Gambling in Australian culture: more than just a day at the races

Betting can be fun, but it’s not worth losing your shirt over. William West/AFP

GAMBLING IN AUSTRALIA – The idea that Australians love to gamble is so firmly established that we rarely pause to question it.

This is true whether we picture Chinese and British “diggers” passing time on the goldfields, the sacred ritual of two-up games on Anzac Day or Phar Lap’s heart and the “race that stops the nation”.

Such questioning is timely as new legislation is proposed to regulate the way we gamble on electronic gaming machines (or pokies) and to restrict how far the interests of gambling sponsors can intrude into sports journalism.

In Wanna Bet?, co-authored with Royce Millar in 2000, anti-pokie campaigner Tim Costello noted that it’s almost obligatory to preface one’s critical comments on gambling with words to the effect of: “Like every Australian, I enjoy a bet on the Melbourne Cup …”

A recent (as yet unpublished) pilot study I conducted on Melbourne Cup Day celebrations in the workplace suggests that what is most unique about gambling in Australian culture is not that we gamble more than others but the social force of the claim that “Australians love to gamble”.

Even though most of the 23 respondents (aged between 24 and 74) were serial attendees of Melbourne Cup Day celebrations in the workplace, 39% only ever gambled on Melbourne Cup Day sweepstakes and none described themself as “regular” gambler.

In spite of this, several spoke of the important role of Melbourne Cup Day celebrations in creating a sense of community in the workplace and expressing a sense of national belonging.

While the belief that Australians love to gamble persists even for those who rarely gamble in everyday life, comparative international research indicates that the development of gambling in Australia parallels that in other nations where policies of de-regulation were implemented as part of a broader reorganisation of markets and social institutions commonly termed “neo-liberalism”.

To understand the cultural shift from strictly regulated legal gambling, through a deregulated era of pokies in every suburban pub, to the current situation where opponents of pokie reforms are decrying the return of a Nanny State, we need to reconsider some common beliefs about problem gambling.

Problem gambling

The recognition of “pathological gambling” by the American Psychiatric Association in the late 1980s saw a line drawn between two kinds of gamblers: a majority of gamblers who play “recreationally” and a small minority of “problem” gamblers who cause problems for themselves and significant others in the workplace and the family.

The idea of the problem gambler, understood as a dysfunctional consumer able to be weeded out from gambling venues, has since functioned as a convenient truth for state governments dependent on pokie taxes and industry stakeholders able to blame problems related to their products on a pre-existing condition of a minority of players.

This consensus on problem gambling has been threatened by the proposed Wilkie reforms to make pokies safer.

These respond to the 2010 Productivity Commission’s recognition of the link between destructive gambling and the accessibility of “new generation pokies”, which induce disturbingly rapid expenditure. Hotels and clubs are resisting a shift from the self-exclusion of problem gamblers to the regulation of all players on public health and consumer protection grounds.

Beer coasters that seem to propose that problem gamblers are “un-Australian” have been placed in venues. The ItsUnAustralian.com.au campaign warns: “They want to treat ordinary punters as problem gamblers. But you didn’t vote for it and you don’t have to put up with it.”

Yet there’s nothing particularly Australian about the rapid growth of pokies in most Australian states over the past two decades.

Tim Freedman, the singer and songwriter behind The Whitlams’ hit single Blow Up the Pokies (see above), puts the case that pokies’ invasion of the cultural space of the pub killed the live music scene that generated such iconic Australian bands as Cold Chisel and Midnight Oil.

Poker

A cultural study of gambling in Australia would be incomplete without mentioning Joe Hachem (see below), winner of the 2005 World Poker Series Tournament in Las Vegas.

This great moment in Australian gambling is part of a global craze; “poker nights” now compete for punters with pokie lounges in suburban pubs.

As poker became a metaphor and set of techniques for success in neo-liberal societies in the period before the global financial crisis, Hachem became a local celebrity. His reality television series, The Poker Star, depicts poker more as a way of life than a recreational pastime.

In 2011, we are as likely to encounter a typical Australian gambler at a computer terminal at work or at home playing poker on an overseas website with people from all over the world and dreaming of one day going professional, as punting on a racetrack or playing a pokie machine.

Regardless of the form it takes, gambling clearly poses some unique challenges for businesses, regulators and consumers.

The task is to establish more or less safe and ethical ways to participate in the everyday games of sport, leisure, entertainment, resort tourism and finance to which gambling has become increasingly central.

This is part one of The Conversation’s Gambling in Australia series. Read part two tomorrow.

Is gambling an integral part of Australian culture? Why?/ Why not? Leave your comments below.

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