A system in crisis? You bet
by Tom Pearson Last year around 82 per cent of Australians had a punt of some kind, betting their money in one of the myriad of ways to gamble now available, forking out and losing $11 billion. Of those people, about 330,000 are problem gamblers; that is, they are addicted to gambling. Thousands of others are effected to varying degrees by their gaming habit. These are some of the findings of a report on gambling in Australia — Australia's Gambling Industries — from the Howard Government's Productivity Commission. The immediate question is: why the Productivity Commission? The reason it exists is to formulate the ways and means of increasing profits, mainly by imposing "efficiencies" in workplaces such as increasing work hours, cutting conditions and wages and generally squeezing workers: its officers are not known as the "Productivity Police" for nothing. The report's aim is to examine the effect of gambling on productivity. This is because most gaming is done by the working class. Consequently they are the ones overwhelmingly affected by gambling problems, and they, after all, are the ones who create the profits. In addition, the Federal Government wants people to save, savings being a major source of investment, and they want people to consume to strengthen the retail sector, but when tens of thousands of workers blow their wages and savings on gambling they do neither. Hence the Productivity Commission's role. In the process of playing this role the Commission has exposed some of the misery brought to bear by the unfettered growth of gaming in this country. That gambling is now called an industry is itself a misnomer, the definition of "industry" being diametrically opposite to the practice of gambling — "industry: diligence; habitual employment in useful work; branch of trade or manufacture". There are more than 150,000 people employed in gambling and gambling- related jobs in Australia, mostly non-unionised, on low pay, employed as casual labour. Because gambling has no practical outcomes, no commodities, nothing of use value, this means there are more than 150,000 workers toiling away each day, producing nothing. Gambling increasing As the report says, gambling is on the increase, with expenditure double that of a decade back (in real terms) and treble that of 15 years ago. Over 7,000 businesses provide gambling services throughout Australia, with gaming machines being the dominant gambling activity; Australia has 180,000 gaming machines, 21 per cent of the total number of electronic gaming machines in the world. In Sydney, Star City Casino has 1,500 gaming machines and 200 gaming tables, in Melbourne Crown Casino has 2,500 gaming machines and 328 gaming tables, in Brisbane the Conrad Treasury Casino has 1,187 gaming machines and 88 gaming tables. And so it goes with the 13 casinos around Australia. The profits to be had are huge; in Australia gambling losses average out to $800, per person over the age of 18. This also reflects the increase in the number of ways people can now bet their money: gaming machines, racing, Lotto and other lottery games, instant scratch tickets, Keno, casino tables, sports betting, internet casinos. It is not surprising that this proliferation has caused major social problems, from bankruptcy, loss of employment, divorce and separation, crime, violence, depression and suicide. The report gives a number of examples first hand. Here are exerts from two. * "I knew I was addicted and out of control, but I felt powerless to stop. I tried many, many times to just stop, but the urges that had a grip on me always won. So, of course my health suffered, my finances were in ruin, and yet I didn't have the so-called willpower to stop." * "I was totally consumed, and in what seemed such a short time. Anyway the whole story is long and covers the last seven years and though I have tried to be unemotional I must say now that I have been through hell ... I have contemplated suicide many times, and many times I've actually felt as if I was already dead." Those in the gaming boardrooms who are wallowing in the profits from all this misery want to turn the entire issue on its head. Here's one of them at the Commission's hearings. "Do problem gamblers exist? I am yet to be convinced of this; however I fully acknowledge that there are people with problems who gamble." Any wonder, then, that of the proposals to the Commission for warnings to be posted at gaming venues, "If you think you can win, you're a loser" was rejected out of hand by the gaming barons. Tax from gambling On average gambling taxes now provide almost 12 per cent of state taxes, from 5.7 per cent in Western Australia to 15.2 per cent in Victoria. Revenue from gambling taxes has almost doubled in Australia during the past decade. In 1997-98 it was $3.8 billion. For governments gambling provides a major part of government revenue, so it must be expanded and never curbed and reduced. This rationale has been used, in particular by the Liberal Kennett Government in Victoria, to justify opening the state to every form of gambling, with its attendant involvement of organised crime, money laundering, collusion and corruption. Kennett has even had the government bankroll the Crown Casino to keep it afloat when the forecast gambling boom turned out to be a bust. Then there's Ron Walker, head of the government's Melbourne Major Events Company, a director of the Crown Casino consortium, and federal treasurer of the Liberal Party. The arguments about reliance on gaming taxes are also part of a bigger scheme connected to privatisation and corporate taxes. Even setting aside the human costs in terms of lost services and higher payments imposed on users, be it electricity, water services, public transport or telecommunications, privatising government bodies inevitably effects government revenue. In some cases, such as electricity supply and distribution, major sources of revenue are lost almost immediately. Giving corporations tax concessions and not closing loopholes that allow them to avoid paying tax means tens of millions more bypassing government coffers. Thus, the desired outcome is achieved: governments have manipulated conditions so that the need for taxes from gambling becomes a self- fulfilling prophesy. They have deliberately cleared the ground to entrench gambling in Australia, to turn the economy into one increasingly reliant on the unstable, and ultimately fruitless, activities of gaming and tourism. We now have the ludicrous situation of a country with a population of 18 million people — more than a million of them unemployed workers — with 13 casino/hotel/resort complexes and nearly a quarter of the world's gaming machines. The one sure bet is that these are all pointers to a political, economic and social system in deep crisis.