NotesWhen the Darling Harbour project was announced in 1984, a casino complex was to be a major element. On the surface, this announcement was unremarkable. Tasmania had beaten the mainland states to this particular cash-cow when it opened Wrest Point casino in 1973. By the mid-1980s Wrest Point had been joined by similar operations at Darwin, the Gold Coast, Perth, Alice Springs, Adelaide and Townsville.
But the politics of a casino were decidedly more difficult in NSW. In other states casinos were created by fiscally desperate state governments looking for a new form of revenue and a new tourism generator; there was no established gambling industry and no public campaign for a casino. In contrast NSW had a vast legal gambling industry in its registered clubs, an institution which didn't exist in other states as well as a thriving illegal casino business, protected by the notoriously corrupt NSW police force.
Shortly after his election in as NSW premier in 1976, Neville Wran commissioned a high-profile QC to investigate the possibility of opening a legal casino, an idea that Wran personally supported. But the inquiry refocused attention on the illegal operations and the corruption surrounding them. In 1977 Wran bullied a reluctant police commissioner into closing the casinos down by the end of the year. But the casinos and related scandal wouldn't go away. Neither would opposition to a legal casino, and demands from within the ALP that it be government owned and run, despite the pitfalls of this approach both financially and politically.
At the depth of the early 80s recession Wran was again pushing for a legal casino, desperate for a new source of revenue and a stimulus for tourism. In addition, Wran saw a legal casino as a means of removing the most obvious evidence of corruption, still an intractable issue in NSW, presenting the casino project as an acid test for the NSW police force:
'To put it quite bluntly it will be a test for the bona fides of the police force. There will be no excuses whatsoever for these places [casinos] to remain unraided and remain open when the legislation goes through Parliament. There's no point in us going to this trouble if the police don't support the Government'.
The government was to hold the casino license while choosing from competing consortia to build and run the new venue, which was to be sited on the eastern (city) side of Cockle Bay. Several prominent architects, including Harry Seidler and John Andrews, were engaged by the tendering consortia. Seidler's proposal was produced for a consortium of Donald Trump and Lend Lease.
In June 1986 a consortium of Hooker Corporation and the US Harrah Group won the casino tender with a design by Michael Dysart and a bid of $610 million. However the tender was cancelled a few months later after an investigation into Harrah's US casinos by the NSW police – how ironic – raised serious doubts as to the company's probity. Harrah's won a substantial compensation payout, but Sydney would have to wait until the mid-1990s for a legal casino, eventually built on the site of Pyrmont power station.
By the time the casino was ruled out, the Darling Harbour project was too advanced to be abandoned even though, without its major source of revenue, a substantial part of Darling Harbour's economic rationale was destroyed. Instead of paying for itself as Wran had promised, the project passed half a billion dollars of debt to the state's balance sheet.
Charles Pickett, Curator Design and built environment.