Fifty years ago at a nationally-televised gala event, Australia’s first casino movie online opened its doors.
Far from the avenues of pokie machines, plastic cups and casual clobber seen in many contemporary casinos, in February 1973 Hobart’s Wrest Point Casino and Hotel was a place to see and be seen for the glitterati of Australia.
Women wore cocktail dresses, men wore dinner jackets and the champagne flowed.
The tower that dominated the Hobart skyline was a must-visit destination, regardless of gambling interest.
“When you think of Australia in those days … it was a very posh place,” says Margaret John, who worked as a silver service waitress in the 17th floor revolving restaurant in the first summer it was open.
“People would come from all over Australia to stay.
“I used to watch them come in, dressed to the nines.
They’d all get drunk and were badly behaved. I’d get lots of tips because I was discreet.
“It was the place to be seen. The gambling was just the icing on the cake.”
Australia has a long-established history with gambling – from the early colonial days, to Diggers playing two-up, to having a bet on the race that stops the nation – but the introduction of its first casino heralded the dawn of a new era.
With more venues popping up across the states throughout the 1980s and eventually poker machines being installed in pubs and clubs, ‘having a punt’ became a national past time.
But along with the fun and frivolity came concern.
Australia has the world’s greatest gambling losses per capita, amounting to about $25 billion in 2018/19, according to data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.
Nearly half that money is lost on the pokies.
“The social costs of gambling – including adverse financial impacts, emotional and psychological costs, relationship and family impacts, and productivity loss and work impacts – have been estimated at around $7 billion in Victoria alone,” the institute reported.
As Tim Costello, former World Vision Australia CEO and a senior fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity, wrote: “Australia’s blind spot is gambling, just as the USA’s is guns”.
The gambling industry has also been plagued with allegations of money laundering, links to organised crime and a plethora of legal and regulatory issues.
But taxation revenue from legal gambling across all sectors was estimated to have made $6.6 billion in 2018/19, according to Ibis World statistics.
However, the tide might be turning.
Increased calls for more socially-conscious governance and regulation is forcing the gambling sector to show its hand.
In the past 12 months, casinos in Victoria, NSW and Queensland have faced investigations, royal commissions, rescinded licences and penalties.
The two big casino operations Crown Resorts and Star Entertainment have each been slapped with fines and as a result each vowed to undertake drastic reform to improve gambling practices.
In November, Victorian Gambling and Casino Control Commission fined Melbourne’s Crown Resorts casino $120 million for systemic breaches, including letting people gamble for up to 24 hours at a time.
The casino is under a two-year supervision order by a state government-appointed special manager to decide whether it should continue to hold a licence following a damning 2021 royal commission.
In March, Crown was found unsuitable to run a casino in Western Australia but was also given two years to clean up its act under independent monitoring.
A royal commission into the Perth casino found Crown Resorts and its subsidiaries facilitated money laundering at the casino and that the operator failed to implement systems to detect suspicious transactions and permitted junkets with criminal links to operate at the casino.
Crown also failed to minimise gambling-related harm, the commissioners said, and was not open and accountable in its communications with the state regulator.
Star Entertainment made headlines in two states.
Investigators found Queensland operations in Brisbane and the Gold Coast hid $55 million in gambling transactions from a Chinese bank, and turned a blind eye when members of the Italian mafia played at their casinos.
In 2022, the company’s Sydney casino The Star had its licence suspended and was hit with a record $100 million fine.
The NSW Independent Casino Commission took the unprecedented step after a scathing report that identified a litany of compliance failures, including evidence a notorious gang-linked junket operator was running an illicit cage at the casino and that it also broke rules on Chinese debit cards.
Even the casino where it all began – Wrest Point in Tasmania – fell out of favour when a covert arrangement, due to expire in 2023, giving the Farrell family owners a monopoly on poker machine licences in the state was revealed in 2015.
In the half century since Australia’s first official casino opened, the gambling sector and its tantalising tax revenue is no longer untouchable.