DURING World War Two, Australian Prime Minister John Curtin was attempting to phone a state premier to discuss the threat of an imminent Japanese invasion.
He was left holding to get a line. The operator apologised, explaining that there were 60 callers in the queue ahead of him. All were punters waiting to place bets in what was the most convenient form of gambling at the time.
"Imagine if the Japanese had successfully invaded because a bunch of people were trying to get a bet on. Nothing could be more Australian."
The summary of this bizarre incident comes from Titus O'Reily, best known as the Melbourne-supporting AFL watchdog and comedian but whose latest literacy project has produced the superb Please Gamble Irresponsibly ($34.99, Penguin).
This is the book Australia needs to read.
Don't dismiss it as a comedian poking fun at Australia's gambling habit because it is so much more than that. It is an in-depth exposé into an inherent national addiction enlightened by the author's entertaining perspective.
O'Reily has done his homework and as a result the book deserves top marks.
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It is brutal in its detail, from the staggering figures surrounding the nation's gambling problem ($208 billion a year, compared to "only" $15.5 billion spent on alcohol) to the chronicles of some of the dodgier practices behind it which must have involved extensive libel checks before being cleared for printing but benefits hugely from doing so.
The chapter about the extent of police misbehaviour in the 1980s paints Queensland as a rogue, lawless Third World dictatorship and adorns the state with the honour of being "the gold standard in police corruption".
O'Reily consistently makes the point that the extent of gambling, and especially gambling advertising, has become so bad because Australians have let it. Gambling is a national trait and Australians become extremely defensive at any attempt to curb it.
Furthermore, nearly all previous attempts to rein it in have excluded horse racing because that is the gambling sphere of choice of the country's wealthier inhabitants who either are political decision-makers, or have influence over them.
Meanwhile national sport clubs and associations and especially state and federal governments have no real desire to limit what has become a major revenue stream, for fear of killing the goose that lays the golden egg. By the end of the first decade of this century, states were getting 10 per cent of their revenue from gambling taxes.
"Gambling isn't something the gambling companies and the governments are that keen to get rid of," O'Reily writes.
"It seems more like an essential component of their business model. Wiping out one-third of your revenue is not something most businesses would be pursuing with any real vigour."
With a detailed chronicle of the inquiries into gambling filling a whole page, he also gleefully exposes the half-hearted attempts to appear as if action is being taken.
"Occasionally, (sporting codes) bring in self-regulation, which is the regulation you have when you don't want to be regulated. When an industry says it can regulate itself, think of it like your children approaching you and suggesting they can self-regulate their bedtime."
Blaming Federal government tax retention for pushing state and territories "into the open arms of the gambling industry", O'Reily examines the impact of radio, telephones, the internet and mobile phones on habits with an excellent chapter on problem gambling highlighting the dangers of people being able to lose vast sums of money without leaving their homes.
He delves into the origins and history of Australia's gambling addiction which began with boxing and cock-fighting and was revolutionised by inventions like the automatic totaliser which "was like inventing a vacuum cleaner to suck money out of people's pockets".
"Gambling has been a consistent presence from the very moment Europeans set up a colony on these shores. Every attempt to stop it has failed spectacularly."
The book is wonderfully informative, not least about figures such as John Wren. The gambling entrepreneur's list of misdemeanours was lengthy but O'Reily argues his biggest flaw was being a massive Collingwood fan and benefactor, adding: "I've always believed financially supporting Collingwood is akin to funding a terrorist organisation."
O'Reily argues that gambling has become so inherent in the Australian character that we have become almost oblivious to its extent - until Tom Waterhouse appears on a television panel covering an NRL match and the nation riots in protest.
"The reality is gambling on sport is something Australians will always do. Like drinking alcohol, it doesn't cause harm to everyone and lots of people enjoy it; but we can't be blind to the problems it undoubtedly causes to a significant number of people."
He also poses the intriguing question: "Is sport popular in Australia because we love sport, or is sport popular because we love gambling, and sport is just a vehicle for betting?"
And whenever the subject gets a bit too heavy, there's always lines like this to lighten the mood: "Once the ban on off-course betting was in place, punters had two choices: go to the track or wager illegally. You could argue that they also had the option to not bet at all, but these were Australians, so that idea never occurred to them."
This is easily the second-best sport-related book currently available in Australia.
- SHAW THINGS ($29.95, FortySouth Publishing) is available at book shops, newsagents and other outlets across Tasmania