LETTER FROM AUSTRALIA

Lucky Country

 

FIND ANY TWO AUSSIES and it is said they will wage a bet on flies crawling up the wall of an outback pub. Certainly of late, cricket heroes Shane Warne and Steve Waugh have hit the headlines over their dealings with a dubious Indian bookmaker. And in keeping with the "spirit of the rings" Australia's national Olympic committee lost three-quarters of its then investment funds in a high-risk punt on a casino in far north Queensland.

Gambling is very much the Australian national passion and this financial year the various state governments will collect an estimated $5 billion in gambling taxation well ahead of the $3.8 billion the Australian Bureau of Statistics says they collected in 1997-98. This amounts to about 26% of the States' own-source revenue. The States have a monopoly on legalised gambling and critics claim that governments of all political hue are reluctant to tackle the problems created by the growth of the gaming industry. One critic has struck upon an innovative campaign designed to challenge the ever increasing and pervasive influence of gambling, and in particular, poker machines, on the Australian lifestyle and government revenue. Lawyers, co-ordinated by South Australian "No Pokies" MP, Nick Xenophon, will submit to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission that the poker machine industry engages in "unconscionable" as well as "misleading and deceptive" conduct.

A High Court decision in 1956, still quoted today, sets out conditions that lend themselves to unconscionable conduct. These include on the victims' part, poverty, sickness, infirmity of body or mind, drunkenness and illiteracy or lack of education; and on the part of the perpetrators' part, lack of necessary assistance or explanation. Mr Xenophon claims that the unconscionability is more than simply the disadvantage of pitting yourself against the rules of probability, but pitting yourself against an industry which preys on human vulnerability and does so in a systematic way. "For instance" he explains "if you go to the races, you know what the odds are and it's not a repetitive, mechanistic thing. The races don't rely on lights and sounds and the jingle. That's one of the things the addicts talk about – the sound of the machine they find incredibly alluring."

Mr Xenophon also identified the undue influence of alcohol as part of the gaming industry's strategy to lure patrons. A recent New South Wales study by psychologists found that alcohol played a major role in gambling, with just three standard drinks doubling the duration of play when losing and causing more players to lose all their original stake.

In the lead-up to next month's NSW general election the Opposition has tried to tap into community concerns about gambling. The Opposition has promised a new independent gaming authority and the introduction of social and economic impact assessments before any new power machine licenses are issued. Community concern about gambling forced the Federal Government to announce Australia's first comprehensive inquiry into the social and economic costs of betting habits.

Until very recently gambling was not considered a subject for academic research. Now there is even the wonderfully acronymic NAGS – National Association of Gambling Studies – who look at all aspects of Australian gambling and publish their findings in serious academic journals. Indeed, in Victoria the legislation setting up the Casino and Gaming Authority stipulates that a portion of gaming revenue must be allocated to academic research on gaming and gambling problems.

The Federal inquiry is being conducted by the Productivity Commission and it is due to submit a draft report by the end of April. The inquiry includes in its reference an examination of the impact of the increase in money spent on gambling for small businesses and the retail sector. Figures for 1997-98 are expected to show that growth in gambling turnover continues to outstrip economic growth.

That gambling forms an important part of Australian culture was identified by that one time enfant-terrible of Oz Trial fame, Richard Walsh, when he pointed out that three major Australian books have luck in their title: The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, A Fortunate Life and The Lucky Country. Prominent figures in Australian public life have always enjoyed a punt. The then Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, was on record as saying that punting, as an intellectual exercise, relaxed him. Billionaire publisher Kerry Packer has extensive business interests in the gaming industry, including the recent take-over of Melbourne's Crown Casino. He is reported as regularly engaging in personal bets in excess of $1 million. Packer once told a Royal Commission, when asked about a sum of $1 million cash which he kept in an office safe: "If I had a bad day on Saturday, I didn't have to think of a rapid story to tell my bank manager, so he did not think I was some form of mental deficient for going to the races…"

Apart from Anzac Day, Australia has one real national day, the first Tuesday in November, when the nation literally stops for the running of the Melbourne Cup. Indeed, Cup Day predates Anzac Day. It was Mark Twain who wrote in 1895 that "the Melbourne Cup is the Australasian National Day".

The Churches have a somewhat ambivalent stance on gambling. Of late church leaders have been vocal in their criticism of the growing "casino and gaming culture" but some church agencies have made a major business out of the charity raffle. In Queensland and in parts of northern NSW "art unions" are a familiar and popular method of fund-raising, particularly by the Roman Catholic Church. Indeed the Catholic – more properly, the Irish Catholic – enthusiasm, for raffles in Queensland combines two great Australian dreams: the dream of sudden riches from a gambling win, and the dream of "home" – never "house" ownership. Since 1954 when the first major art union was organised by the Mater Hospital in Brisbane, the Sisters of Mercy have helped develop entire suburbs in south-east Queensland.

The historian Ken Inglis has recounted a joke he heard in 1959: "During a civic funeral at St Andrew's Anglican Cathedral in Sydney, Cardinal Gilroy says to the Anglican Archbishop, Dr Mowall: 'You really should make better parking arrangements for these shows. The police have just ordered my car to be towed away'. Mowall to Gilroy: 'Hm. Last time I was over at your cathedral, I came out to find my car had gone. Your lot had raffled it'. "

But then the apostles did fill the vacancy caused by Judas Iscariot by means of a lottery!

 

Martin Hislop is completing a Ph.D. on "Politics and the Pulpit" and is a priest in the Diocese of Ballarat, Province of Victoria.

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