James Packer’s Sri Lankan casino was always, in every way, a house of cards.
The sweetheart deal he was offered – up to $1bn in 10-year tax breaks promised by the government of then-president Mahinda Rajapaksa – was too good to be true, and too fragile to last.
Last Friday Packer’s Crown group abandoned the $350m development after the new government withdrew the generous tax concessions, and on Monday it declared Packer unwelcome in the country at any time.
Packer needed the Rajapaksa family – Mahinda’s brother Basil was the key man behind the development – and he needed their cronies, in particular Ravi Wijeratne, a man regarded as “almost family” to the president, and who was to be the local face of the development.
It was they who could shield the project from the protests of Buddhist groups who resented a massive casino being built near a temple, and from the political opposition, who decried the special treatment being handed out to a foreign investor at the expense of the people.
So when Rajapaksa was unceremoniously bundled out of office last month in an election result that shocked the world, the complex web of support for the Packer project instantly disintegrated.
The new broom of Sri Lankan politics has turned its attention to the kind of insider deals the Rajapaksas were famous for.
Packer’s project not only had the highest profile – the lakeside land for the 36-storey building was right in the heart of Colombo, and the Australian’s involvement had been proudly broadcast – it was the easiest to end.
Within days of taking office, the new administration removed the extraordinary concessions offered to Packer.
When he announced in response that the project was cancelled, the new (though recycled) prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, welcomed the decision, and happily vented the frustrations of the electorate on the foreigner.
“Packer has said he will not come. Who asked you to come? Please don’t come, not in this lifetime. We need only good investors.”
The opprobrium directed at Packer, more than a personal attack, is a reflection of the deep dissatisfaction within the Sri Lankan polity and people, a belief that for too long the country’s promise had been pillaged at the expense of the many, to the benefit of the few.
Elected on a promise of governmental reform, of openness and accountability, and on eschewing the trappings of office, Sri Lanka’s new president, Maithripala Sirisena, has set himself a 100-day reform program against corruption before holding parliamentary elections.
He has promised to reverse Rajapaksa’s constitutional changes, which gave the office of the president unprecedented powers over the judiciary and removed term limits.
And the new president has already sacked hundreds of government officials and diplomats seen as Rajapaksa’s “political” appointments.
He has promised jail terms for corrupt government officials, and already his government has outed a customs scam that had been running for years, at a cost of billions of rupees.
The symbolic is important too in South Asia’s oldest democracy, and Sirisena has sought to oblige: he has cancelled an order for a new personal aircraft from the United States, and insisted the honorific “his excellency” be dropped from all correspondence. He has cut his security detail by three-quarters, and mandated his family not use the military’s VIP helicopters (a Rajapaksa favourite).
Whether the promises of a new government can be upheld, and whether the pace of reform can be maintained, will be Sri Lanka’s test for the future.
But James Packer’s casino deal is finished, ended by the people of Sri Lanka at the ballot box.
Rajapaksa was Packer’s ace, and without the president the whole house of cards came inevitably crashing down. (The Guardian)