And they're off

It is a well-known fact that Australia is a gambling nation. The country comes to a standstill on the afternoon of first Tuesday in November; hell, a whole state gets a public holiday. The diggers at Gallipoli found some time out from the horror of the war they were fighting to fling some pennies in the air, and an Anzac Day tradition is born.

Yet when the new online economy starts to prosper and grow due to our nation's obsession to have a flutter, suddenly the brakes are firmly applied.

But why? Well, three years ago the Productivity Commission found that there were about 290,000 problem gamblers in Australia, with 130,000 classified as 'severe' gamblers. Globally, Australians are amongst the heaviest gamblers. While these figures are quite shocking, do they necessarily point to the Internet as the culprit in driving our gambling obsession?

The Federal Government - in its infinite wisdom, and armed with a report from the Nation Office for the Information Economy (NOIE) - recently decided it had the answer: introduce legislation into Parliament to prohibit gambling service providers from providing online and interactive gambling and wagering services to Australian residents.

According to Senator Richard Alston, Minister for Communications, Information Technology, "The prohibition will apply to all gaming and wagering services, including poker machines, casino games, sports betting and lotteries, that are offered on a commercial basis over the Internet or through online delivery systems such as interactive television and advanced mobile phone technologies."

Then the fireworks started. And why? Because the legislation is flawed and hypocritical. If the Federal Government wants to be proactive in confronting Australia's status as a leading problem-gambling nation, then let's look at the problem of gambling. Like many problems of addiction in modern society, gambling, when chronic, can ruin lives and cause a lot of distress for those effected by the problem. Like any issue of addiction, the main point is to treat the addiction. In this case, one means would be to provide a regulated industry as opposed to removing the temptation.

As we all know, if someone wants something in our society, legal or not, they can obtain it if they have the means.

I remember in the not-too-distant past when the Albury and Wodonga border had a thriving trade of tourist buses crossing the border from Victoria into NSW. Why? Because poker machines (the old one-armed bandits) were legal in clubs in NSW, but banned from clubs in Victoria. So the folks down south would get organised, get on a bus, travel to the border and participate in a day of dropping the coins in the slot. Eventually, the Victorian Government realised that NSW was richly benefiting from its tighter gambling laws, to the tune of millions of dollars in revenue, and finally changed its laws. Removing temptation really works. Really, it does!

If people are willing to travel for hours to gamble, then surfing on the Net to another site situated overseas, only a mouse click away, will hardly be a huge barrier to a chronic gambler.

However, Senator Alston thinks this will work. He admitted his plan would not completely stop Australians who wanted to gamble online; rather, it would force them to go to sites overseas. He believes that "if people are faced with the option of gambling on some totally unregulated site, I don't think they will take the risk." That's exactly what gambling is about. Taking risks!

It is so much easier to paint the Internet as the origin of all sins because it is a new technology. In reality, the Internet is nothing more than a technology medium that delivers goods and services we find in everyday society.

Funny, I thought technological advances were meant to make my life easier, and give me the right to choose. I must have been wrong.

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Amanda Conroy

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