Please Gamble Irresponsibly: The Rise, Fall & Rise of Sports Gambling in Australia
Penguin Random House Australia, 2019
“We’ll gamble on anything, from two flies crawling up a wall to less important things like federal elections. And thanks to the internet, phones and gambling-tax loving governments, these days Australians can indulge their love of a punt no matter what there are doing. Aussies could be at the birth of a child or performing open-heart surgery and still put a bet on.”
So says Titus O’Reily, best known as a sports satirist and author of Thoroughly Unhelpful History of Australian Sports, in his latest book Please Gamble Irresponsibly. The book tracks the history of sports gambling in Australia from colonial times to the current day, where we are inundated with gambling ads on television while ironically being told “to gamble responsibly”.
O'Reily shows how gambling has always been intertwined with Australian society from colonial times, when colonists bet on anything from cards, cock-fighting and horse races to whether the next supply ship would show up. From the gold rushes in the 1850s to the end of the the 19th century, gambling spread unchecked.
By the late 19th century, a new middle class that had grown thanks to gold rush money began to focus on "the scourge of gambling". Protestant churches focused their campaigns on working-class people betting in illegal off-course Starting-Price (SP) bookmakers such as John Wren’s Tote in Collingwood. By 1907, they had succeeded in getting various state governments to ban off-course bookmakers.
However, as O’Reily demonstrates many times over in Please Gamble Irresponsibly, these bans were completely ineffective. By the Great Depression, illegal SP bookmakers operated in pubs and back-alleys across Australia.
By the 1950s, state governments, realising that the bans on illegal SP bookies were ineffective and seeking easy revenue, decided to legalise off-track betting on horse-racing, tighten the regulations for on-course bookmakers and setting up Totalizator Agency Boards (TAB). This help put illegal SP bookies out of business while collecting a large stream of tax money from gambling.
This meant governments were profiting from gambling.
This has been justified by "earmarking" funds from gambling revenue for things like hospitals and schools, meaning complaints about the socially destructive consequences of problem gambling could be brushed aside by reference to revenue going to socially important sectors.
In reality, this is simply an accounting trick, meaning revenue that would otherwise go to schools and education is now freed up to spend elsewhere.
Until the 1990s, however, state governments policy towards gambling was still officially based on the British "service but don’t encourage" model. This model is based on the recognition that gambling will occur whatever the law says, so seeks to enable it in a regulated environment without encouraging or promoting it.
But from 1994 onwards, the rise of neoliberalism led governments to begin privatising TABs and then taxing the new private owners. This gave governments revenue without the need for politically tricky measures such as raising taxes on the wealthy.
In 1992, betting on sports other than horse-racing was legalised in the Northern Territory and Centrebet was granted the first sporting bookmakers licence. The arrival of the internet triggered an explosion in online sports gambling that has led to huge multinationals dominating a monster online sports betting industry.
In 2007, the Western Australian state government deciding it had enough of missing out on gambling revenue and amended its 1954 Betting Control Act to prevent interstate betting exchanges operating in WA. However Betfair, funded by Jamie Packer’s Crown Limited, challenged the amendment and the High Court ruled in favour of Betfair, saying it was unconstitutional to prevent bookmakers from advertising in one state operating in another.
This decision has led to an explosion of Australian and international betting companies, such as Sportsbet, Tom Waterhouse, Betstar, Sportingbet, Paddy Power, bet365 and William Hill, coming to dominate sports betting.
O'Reily points out that long gone are the days of the SP bookie at the pub and government controlled betting. Instead we have an industry dominated by corporations dominated by profit, with the public inundated with advertising and phone apps providing 24/7 access to gambling.
We constantly hear the refrain "please gamble responsibly", but O'Reily questions who really wants this to happen, given the huge profits being made from problem gambling by private interests, the easy tax revenue collected by state governments, the large revenue stream collected by sports clubs from advertising or pokies on their establishments, and the media companies who receive advertising dollars.
The explosion of gambling has led to Australia having the highest gambling losses in the world, with Singapore a distant second. While pokies are the biggest source of gambling losses, sports gambling losses have risen significantly. In 1997-98, sports betting losses, not including horse-racing, were $24.5 million. By 2016-17, the figure was $1.6 billion.
On average the average Australian punter loses $1250 a year. Most of that money goes to listed companies with governments taking their cut. All these losses create huge amounts of damage in the community in the form of depression, suicide, fraud, family violence and financial distress.
O'Reily points out that sports betting companies will only ever act for their own corporate bottom line yet, at the same time, banning gambling has never worked.
He says state and federal governments need to regulate the industry, returning it to the model where demand is serviced but not actively promoted. Under this model, online bookmakers would be taxed at a level that reflects the damage they cause and sports betting companies are required by law to share wagering data with law enforcement and sporting bodies.
I am not sure how willing governments would be to enforce such laws, but there is no doubt O'Reily has provided a great, readable history of sports gambling in Australia, with many funny anecdotes and tips such as “your mate who knows a bloke with inside information on a sporting event probably lies about lots of other things too” or “bet on your own team, so when they lose you can be extra miserable.”