Crown chair defends tax scandal inaction

·3-min read

Crown Resorts executive chair Helen Coonan has defended her decision not to follow up advice the company may have underpaid its gaming taxes.

Ms Coonan gave evidence during the penultimate day of an inquiry into whether Crown can retain a licence for its Melbourne operations.

The former Howard government minister said she first learned about the unpaid taxes, which the inquiry has heard could be up to $272 million, through Crown Melbourne chief executive Xavier Walsh on February 23.

This was the day after the royal commission, overseen by former Federal Court judge Ray Finkelstein QC, was announced.

Ms Coonan said Mr Walsh framed the tax, which Crown had avoided paying since 2012 by claiming as losses promotions handed out through its pokies loyalty program, as a "legacy issue" that had since been resolved.

She said Mr Walsh had told her the Victorian gaming regulator had looked into the issue in 2018.

"I didn't form the view it was a potentially serious problem," Ms Coonan told the inquiry.

She then directed Mr Walsh to pass the tax issue on to Crown's lawyers. But the matter wasn't taken any further and was only brought to light after Crown's gaming boss Mark Mackay accidentally included it in his evidence at the inquiry.

Counsel assisting Adrian Finanzio SC then asked Ms Coonan: "So if you've directed him to get advice about it - why didn't you follow him up about whether or not the advice had been obtained?"

"It simply wasn't front of mind when he said it was fixed and had gone for advice," she responded.

"I can't do everything ... I can't, day by day, follow every direction to every person in the business. I think I took the right action."

Earlier, Ms Coonan appeared to distance herself from the James Packer-backed group's former board members.

Mr Finanzio said Crown had "girded its loins for a fight" to defend media allegations the casino operator had been exposed to money laundering and organised crime that would be aired in the NSW Bergin inquiry, which found Crown unfit to hold its Sydney casino licence.

"You and the board made a decision to defend it?" Mr Finanzio asked Ms Coonan.

She said the board "accepted legal advice" which indicated it would be too difficult to change strategy.

"I thought we had to be taking a very different approach, but I was overruled, of course," Ms Coonan said.

"You still have to have numbers on the board, even if you're the chair."

Ms Coonan - who became Crown boss in February 2020 after joining as a director in 2011 - said a "different approach" was not possible until the NSW Bergin inquiry concluded.

"A real change of approach wasn't possible with old management and old Crown," Ms Coonan said.

Eight Crown directors have left the board since the release of the Bergin inquiry's final report in January.

Ms Coonan is one of only three directors who remained, alongside Jane Halton and Antonia Korsanos, who gave evidence before the Victorian inquiry on Wednesday.

Ms Coonan also said she welcomed the Victorian royal commission as an opportunity to "get to the bottom of things".

"It was behind my admonition to ... leave no stone unturned and 'bring out your dead'," she said, referring to the 1975 movie Monty Python And The Holy Grail.

"It's part of how you heal."

The inquiry continues on Friday

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