A BIT EACH WAY AND EVERY WAY
There’s a story from World War I, perhaps apocryphal, but possibly true, that sums up Australia’s love of gambling. A group of Australian soldiers were playing two-up, wagering on coin tosses. A Turkish airman flying overhead, seeing their heads going up to the sky and then bowing down to the ground, decided it would be wrong to bomb such devout men in the middle of prayer, and so their lives were spared.
Stories like this have long permeated Australia’s culture: we love a drink, a laugh and a bet. Australians, we are told, will bet on anything, from two flies crawling up the wall to less savoury contests like federal elections.
But in the last decade, and it’s mainly the fault of fourth-generation bookmaker Tom Waterhouse, we have become sick of the amount of sports gambling that is being shoved down our throats. One night a few years ago I was watching an AFL game on TV and realised it was actually just gambling ads interrupted ever so occasionally by brief snippets of footy. Since I’m a Melbourne supporter this wasn’t the end of the world, but it shocked me how pervasive sports betting has become. The popularity of gambling on horseracing and sport is currently exploding in Australia. I couldn’t help but wonder, how did it come to this?
I don’t gamble on sport. Rather than some high moral stance, the main reason is that I think I’d be hopeless at it. That said, there are times I’ve felt uneasy about an industry that seems to leave a fair bit of damage in its wake.
My first reaction was to say let’s just ban all betting on sport. It’s an easy position to take, but it would be hypocritical of me. I consume my fair share of alcohol, a substance that causes a lot more damage in the community than gambling, and I’d be furious if the government tried to ban it just because some people can’t handle it. I’m sure many keen gamblers feel the same: why should they give up a pleasurable pastime just because some people can’t control their spending? Should the few ruin it for the many?
Part of the difficulty is that gambling taps into that belief Australians have that we’re experts when it comes to sport. Just watch the Winter Olympics with any Australian and see them comment with expertise on the moguls, despite the fact they’ve never gone skiing in their life. It means many Australians see sports betting as a game of skill, rather than the pure chance of lotteries and the pokies. The reality is, as anyone who’s seen their mates gamble knows, all of them are idiots. The ones who say they’re winning money probably aren’t.
The trouble is, I’m not sure banning gambling on sport would work. It’s been attempted in Australia before and it was about as effective as a Nick Kyrgios French Open tilt. While banning gambling might not be the answer, I’m certain the current ‘let’s let gambling run free’ position of our state and federal governments is not ideal either. Surely there’s a happy medium somewhere between ‘completely banned’ and ‘make sure kids know you can bet 24/7’.
THE BIGGEST LOSERS
So, how much are Australians betting, and how did we get to this point?
The biggest source of Australia’s gambling losses is still the pokies, but what’s alarming is the rate at which racing and sports gambling has increased in recent years. In 1997/98, sports betting losses (not including racing) were $24.5 million. In 2016/17, Australians gambled $23.87 billion on racing, with $3.33 billion lost, and $10.1 billion went on sports betting, with $1.6 billion lost.
That’s a lot of money, but these numbers are still dwarfed by gambling in casinos and pokies, where we spent $174.6 billion for a loss of $19.4 billion. The average person over eighteen loses $1250 a year to gambling. And where does that lost money go? Mainly to listed companies, with governments taking their clip on the way through.
All up, we spent $208 billion across all types of gambling in a year. In comparison, we only spent $15.5 billion on alcohol. We gamble more than we drink – now that’s a sobering thought.
PUNTERS, WOWSERS AND TAX COLLECTORS
The history of sports gambling in this country is astounding for its complexity, compromised sporting administrators and governments, the shifting attitude of the public over time, and outright greed.
Looking back, it’s not hard to see how Australia has ended up the biggest gambling country in the world, certainly on a per capita basis. Gambling and sport have been intertwined right from the wild colonial days, even in the puritanical times when only gambling at racecourses was allowed, through to the rise of the starting-price bookies, the corruption that captured police forces and governments, the takeover by governments and, lastly, the corporatisation of the whole enterprise.
