Gambling and Freedom

There are many questions about what makes a society free. You only have to look to the US to see a country in a constant crisis about what freedom means. Does freedom mean being about to choose to buy a huge gun whenever you want, or to go to school without the threat of being massacred? The answers sometimes seem obviously but taking things away from people is always a complicated matter.

In Australia we have gambling and pokies. They are a huge industry and deeply embedded in our society. The companies fund our politics, they fund our sporting clubs, and they fund our community events. Without them, it can seem like a lot of important things might fall down. Who will sponsor the local football club?

Of course, there is another side to the story. Gambling and pokies are parasites on a society that is supposed to be built to help people live better lives. In one poor local government area in NSW over $8 billion was lost on pokies in 2015 / 16 financial year. Of course, the companies profiting are not putting anywhere near $8 billion back into the community.

In the AFL, NRL and other major sports, recent loosening of advertising laws has led to an onslaught of sponsorship’s and commercials for gambling companies. It is hard to watch a sporting event on TV without getting yelled at over and over again to go take a free bet and start an account. This parody is very close to home. Of course, people are losing money hand over fist with this as well.

In recent elections in Tasmania and South Australia, parties of the left have made it a policy issue to ban pokies. They have both lost. Which seems confusing, as people tend to not like pokies and agree that they should be decreased. But there are a few things that we miss. Firstly, the pokies lobby has truckloads of cash, and they can hit people pretty hard at the community level. They are so well integrated that the threat of pulling that money out gets the attention of voters.

But most importantly, freedom. Australia is a free country, just like the US and other western places. We have our own version of what freedom means, but it generally means you are allowed to exercise your own self control over an activity that it is possible to do responsibly. Only when that is impossible do we ever try and ban stuff, like cigarettes, and massive guvs. That is our version. So crack downs of pokies and gambling are met with cries of a coddling government and impingement of freedom. Banning anything makes people feel that, just ask Mike Baird.

So banning is likely the wrong move. The same freedom arguments lead us to what we should be arguing for. Freedom to watch TV without being encouraged to do something negative. Freedom to go to a bar without having to walk past a row of pokies and a TAB. Why can’t we have that freedom?

People can still gamble if they choose. But we can make some better separation.Why not take gambling and make it separate from some of the nice experiences it is associated with. With pokies, perhaps we could restrict them from locations far away from restaurants. If you want to use the pokies of course you can, but they should not be so integrated into golf and country clubs, and social clubs. The community spaces should not be filled with machines designed to drive communities apart.

There is other creative legislating we can do. We have all agreed that there are levels of restriction that can be helpful without impinging on the freedoms we pride ourselves on. I like that I never fear getting shot here. I like that I can go to a restaurant without breathing smoke I don’t choose to inhale. Freedom is complex. Free to have a punt is a poor argument. By restricting relentless advertising and associating gambling with community we are not restricting any freedoms apart from the freedom of a company to get people addicted to their product. Is that such a travesty?

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