Chickens for Colonel Sanders: a response to Van Badham

In a recent column for the Guardian, Van Badham asked whether the ‘public shaming of Australian gamblers has more to do with bourgeois loathing of working-class habits than any genuine moral crusade for public good.’ There is something galling about defending gambling on the basis of its working class cultural credentials, given the industry thrives on stripping money from the disadvantaged.

The reality is that gambling is a potentially dangerous activity with huge social costs. The minimal social benefits it generates are often unjustifiably used to defend its existence.

Pokies are the key problem. They are the riskiest form of gambling and involve the most losses. Other types feature breaks in play and social activities where people can keep an eye out for someone going too far. Pokies are specifically designed to be addictive. The bells and whistles hide the fact that the minute you press the button, the game of chance is over: the rest is noise. Researchers at Southern Illinois University have tracked how pokies actually retrain your brain to create the feeling of a win from a loss. That is, an addiction to pokies can mean that the reward-seeking part of the brain overrides rational decision making. The machine is designed to draw you in and empty your pockets. Alone. Repeatedly.

There is a stigma associated with problem gambling that unhappily persists, despite the reality of addiction by design. The industry is built on this revenue. The Productivity Commission has found that between 22 percent and 60 percent of spending on pokies comes from problem gamblers. The figures rise to 42 to 75 percent when moderate risk and problem gamblers are grouped together. This affects more than just the individual: the Productivity Commission estimates that for every problem gambler, an average of seven people are affected.

The harm is also felt by the most vulnerable. Monash researchers have found that the highest mean losses on pokies occur in areas that are most socio-economically disadvantaged.

So there is no pride in defending an industry that profits from working class misery.

Of course, the industry line is that gambling subsidises community activities. To me, endorsing this is like chickens applauding Colonel Sanders for raising the profile of poultry.

What happened to a proper system of taxation to fund community activities or sporting facilities? Why do we make poor people pay for community clubs through addiction? Even though a club may be non-profit, it can still be very profitable. But its expenditure is not decided by the community. And, given community contributions are not mandatory in Victoria, the amount allocated often falls short of what’s promised when the venue is first established.

Moreover, in Western Australia, which has conveniently fallen of Badham’s map, sports and community clubs survive just fine, despite the fact that pokies are not permitted in clubs or hotels.

Advocates for prohibition of the industry make for a convenient straw man, because they are pretty few and far between. Plenty of people gamble socially and don’t lose their life savings. But it is perfectly reasonable that the public is concerned about a social activity that sees vulnerable people relieved of their money via a stigmatised addiction, with state governments turning a blind eye as their coffers fill.

And there’s the rub: governments have very little interest in regulating the industry properly, as doing so will affect their bottom line. My legal firm recently acted for the community of Castlemaine, who stopped an unwanted pokies venue from being built in their town. Apart from the revenue that would flow to the State Government, the operator also proposed to refurbish the proposed venue, which was public property, saving the government in millions that would instead come from local problem gamblers. Effectively, progressive taxation was going to be replaced by a community club recouping its costs from the poor and addicted.

More importantly, the community didn’t want this club.

In fact, it is commonplace for polls to show that between two thirds to three quarters of any given community do not want a proposed pokies venue. Yet clubs and hotels continue to get approvals. Something is very wrong with the regulation of this industry when this is repeatedly happening.

Dismissing such criticism as snobbery is lazy and politically irresponsible. It condones governments and the gambling industry profiting off the poor and outsourcing taxation for community services. The attitude’s almost like a full circle of false consciousness: embracing an industry that feeds off the poor, in reaction to perceived middle class tut-tutting.

The last thing we need in this debate is more confusing rhetoric. There’s plenty of publicly available facts – and there’s no excuse for ignoring them.


Lizzie O'Shea

Lizzie O’Shea is a lawyer. Her book Future Histories (Verso 2019) is about the politics and history of technology.

More by Lizzie O'Shea ›

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  1. Gambling in its mass form, as it is now with pokies is a serious problem. Gambling as an skill, pastime and as a profession is not a problem at all.
    Gambling in the Greek , Arabic and Chinese communities is a natural pastime, but that is not monomaniacal adulation of a machine, we are talking about people playing cards, backgammon with people. My father was an astute gambler and within the social confines of a Greek cafe, people would be protected from losing too much, in fact the better gamblers refused to play with those that lost too much, as they saw them as inept or having a problem. Yes, not all times were happy, and he did not always win, but he had agency, he did not sit like an automaton pumping coins in a machine, he played Poker, Manila and these games require a great understanding of maths and a significant level of strategy. Many bourgeois, aristocrats and well-healed gamble, but I suspect that rarely touch pokies. Interestingly my father stopped gambling as a professional once the Adelaide Casino was built.He’s say, “I can’t play with people I don’t know”.

  2. Thing is, Van Badham does get to the point eventually:

    The need to raise revenue for the 2000 Sydney Olympics, however, inspired a change in law in New South Wales in the 1990s that allowed poker machines – and their taxation revenue to the government – into privately-owned casinos, pubs and hotels. Seeking similar revenue, other states replicated or extended the NSW folly. A similar deregulation also took place in horse betting in the 1990s with the privatisation of what had been the state-owned Totalisator Agency Board (TAB).