When the British showed up on these shores, they brought not only a lot of convicts and communicable diseases, but also a love of gambling. Back in England, there had been attempts to curb the pastime but in this new country there wasn’t enough of a middle-class presence to impose an anti-gambling morality on the young colony.
In fact, at the time, life itself was one big gamble, as was the future of the colony.
The colonists bet on anything: cards, boxing, cockfighting, horseraces, whether a supply ship would show up. They would gamble with anything, too, often betting food rations, speeding up the process whereby a heavy gambler would end up unable to feed themselves or their family. In short, gambling flourished.
As the Europeans spread across the country, so too did racecourses; to be called a town in the early days you needed to have a pub, a church and a racecourse.
‘Should we build a school?’
‘Are you crazy? After the racecourse, Barry.’
Most people did their praying at the church and the racecourse, then headed for the pub when those prayers didn’t deliver.
Up until the late nineteenth century, the spread of gambling went pretty much unchecked. The goldrushes – themselves a kind of gambling mania – also spread gambling across Australia, including by attracting Chinese prospectors, who brought their own betting games into the country. A lot of the other goldminers didn’t like the Chinese, but they loved their games.
As the young colonies sped towards federation, flush with money from the goldrush, the middle class grew to a size where the ‘scourge of gambling’ was now the focus of many groups, most notably the Protestant churches.
These groups became known as ‘wowsers’, a very Australian term that came to describe anyone who was a wet blanket when it came to fun vices like gambling and drinking. The story goes that an Australian journalist, John Norton, coined the word as an acronym of the slogan ‘We Only Want Social Evils Remedied (or Rectified)’, in an 1899 article in the Sydney newspaper Truth. *
The Protestant churches wanted a ban on wagering, and before long they effectively got it. From the early twentieth century, you could only legally bet on horseracing – all other sports were off limits – and even then only if you were physically at the racetrack.
The Australian people reacted to this ban on ‘off-course betting’ by wholeheartedly ignoring it. Within minutes of the law coming into place, possibly seconds, illegal bookmakers sprang up in pubs and back alleys everywhere.
These illegal SP bookies, named for offering the ‘starting price’ on each horse, soon became iconic characters in Australian culture, like the swagman, the squatter, the bushranger or the more modern character, ‘athlete who bet on a game they played in’. Governments and police eventually became concerned with the popularity of SP bookies, especially as they were often involved in other criminal activities too.
By the fifties, it was becoming clear that the ban on off-course betting was having no effect. But in the baby boom after World WarII, governments were having to provide more and more services, and this required money. They came to realise that not only would legalising gambling get rid of SP bookies and the associated criminality, it also meant they could tax all that gambling activity and make a bunch of money themselves.
So the governments decided to form the Totaliser Agency Boards, or TABs as they became known. Finally, middle-aged men wearing shorts and socks with sandals had somewhere to hang out on the weekend. At the same time, regulation of trackside bookies was tightened, government lotteries increased, and New South Wales legalised the pokies, the first state to do so.
Suddenly governments were not in the business of stopping gambling, they were in the business of profiting from gambling. But it was within limits – betting on Australian Rules, League, Union and other sports outside of racing remained illegal – and the money raised went towards things like hospitals.
But when the state governments were challenged by difficult financial times, especially in the early nineties, they adopted a more commercial mindset. Suddenly governments wanted more gambling activity. Rather than simply collecting tax on existing activity, they wanted to encourage people who had never gambled before to start betting.
This was a huge shift. New casinos were set up across the country, pokies began to spread outside New South Wales, where they had long been contained, and states started to sell off their TABs to private companies (which they were still taxing).
State governments had shifted from a policy of what the British had called ‘service but don’t encourage’ to ‘please everyone gamble like crazy so we can fund all the services you want without having to raise the taxes that make us unpopular’.
Into this fertile soil fell the seeds of the next gambling revolution.
* This story is unlikely to be true, as it was probably used earlier, but the term was used a lot during the battle over gambling that raged from the late nineteenth century until World War I.