The Guardian 20 April, 2005

Gambling wars in Australia

Peter Mac

Sections of the Australian gambling industry are currently involved in bitter disputes with each other and with some state governments. Ostensibly, the issues involve bans on smoking in clubs, and the attempt by UK internet gambling firm Betfair (now there's a contradiction in terms!) to get an Australian operating licence.

But the real issues are deeper and dirtier. In both cases what is involved is an environment deliberately calculated to induce the gambler to risk ever-larger amounts, with potentially catastrophic consequences.

Betfair has tried for several years to become licensed to operate throughout Australia, via their Australian partner, Kerry Packer's Publishing and Broadcasting Ltd.

There is now a chance that Betfair will receive a Tasmanian licence. Premier Lennon is said to be trying to use the Betfair licence threat to exert pressure on gambling baron TABCorp, which is charging the state-owned TOTE Tasmania a crippling rate for operating within its pools.

Local racing bodies have vigorously opposed Betfair's admission, arguing justifiably (albeit disingenuously) that this would deprive the states of massive gambling revenues.

The existing industry pays tax on turnover, but tracking internet transactions for tax is extremely difficult. One accounting firm has estimated that state governments could lose between $30 million and $40 million annually if Betfair gets the nod in Australia.

For its part, Betfair has offered to pay tax on profits. They are so wonderfully public-spirited! However, this would still constitute a far smaller burden than its established competitors have to bear, and would contribute far less tax to government coffers.

The racing industry also argues that Betfair gambling would encourage corruption, since gamblers are allowed to bet on a horse not getting a place, or even on it coming last.

State governments hooked

However, internet gambling threatens not only gambling-hooked state governments and the racing industry (for whom, parasites all, no tears should be shed). Those at greatest risk are the gamblers themselves, most of whom are ordinary working people, because internet gambling offers betting firms the chance to operate within the punters' most vulnerable area, the family home.

By its very nature, on-course betting places some constraints on betting, since at any one meeting only a certain number of events take place. TAB offices offer a wider range of opportunities, since they can cover a number of meetings. However, they tend to be smoke-filled, grimy and cheerless, and hence are socially less enjoyable.

On the other hand, under an internet home betting system punters can place bets as fast as they can type, on a huge range of events, and all in the comfort of well-loved surroundings.

And there's the rub. Gambling from home tends to reduce inhibitions evident elsewhere, and hence increases both the amount staked and the number of bets placed.

Rev. Tim Costello, prominent anti-gambling campaigner, once described internet gambling grimly as "a good way to stay at home and lose it".

As far as club smoking bans are concerned, the real issue is not cost or inconvenience. Smoke-free environments are, of course, crucial to the health of club patrons and staff (a topic club managements seem reluctant to discuss), but there is another key issue here.

As Four Corners revealed last year, most club poker machine environments are deliberately designed to maximise the amount extracted from players.

The physical characteristics of these places (including the dim ambient lighting, the background clinking of coins and the pokies' soft electronically-generated sounds and lights) tend to induce a trance-like state in which players lose track of what they are losing.

The introduction of smoking bans would mean smokers would have to exit the club to have a cigarette, disrupting the pokie trance and thus allowing them to gather their wits, cut their losses and go home.

As if to prove the point, the clubs have responded to this threat by building glass-encased smoking enclosures within the playing rooms. That way the trance is not disrupted, since the occupants can still see and hear the action around them.

Of course, this also concentrates the smoke within the enclosures, thereby considerably increasing the risk to the occupants' health. The glass is rarely built to the ceilings, so a lot of the smoke eventually overflows into the surrounding areas anyway, and what does not is circulated throughout the air-conditioning system. So much for clean air in clubs!

Gambling addiction is devastating for the victims, their families and the community. Legal professionals have warned of a new crime wave being carried out by problem gamblers. It has been said that an entire court system could be established in Victoria alone, just to deal with these crimes.

The Victorian government's Gambling Research Panel was to have produced a study on the link between crime and gambling, but was disbanded. Now the government is to double the poker machine tax, the proceeds of which are used to fund the state's hospital system, thereby reinforcing state dependence on the poker machine industry.

So that is the gambling industry and their associates, the state governments for you. What a nest of vipers! It's surely time for a very large new broom.

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