    With the proliferation of commercial online betting companies like Waterhouse’s, the transformation of a public system that regulated a personal indulgence for community benefit into a private system for commercial exploitation is now complete.

    I’m just not sure why, for someone preoccupied with preserving the cultural value of pokies and RSLs “at the core of the post-colonial Australian cultural experience”, there is no lede supporting maximum bets and mandatory pre-commitment – which would seem to preserve all the cultural value while limiting the social damage.

  3. Except that’s wrong. For Victoria anyway. Victoria has had pokies in pubs and clubs since 1990. And moreover, the Victorian government has actually already sought to end the duopoly of Tab and Tatts, redistributing the revenue to clubs/hotels and Government Is this what Van wants? I don’t think that improves community life or solves the problem of addiction.

    1. Thanks for setting that right, Lizzie. I guess what I meant was that Van’s article ultimately starts to acknowledge the blindingly obvious – that gambling culture is manufactured to enrich commercial interests.

      I hail from WA where, as you mention, these things don’t even exist outside Burswood Casino.

      Moving to Canberra for a few years was a shock: you’d go to the Hellenic Club after work, where the Woden public servants would be eating the shit food from the bains-maries and leaving the poker machines untouched, while pensioners and dole recipients blew their meagre livings in the background.

      The idea that the Hellenic Club, West Belconnen Leagues Club etc. are the custodians of a tradition that should be preserved, warts and all, is absurd. It’s tantamount to a demand that poverty and ennui be retained as a theme park.

      What other aspects of “working class culture” that emerge directly from socioeconomic disadvantage should have heritage status?

  4. I agree with very much of what you say, but there’s still a question regarding the approach to subjectivity at the core. At the top-level, gambling – even pokies – are a freely-chosen activity, rather than something fully imposed. I don’t doubt the nature of addiction by design, but there seems a missing step in going directly to neurological arguments and notions of ‘vulnerability’. To say the industry ‘profits from working-class misery’ tends to put it in the same category as sweatshops, and it’s a pretty different sort of subjective action (in that sense, the headline is wrong, but i’m not sheeting that home to the author). Pokies also create pleasure, and though there’s some acknowledgement of that, the question has to be put a bit more reflexively. For example, the mere fact that half to two-thirds of folks sometimes don’t want pokies venues in their community isn’t the end of the argument – they often don’t want halfway houses, intellectually disabled facilities, sex shops, live music venues, windfarms etc etc – and who is to decide which of these should require a majority and which shouldn’t? The addiction model suggests limits on venue size, machine design, limits etc etc, but not necessarily a ban on venues. An over-emphasis on false consciousness gets you into the Robert Owen/ideal communities/no pubs sort of territory.

  5. Hi Lizzie,

    As you know I’m no fan of Van’s piece, and I found some of your article helpful in undercutting her claims. But as well as endorsing what Guy has said above, I think there is a further problem with your approach, and it is encapsulated in this paragraph:

    “The reality is that gambling is a potentially dangerous activity with huge social costs. The minimal social benefits it generates are often unjustifiably used to defend its existence.”

    The question that immediately came into my head when I read that was: “Who gets to decide what a ‘social’ harm or benefit is, and in whose interests?” It is an argument where actual class interests are obscured by the presumption of a general social good — for you an obviously Left-leaning one, but one where class relations are a secondary category. This approach also comes out in how you talk about “public” views without breaking them down more.

    I say this because the Left arguments are similar in a field I know more about because of my job — alcohol consumption, alcohol “misuse” and the alcohol industry. The same kinds of phenomena can be found: A minority of “problem” heavy consumers, often from vulnerable backgrounds, getting fleeced by powerful corporate interests with close ties to political elites who then do little about it. In addition we can find the same class differentiation in targeting the “problematic” “victims” — differential attacks on different types of gambling/alcohol as “the worst” (backed by pseudoscience or simply moral suasion), stigmatisation of certain social groups as “out of control”, and (probably most importantly) construction of complex legislation to limit individual consumption of the addictive activity/substance rather than attacking the corporate interests who profit directly.

    While not as longstanding or powerful, the control-on-gambling lobby plays on a sense of moral decline as much as the control-on-alcohol lobby. Few in its ranks ask why people might be vulnerable to seek pleasure in ways that sometimes turn out to be self-destructive. Even fewer make the point that our retirement savings are now subject to a massive, legal, compulsory system of gambling rather than being guaranteed by the state, and that share market risk-takers are lionised by the media and politicians.

    The problem we face is to politicise the problems that gambling (like drinking, an indirect reflection of deeper processes of alienation) causes for the working class without descending into a kind of benevolent statism. I would suggest that requires two things as a basic starting point:

    (1) To avoid seeking the imposition of state sanctions on the individual behaviours of working class people, even self-destructive ones, as a primary goal.

    (2) More importantly, to formulate demands and actions that primarily and directly hit those profiting from these behaviours, to give them a clear class content in the other direction.

