Odds on


In Orwell’s imaginary world of 1984 there was a government department whose role was to rewrite history in order to make it seem that the way things were in the present was the way they had always been. No need for that these days, the media, and therefore the public seem totally incapable of imagining that things have ever been different to the way they are today.

This week a kerfuffle arose over doping and match fixing in Australian sport. Attention quickly turned to gambling on sport (although it could also have looked at the huge sums of money now paid to sportsmen in order to keep them in a winning team and allow the club to reap the huge sums of money associated with sponsorship and merchandising).

Before you could say “Place your bets, madames et messieurs” the betting companies were swinging into action to try to head off any suggestion that gambling in sport might be curtailed in any way. Apparently if you criminalise gambling only criminals will run gambling, or am I getting confused? Perhaps it was – if you try to wrap gambling in plain packaging criminals will sell gift-wrapped gambling? No, I’m obviously confused. But indeed, the same self-serving rubbish was trotted out by gambling companies as we hear from gun dealers and tobacco companies.

The underlying theme in such debates is always the proposition that the way things are is the way they have always been. That the saturation of Australian sport and society generally by gambling has always been the case. That a casino in every capital city, then a second; that hundreds of thousands of poker machines in clubs; that games of football and cricket being interrupted by bookmaker’s ads and details of available odds; are all perfectly normal, and moreover, an essential part of our economy. But old folks like me, keepers of the corporate memory of the country, remember a time when none of that was the case. A time when effectively the only legal betting was on racetracks and “two-up on Anzac Day”. A time when the government-run TABs were introduced and illegal off-course gambling on horses clamped down on. A time, heaven help me, when there were no casinos and poker machines, and certainly no gambling on all aspects of cricket and football publicised during tv broadcasts. And even more amazing, young folks, society and the economy seemed to function perfectly well.

But it crept up on us gradually, here a casino, there a casino, and suddenly you are talking real money. And suddenly this big money talks, loudly. And suddenly this non-productive activity is essential to our economy. And suddenly it is not just non-productive but actually damaging large numbers of people with its carefully calculated addictive lure. Oh, and almost incidentally, damaging sport, once the pleasure of the public.

And new casinos are rushed through with the active help of state premiers, actively over-riding planning considerations. And the mildest attempt to reduce poker machine addiction is met with a massive political campaign from the clubs. And any suggestion that gambling on who wins a game, indeed who scores first, or last, or most, is met with outrage from big bookmakers, concerned that their licence to print money might be revoked.

Horton’s Law – whenever some activity is begun in order to see how it goes, as soon as it becomes profitable it will be found that it is impossible to stop doing it. A bit like taking up smoking which you can “stop any time, not addicted” until you actually try. Corollary – no matter how much an activity is damaging society it will continue while it is profitable.

You can bet on it.

Got to know when to hold ‘em

The other day the NSW government announced, rather incredibly, that it was selling NSW Lotteries. Well, I shouldn't say incredibly, because nothing that the NSW government does should surprise anyone any more. But in the real world, outside Wonderland, the idea of selling the license to print money, sorry, lottery tickets, would be jealously guarded as a sure source of money for the state for as long as, well, as long as people want to gamble, or infinity, whichever is longer. But, there it was, up for sale, and snapped up (who would have thought?) by a private lottery company. A one off injection of cash to make the bottom line look a bit better, instead of regular income. But the new owners announced that they would be chasing increased profits. See NSW people haven't, apparently (who would have thought?), been gambling as much as those in other states. You would think, wouldn't you, that a NSW government would want to maintain this happy state of affairs, would want, perhaps, to even further reduce the bad effects that gambling has on individuals, families, societies. But no, by selling the lottery, the government ensured that an all out effort would be made to increase sales, the way a private company needs to do to increase profits. So there would be new "products", new promotional pushes to encourage people to lose more money, happily.

It is an example of a major defect in the capitalist system. All companies need to sell more and more product to increase profits and keep shareholders happy. Now that's fine when the product sold has a positive benefit to society, or at least not a negative one. But when the product is of negative social value, the more successful the company the less the community benefits. And indeed the more assiduous the company will be in ensuring that no government will be able to stop, or even curtail, its sales in the public interest. Gambling is an obvious example of this, but so is alcohol, and coal, and petrol, and electricity, and motorways, and forestry. Cigarettes were another classic example. The battle to reduce cigarette smoking in society was fought every step of the way by cigarette companies (using their political influence and using "think tanks" to produce "doubt" among politicians and public), and is still being fought as each minor change in warning notices, advertising restrictions, place of smoking restrictions and so on is resisted. And even as they were losing battle after battle, cigarette companies were shifting operations to poor countries in Africa and Asia, where, free of restriction and regulation, they could set about getting millions more potential customers addicted to nicotine.

In recent times we have seen the NSW government privatising motorways and then actually closing roads to force people on to the tollways because they had made a deal to ensure high profits to the motorway companies. A company relying on cars going through toll booths will do anything to prevent that flow of vehicles diminishing. The battle over privatising power stations in NSW was fought for a number of reasons. But the major one was that a private company selling power will be in the business of ensuring that power use is never reduced. What is energy efficiency for community good is decreased profit for company bad. In WA a few years ago an attempt to build a new power station based on natural gas, a marginally less polluting fuel than coal, was met with massive resistance by coal unions and the local Labor member, outraged that coal use would be reduced. John Howard won an election with significant help from Tasmanian forestry unions, outraged that the Labor party might try to protect some old growth forest. And so it goes. The hardest thing to teach a man, they say, is something his job depends on him not knowing.

And now the biggie. Continuing, and growing, profits to be made by producing ever increasing amounts of CO2 into the air with no concern about tomorrow. Attempts by government to switch to more efficient energy use, and sustainable energy sources may cause a temporary reduction in the growth of profits until the new energy economy is established. And so, just like cigarette smoking, the big companies have swung into action to create doubt and block political action. Even, among the more cynical, simultaneously denying there is a problem while pushing for massive funding and development of nuclear power and "clean coal" (think "clean cigarettes").

They are happy to gamble with our future. Are you? And are you willing to gamble more and more as time goes on?

All David Horton's earlier writing is on Greenviews.