The Poisoned Chalice – Another Casino for Brisbane

When the state government under Campbell Newman announced that there would be a ‘competition’ to select a design for a new casino it neglected to enquire if the people of Brisbane actually wanted one – especially on a prime riverside site in the heart of the CBD. Then, when a ‘winner’ emerged, the community was faced with a ‘done deal.’ Since then the in-coming Labor regime has been preoccupied with the need to create a working government with a new and inexperienced team. A slick multi-media campaign on behalf of the successful bidder ensued and mainstream commercial interests predictably gave their enthusiastic support. According to the current Lord Mayor, Brisbane is on track to become a new ‘world city’ and growth is very much regarded as a ‘good thing.’ Apart from some muted dissenting voices little more has been heard about the proposed new casino and its associated mega-resort. So it’s worth taking a closer look.

What strikes one immediately is that the project is not about Brisbane’s present, its future nor indeed those of its citizens. The primary drivers are corporate interests in Australia and overseas driven by all-too-familiar motives. The Chinese partners, for example, are not involved because they care about the city but because Chinese capital desperately needs to flee the mainland turbulence (including a crackdown on corruption) for safer overseas havens. Brisbane and Sydney are basically two prime sites of convenience where ‘colonisation by capital’ can occur through over-scale projects that include new and enlarged casinos. In a standard past-to-future view the business-related advantages of these locations are obvious. But since the promoters can’t afford to reveal their real motives they disseminate compelling fantasies. Thus far, it must be said, local authorities seem to have swallowed the bait. There have been no organised protests and few or no expression of outrage. Brisbane needs to wake up and take stock of what is being planned while there’s still time to do so.

What casino operators crave – but which is forever out of their reach – is an impression of respectability. Since the normal operation of any casino is little more than disguised theft and single-minded exploitation of human weakness, they try to claim a range of purported social and economic benefits. Chief among these is the promise of jobs – which, of course, is music to the ears of governments and mainstream economists. Yet few appear to be asking questions such as: what kind of jobs, how valuable or secure are they and how appropriate will this kind of infrastructure be in Queensland over time? Equally, what are the opportunity costs of low-level service employment at this particular time and what other options are being overlooked? This is where casino operators never tread and also where they are vulnerable.

Much effort has also gone into portraying this huge and disfiguring development as in some way ‘desirable.’ An expensively produced video depicting a mock fly-over of the completed project made it onto the Channel Nine News. Six pages of the Courier Mail’s weekend magazine were devoted to similarly idealised ‘artist’s impressions.’ Not quite everyone, however, was persuaded. In October 2015 Journalist Katherine Noonan wrote a tongue-in-cheek piece in the same local tabloid drawing attention to the way that Paul Keating had somewhat ruthlessly ‘stared down the developers’ in Sydney a while back and asked ‘Where’s our bastard?’ A ‘visionary bastard’ able to pose the hard questions would not come from the local state government which was ‘terrified of the business community calling them ‘anti-growth.’ Noonan nailed the core of what she called ‘mystifying nonsense’ as demonstrated by the proposed architecture itself: ‘oversized shiny buildings with potted palms on top, infinity pools and indoor atriums are a dime a dozen. Check out the artist’s impression of the development of Brisbane. Looks like something I saw in Hong Kong 10 years ago.’ She added, ‘every casino looks the same. Sky decks are so 2005. You visit cities, stay in these resorts and are bored by them, hungry for a bit of history, soul, grit, texture, authenticity.’

Since the developer’s aims obviously don’t encompass any of these qualities a narrative littered with positives simply cannot ring true. The new casino is not seen as an outrageous and costly deception; rather it is portrayed as a social and economic asset. It will not only benefit the locals but also attract large numbers of Chinese tourists to the area. (The fact that they are already flooding in being conveniently ignored.) Then there are the ‘high rollers’ – wealthy punters whose activities have become increasingly constrained in Macao courtesy of the Chinese government. Perhaps they will come to Brisbane and, then again, perhaps not. What can be stated with confidence, however, is that regardless of what the operators of casinos may wish us to believe they all have a dark secret – the enduring bond between casinos and organised crime.