    Neither task is easy in an atmosphere where state action is called for to halt certain “social” problems by populist politicians, but unless we try then false counterpositions like Van’s will continue to crop up for reasons that can be rationally explained.

  6. This piece — or, better, the rather bad tempered response it and other recent OL articles have received on twitter — raised a few issues for me.
    Social media now seems the place where most people discuss politics. In some respects, that’s a good thing — there’s a lot more debate on the far Left now than I remember when I was an activist — but it does also raise some problems. In particular, posts on social media serve to construct a persona, something that’s inherent in the medium. You are what you tweet, in a way.
    Which means arguments become very personalised, very quickly. Or, perhaps, they’re personalised right from the start, since on social media platforms who you are is constructed largely by what you post, and so if someone criticises something you say, they seem to be denouncing your entire persona, in a way that wouldn’t necessarily the case off line.
    I don’t especially know what follows from that: it was just something that occurred to me.

  7. Hi Van

    I don’ t think Tad does agree with you much, and nor really do I. The question we were both raising was a ‘second-order’ one of the model of subjectivity and false-consciousness within a material approach, not the material approach itself.

    The problem with your article for me, was that it assessed the politics in overwhelmingly cultural terms – and thus the ‘working class’ and ‘middle class’ became identified by the things they did, status/etc markers, rather than their relation to power or production.

    That in turn seems to limit politics to cultural action, and steering our politics by a sense of what people do, rather than a reflexive argument about a better or worse situation. The American working class for a long time, didn’t join trade unions (outside the public sector); above and beyond employer limits, that situation was created by bad, corrupt unions and an ideology of individual self-reliance. That doesn’t make it do-gooding, middle class etc to analyse that as false consciousness and develop a strategy accorddingly (one which might involve a measure of collective coercion, ie the closed shop).

    It did seem to me that your piece got a little threadbare when arguing that the pokies get demonised in a way that booze and cupcakes don’t. Per Tad, and just by looking around, it’s clear that everything is being lumped into the addiction model. We never stop being nagged about booze or obesity these days.

    But at the same time, these are objective processes. Current capitalism, desperate for new areas of profit, is practising a sort of psychological imperialism, colonising ever more basic areas of human behaviour. That is an attack on a deeper type of freedom than mere choice – they type of freedom/autonomy that is part of the reward of art, open to a relatively privileged minority of which we are a part – because cultivated addictions crowd out the space for such autonomy in people whose work practice doesn’t allow them much access to it.
    The question is what to do about that at the present moment – and that for leftists is a real dilemma. I don’t have a problem with banning trans fats for example – let the producer bear the cost of better ingredients – but the nagging about bad food is itself a colonisation of consciousness, by the state. On the other hand, though there’s something awful about calorie counts on menus, I can’t deny that I eat better – or less worse – than I used to before they came in.

    That in turn, goes to the cupcake question. we don’t go after cupcakes because they’re not a major part of the obesity problem. Why? because cupcakes are self-sating. they’re so sweet that only the most seriously sugar-addicted can binge on them. Fast foods by contrast are systematically designed to be savoury-sweet, stimulating a perpetual hunger. Ditto with cheap booze vs a $30 shiraz, pokies vs horse-racing, ice vs prescription dexedrine etc. The latter term in all these pairs are not without their problems, but they’re not designed to create the problems they then offer themselves as answer to, and that’s a crucial difference. That the dividing line has a class aspect is a feature of the objective reality of contemp society, not of its subjective manifestations.

  8. I was responding to the argument on its terms. The argument did not address the social harm particularly,  which I why I raised it. Van then made an argument about how the industry funds social interaction that people want and enjoy.  My comments about community polls were a response to this and also reflect that this is an element of the regulation of pokies in Vic (community attitudes are one of the legal criteria considered in approving a venue, often overridden because of the clear trends in polling). 

    As to whether people enjoy it, I’m sure they do and that’s fine. Again, no one is saying it should be banned, but the call for harm minimisation is reasonable. It’s not wowserism to point out that it causes harm. There are other ways to reconcile this other than socialisation of the industry, which seems to be Van’s argument. Moves in that direction haven’t resulted in any harm reduction in Victoria and it’s a non-issue in WA. Moreover, and most importantly in my view, it’s a totally regressive form of taxation. Other ways of managing this include different machine designs, breaks in play, layout of venues etc etc. 

    Of course some people’s addictions stems from social alienation, so to speak. I don’t think there should be alcohol bans in Aboriginal communities even though it causes damage. These people often have broken souls, banning alcohol isn’t going to solve that problem, even though reduction in availability does have an immediate affect. I agree this is a difficult and evolving question and needs to be discussed further. I guess I thought Van’s piece did not advance that discussion, it just obscured things.

  9. No no no. Gambling is not skilful. Look at the Palaces in Las Vegas and Sydney RSL clubs. Gambling is strictly for suckers, Gambling is seeking to increase ones worth without working for it. It never works. Its like a leech, slowly sucking the life out of the punter and his or her family. Drink untill you are drunk; gamble until you are broke.

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