I lived in Australia for a year, in Brisbane and then Sydney, when I was 20. In almost every pub, there was a room full of “pokies” – slot machines, one-armed bandits – out the back. In every one, even on gorgeous summer days a hundred yards from Koogee Beach, a few pale, troglodytic creatures would stand in these darkened caves, surrounded by dozens of jangling, flashing boxes. They stood silently, dropping coins in one after the other, sporadically standing back when a machine disgorged coins. Under Australian law, the pokies are allowed to pay out up to AU$10,000 (£6,600).
Since the liberalisation of the Australian gambling laws in the early 1990s, the country has become the most bet-crazed nation in the world. In 2010 The Economist put Australian gambling losses per head at US $1,250 (£800), compared to less than $400 for Britain and the US. There are an estimated 300,000 people in the country – more than one person in a hundred, of the population of 22 million – who lose more than AU$12,000 a year. And more than 80 per cent of the problem gambers in Australia are regular pokie players.
Slot machines are believed to be the most addictive form of gambling (and I’m getting my information from the Australian gambling website OnlinePokies.com, who, I imagine, know whereof they speak). And as my colleague Damian Thompson would tell you, gambling is indeed addictive, releasing rewards in the brain for a win in a similar way to some drugs. An Australian study of patients admitted to hospital following suicide attempts found that 17 per cent of them were problem gamblers – more than 20 times as many as in the general population. Pokies are dangerous things.
I mention all of this because John Whittingdale, the Tory MP and chairman of the Commons culture, media and sport select committee, has come out in favour of Britain following in Australia’s footsteps.
He said: “Gambling is now widely accepted in the UK as a legitimate entertainment activity. We took a lot of evidence in this inquiry, from all sides, and while we recognise the need to be aware of the harm caused by problem gambling, we believe that there is considerable scope to reduce and simplify the current burden of regulation and to devolve decision-making to a more local level. The ‘reluctantly permissive’ tone of gambling legislation over the last 50 years now looks outdated.”
Funnily enough, “devolving decision-making to a more local level” was what happened in Australia, too. Now the states of Victoria and New South Wales receive around 12 per cent of their total tax revenue from gambling. It would be all but fiscally impossible for Australian state governments to reverse their decisions, so they are stuck in this cycle of misery, driving more and more Australians to problem gambling.
There’s nothing wrong with gambling, and it should, of course, be legal, just as smoking should, and drinking (and, if you ask me, taking other drugs as well). People should be free to fun but do potentially harmful things. But they already are free to gamble. There is no shortage of opportunity for gambling in this country as it is: every high street has a Ladbroke’s or a William Hill, and almost every website you click on will show you an advert for Betfair or Blue Square or PokerStars. “Reducing and simplifying the current burden of regulation” is little more than code for “getting more people spending more money in the bookies’ so we can tax it more”. If John Whittingdale wants to build tax revenue on a foundation of human misery, he’s going about it the right way.