When people bet and lose they may well become disenchanted so one can appreciate that a certain proportion will try to avoid paying up. That’s unfortunate for the casinos because in order to maintain their façade they must try to avoid dirtying their hands in public. Which is where criminals who specialise in stand-over tactics and other forms of illegal persuasion and money laundering come in. An ABC Four Corners program in 2014 called High Rollers, High Risk explored this issue in relation to Australia and concluded that while Australia is not Macao there are serious unresolved issues about regulation and crime. A more recent documentary aired on the ABC in 2015 called Ka-Ching: Pokie Nation looked at the social impacts of problem gambling at the lower end of the scale. Suffice it to say here that they are sufficiently serious for a well-known legal firm in Australia to begin work on an initiative to ban poker machines. Or, at the very least, to de-legitimise the various ways that they cajole and deceive those who can least afford them. The social costs of gambling are well understood and are known to have pervasive effects throughout society.

The unavoidable truth about casinos is that they are social ‘black holes.’ They sustain forms of ‘rough trading’ that drain health, wealth and well being from any individual or society foolish enough to tolerate them. But there is one further issue that has thus far received remarkably little attention. It emerges from the fact that casino-type developments arise from a worldview whose systemic errors and oversights have become ever more obvious. They include the notion that the earth is merely a set of resources for human use, that economic growth is the main goal of society, that well-being can be measured through GNP, that the human economy takes precedence over the primary earth economy and, finally, that humans are the owners and masters of the world. The hubris, narcissism, greed and short-term thinking that support such commitments are seldom acknowledged but very common and influential. Projected upon the emerging future they become ever more toxic and dangerous.

The worldview commitments that have helped to drive our civilisation to the edge of collapse are, generally speaking, still not widely seen for what they are. Indeed they continue to be pursued by a minority of very rich people and associated corporate interests. Yet what they offer is a poisoned chalice. Rather than offering viable ways forward they further inscribe our collective fall toward diminished Dystopian futures. How can we be so sure? You only have only to take a clear-eyed look at the accumulating evidence of human impacts on the global system to appreciate the emerging dilemmas before us. It is not ‘merely’ a question of coming to grips with global warming – serious as that is – as of acknowledging that humanity is walking into a self-created trap. Solutions will not emerge from denial, evasion or by repeating the mistakes that brought us to this point.

It follows that social, political and economic responses to developments of the kind outlined here must include an emphatic ‘No.’ Australia does not need redundant high-end fantasies that degrade the common good. We don’t need insecure third-rate jobs when time, money and human energy are all needed elsewhere for vastly more constructive purposes. We don’t need ‘high-rollers’ (or their equivalents) in Brisbane, money laundering made ‘respectable’ through retail agencies or sanitised versions of the Asian triads. Australia is so much more than an investment opportunity for the hyper-rich, a retail colony, a casino and a beach. It’s time to renew viable future visions, to get serious about designing and implementing strategies to address the challenging overshoot-and-collapse period before us. It’s time to begin work on the foundations of a more sane and sustainable world. The name of this game is ‘transition’ and the sooner this becomes a broad, multi-threaded social, cultural and economic project, the better. The nature and quality of the changes required have, perhaps, best been summarised by Naomi Klein who suggests that:

Fundamentally, the task is to articulate not just an alternative set of policy proposals but an alternative worldview to rival the one at the heart of the ecological crisis – embedded in interdependence rather than hyper-individualism, reciprocity rather than dominance, and cooperation rather than hierarchy. … In the hot and stormy future we have already made inevitable through our past emissions, an unshakable belief in the equal rights of all people and a capacity for deep compassion will be the only things standing between civilisation and barbarism. (Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything, 2014, p. 462.)