Online poker players in Australia saw their hopes for a fully legal game dashed yesterday. The Senate passed a modified version of the Internet Gambling Amendment Bill 2016 on August 9 which includes a provision outlawing the game. The House of Representatives passed the bill in June. The action by the upper house of parliament means the ban will go into effect in 30 days.
The provision, introduced earlier this week, came as a surprise as last week hearings were held to look into creating a carve-out for the game.
The writing has been on the wall for some time. Minister of Human Services Alan Tudge introduced the bill to ban offshore internet gambling sites in November last year. PokerStars announced to shareholders at that time they may have to leave the market. 888Poker was the first to stop offering services this year when they pulled the plug on January 16 with only 3 days notice to players. All other big brand names are expected to leave the market within the next month.
While it is not illegal for players to use offshore gambling services the new legislation makes it crystal clear to operators that poker law is no longer to be considered a gray area. Operators can be fined more than $5 million a day after the law goes into effect.
The bill modifies the Interactive Gambling Regulations 2001, the Australian Interactive Gambling Act of 2001, and the Australian Communications and Media Authority Act 2005. Those laws went into effect long before the online gambling landscape of today was in existence.
Federal Communications Minister Mitch Fifield has always interpreted the current law as a ban on any offshore site offering services to Australians at home. He specifically mentioned poker when speaking to Parliament earlier this year, according to a report in the Sydney Morning Herald.
“That is why there are no Australian-licensed operators of online poker, but, because the law has been ambiguous, overseas operators have been freely offering these services to Australians,” said Fifield.
“With the law being clarified, it is evident that a number of these operators have begun withdrawing their services from Australians. Whilst I appreciate that this is not welcomed by those individuals who have been using these services, it is a fact that online poker has always been a prohibited service under the act. It is not something that this bill is enacting. Whether online poker should be legal in Australia or not is a separate debate.”
Proponents of the bill argue that gambling addiction is a serious public health concern in Australia and legislation is needed to protect the most vulnerable. Opponents of the provision to include poker have long argued that poker is the least dangerous of any gambling as it is primarily a game of skill rather than luck. Some have pointed to the US prohibition on internet gambling transactions as a right and proper way to set up conditions where unscrupulous providers can take advantage of consumers with no regulatory framework or enforcement mechanisms in place to protect them.
The bill came from an effort to protect players. Advertising and “in-play” live betting during sports matches were the initial targets, but by the time the law was written it included much more. By the time it was passed approximately 130,000 Australian poker players were left to fend for themselves in the same sort of market that exists in the US today; one where there are no player protections.