The sad arc of a broken billionaire is the latest chapter of the James Packer story, playing out quietly for several years, but fully exposed to the public last week.
It is a tribute to the skilfulness and power of Crown Resorts that Packer’s threatening email had not become public until now, despite the valiant efforts of some journalists. The bar to publication of such explosive material is a high one. Even now, for reasons we don’t know, inquiry head Commissioner Patricia Bergin, determined we should remain unaware of the detail of their threatening contents.
For those outside the bubble, the hearings confirmed two universal truths: by and large, the super-rich get what they want and money doesn’t buy happiness.
Those in the bubble focused on Crown’s governance, and the billion-dollar questions – would Crown get to keep its casino licence at Barangaroo, and would Packer get to keep his stake in Crown. The inquiry heard about the extraordinary inertia of wealth: even though Packer had resigned from Crown, board and management still acted with great deference to their 36 per cent shareholder, feeding him financial updates and information on board meetings. It seemed they couldn’t say no to him.
Nor could the NSW government. Remember, this was a casino no one asked for, but the NSW government was happy to accept when Crown made the offer to build it.
Packer’s evidence last week, beamed in from his $200 million superyacht IJE, named after his three kids, Indigo, Jackson, and Emmanuelle, showed the slow pace at which Packer is recovering from this third breakdown in 15 years. The temptation to quote from William Shakespeare’s study of dynastic power, Henry IV, Part 2, was irresistible: Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.
The bard would find much to work with: young Packer’s 1990s coming of age, converting his name from Jamie to James. His 2001 business disaster with OneTel, when Packer and Lachlan Murdoch’s telecommunications venture collapsed, embarrassing their parents and underlining suspicions that the younger generation were no match for their fathers.
Then there was the battle of Bondi in 2014, the kerbside scuffle with best mate David Gyngell on the streets of Bondi, that made headlines around the world and led to a lasting enmity. Such is the Packer mythology there have already been three television dramas and Packer & Sons, a multigenerational play performed at Belvoir Street.
But there are signs that Australia has moved on from the Packer clan. Other billionaires, such as the Atlassian tech-bro buddies, Scott Farquhar and Mike Cannon-Brookes, worth about $US11 billion ($15 billion) each, compared with Packer’s $US3.2 billion, seem more relevant and contemporary. They also seem happier, in part no doubt never having had to deal with the unbearable weight of expectations from a domineering father.
Mates since university, Farquhar and Cannon-Brookes bought neighbouring harbourside mansions for $70 million and $100 million respectively. And then knocked a hole in the fence so their kids could play together. Despite the public seemingly not quite sure what Atlassian’s software actually does, they know it is globally successful, and it is a cool place to work.
But beyond its signature pool tables, lolly bowls, and staff dress-ups for Halloween and Thanksgiving, Atlassian could actually teach Crown a thing or two about corporate governance. Like most tech companies, it operates on a culture of feedback, where even the lowliest staff member feels they can speak their mind openly to their bosses. That was a trait the inquiry heard was beyond the abilities of even Crown’s highly paid board directors, who couldn’t deliver bad news to Packer.
But there was something else the Packer testimony underlined: the appearance of another broken man. The year 2020 does not seem to be a great time to be a bloke, whether you a a politician, sports star or even Prince Harry. If you can think of a Generation X or younger Aussie male comfortable in themselves and confidently living their best life who isn’t Hugh Jackman or Chris Hemsworth, let me know, because I am struggling to come up with examples.
What does the future hold for Packer? My methodist dislike of gambling is tempered by the fact that Crown employs more than 18,000 people in Melbourne and Perth, and will employ thousands in Sydney, including friends. And to traverse Crown Melbourne during Spring Racing Carnival is to feel at the epicentre of Melbourne life. I have avoided the gambling tables but have been hosted at Nobu.
Whatever the outcome of the inquiry, Crown Sydney has already made a fortune from its 82 residences, and its 350-room hotel and 14 restaurants will open before Christmas. Notwithstanding the future of its casino licence, and Packer’s individual shareholding, Crown Sydney will join the Roslyn Packer Theatre, The Australian Women’s Weekly and portable ambulance defibrillators as Packer family legacies. And while James Packer owns a $60 million penthouse on level 48 and 49 of the Barangaroo complex, merged from six apartments, it has been a long time since he has called Sydney home. His superyacht was due to depart French Polynesia over the weekend for destinations unknown. Unmoored from his family and possibly from Crown if the regulator forces him to sell down his shareholding, James Packer seems once again destined to navigate the high seas, never quite finding home.
Stephen Brook is CBD columnist for The Age. He is a former features editor and media editor at The Australian, where he wrote the Media Diary column and hosted the Behind The Media podcast. He spent six years in London working for The Guardian.