one.

The talks about Packer's arrival in Sri Lanka spread as the government wanted to host the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Sri Lanka. It was to be decided at the CHOGM held in Australia in 2011 and Packer's visit was also announced by that time. Sri Lanka was decided as the venue for CHOGM. When Canada and international human rights organizations protested Sri Lanka as the venue, the Rajapaksa Government needed the support of the Australian Government at a time, when the Prime Minister of that country was the incumbent Chair of the Commonwealth. Tony Abbott was elected the Prime Minister of Australia by the time the protests against Sri Lanka were intensifying.

Relations with Asia

At the same time, a pact was agreed between Abbott and Packer aiming at strengthening of the relations with Asia. Following report of Sydney Morning Herald that Packer was the person who advised Abbott about the importance of strengthening ties with Asia.

Casino boss James Packer has criticized former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, Kevin Rudd, accusing him of damaging Australia's relations in Asia during his time in office.

Describing himself as a 'big fan' of Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Packer said Rudd had weakened Australia's ties in the region by lecturing foreign leaders.
"I think when you go around and lecture people, and I think you know who I'm talking about, some people don't take that well and especially if you position yourself as a foreign policy expert.

"I think the truth is that Australia's relationships with China, Japan, and Indonesia probably all went backwards over the past five years," Packer told Fairfax Radio 3AW.

When you take this report into consideration, it is clear that Packer was immensely instrumental to win the support of Prime Minister Abbott. The former President of Commonwealth was pushing hard that the 2013 CHOGM should be held in Sri Lanka. Packer might be the person who was behind soliciting Australia's support for Sri Lanka. The suspicion materializes since the government set forth a Bill pertaining to casino a month ahead of CHOGM held in Colombo in 2013.

The government withdrew the Bill amidst protests by the Buddhist monks. CHOGM was held in November 2013 and Packer was a keynote speaker at the Business Forum held parallel to the meeting. He introduced Sri Lanka as a '21st century business destination.' Several months after CHOGM, the Government of Sri Lanka set forth the Strategic Development Project Act.

Although, the government wants to appease Packer, it is clear that the government also does not want to see its end due to the casino licence granted to Packer.

( The writer is a senior journalist and the editor of Mawbima, a daily newspaper based in Colombo.)

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