Australia in grip of gambling frenzy

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FOR HALF an hour or so this afternoon, Australia will come to a standstill for the year's biggest horserace, the Melbourne Cup. From big shots at the bookies to humble office sweeps, millions of dollars will be won and - mostly - lost.

Racing fans look forward to it the whole year round but for most, the cup is just one among an ever-growing number of increasingly expensive thrills.

Australians are the world's biggest gamblers, with the average staked per year three times higher than for the typical American. Yesterday, Sydney's newsagents were besieged by punters queueing for tickets to one of the seven state lotteries, with a record jackpot up for grabs. Animated television adverts showed a massive cricket ball falling from the sky, with the figure, $17,000,000 (pounds 6.3m) on the side. In one, the wicketkeeper standing underneath was crushed by the impact, and indeed there is a growing sense that the gambling phenomenon has grown too big for anyone to handle.

It certainly acquired unmanageable proportions for Dirk van Wye, a former Sydney taxi driver who lost his business and almost, with one suicide attempt, his life to Australia's most insidious form of gambling - "the pokies". In the last 18 months, electronic poker machines, once confined to clubs, have become widespread in pubs as well. New South Wales alone has more than 10 per cent of the world supply of such devices and Mr van Wye says: "It's an instant return. Thought's not involved, emotions take over. I've talked to pokies, pleading with them to pay out."

But the whole of Australian society is, to an increasing extent, hooked. More than one in every 10 dollars of public spending by state governments comes from gambling revenues, the industry now turning over A$80bn (pounds 29.6bn) a year. Last month, the New South Wales premier, Bob Carr, publicly expressed his unease at this Faustian bargain of public life, as his State Treasurer announced the latest fiscal concession to Sydney's huge Star City Casino. The cut, to a flat-rate 10 per cent "high roller" tax, would, it was said, attract a larger slice of this international trade and yield an extra few million tax dollars a year for public services.

In three weeks' time, Mr Carr's government will receive a report on the social consequences of an industry which has thrived on the largess of his predecessors at the Statehouse. One of the most famous high rollers of them all, Australia's richest man, Kerry Packer, rose to prominence in the 1980s, when then Labor New South Wales premier "Nifty" Neville Wran granted his firm the licence to run the state's first lottery.

There is a growing sense of anger that big business is putting temptation in the way of the vulnerable. Last week, the South Australian Licensing Court refused to allow one hotel in the state's remote West to install pokies because of "grave concerns" about their potential impact on poverty and alcoholism among local Aborigines.

There is also a degree of soul-searching in what was brought up to think of itself as "the Lucky Country". Once a society with strong claims as the most egalitarian in the world, today's widening inequalities accentuate the darker side of the Australian identity.

Sunday morning in the sprawling suburbs of Sydney's North Shore, and Australia's middle classes are at play, in a jumble sale at a bowls club. A microphone crackles into life, and the tombola man advises: "If yer luck's in, yer luck's in - y'can go home, put yer hand down the toilet and pull out a gold watch - if you feel lucky."

As the Australian dream that theirs is a land of plenty fades into an era of economic uncertainty, the idea that a cornucopia awaits the fortunate, in the pokies room at the pub, at the betting shop or indeed down the toilet, may be a way of holding on to the promise of the new when real life increasingly means making do with the second-hand.