Death of Online Poker in Australia Imminent after Senate Vote

Legal online poker in Australia is about to become a thing of the past. After a Wednesday vote in the Senate in support of a ban, legitimate operators are exiting Oz en masse.

Senator David Leyonhjelm

Smoke ’em if you got ’em, as Sen. David Leyonhjelm was unsuccessful in getting a carveout for online poker into the Parliament’s update of the country’s 2001 interactive gambling ban. (Image: Sydney Morning Herald)

Following months of trepidation, discussion, and hope that the government would backtrack, online poker players in Australia, of whom there are an estimated 130,000, recently learned that the Senate had voted overwhelmingly to pass the Interactive Gambling Amendment Bill 2016, which effectively bans all online poker and other forms of internet gambling.

According to an announcement by the Department of Human Services, the Amendment Bill was approved by the Senate on Wednesday. With passage, the ban on online poker in Australia will begin to be enforced next month.

The Amendment Bill, an update to a 2001 law that set up Australia’s first standards on online gaming years before the industry around it had emerged, closes loopholes that had allowed online poker and in-play sports betting in Australia to take advantage of gray areas in the law and grow unfettered.

Terms of the bill require all providers of interactive gambling services to be licensed in Australia. However, no regulatory framework yet exists for legitimate online providers to apply for a license.

Closing Loopholes, Choking Hope

The bill is response to a call to implement recommendations from the Parliament’s 2015 review of the impact of illegal offshore wagering.

Legislation was introduced in November 2016 to ban unlicensed operators of in-play sports betting, in the name of keeping athletic contests honest, and in doing so also included online poker sites among operations to be shuttered.

After some back and forth between House and Senate in February and later in June, the bill moved forward without any amendments that would’ve protected online poker or called for the game’s inclusion in any new regulatory framework taking shape.

Online poker players briefly held out hope earlier this month for an online poker carveout, when Sen. David Leyonhjelm convened a panel to hear testimony from online poker players, gambling industry insiders, and addiction experts who advised that if the bill became law it could prove more harmful as players migrated to predatory black market sites.

How the Interactive Gambling Amendment Bill Will Work

In a bid to crackdown on what it describes as “illegal offshore providers,” the Interactive Gambling Amendment Bill 2016 will bring in the following changes:

The bill will change the law to make it clear that it’s illegal for overseas gambling companies to offer services to Australians unless they hold a license under State or Territory laws. The bill gives the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) the power to issue new civil penalties that will complement existing Australian Federal Police criminal penalties powers. Additionally, it will put the ACMA in charge of the entire complaint handling process from receipt to enforcement. The bill will introduce other disruption measures to curb illegal offshore gambling activity, such as placing offending company directors on the Movement Alert List so that they can’t freely travel to Australia.

Based on these legal changes, offshore poker operators won’t be able to offer services within Australia as they won’t have the necessary licenses. Moreover, with new sanctions in place for offenders, the risks are now a lot higher for those that may choose to ignore the ban.

Online Poker Exodus

A report and recommendations from the evidentiary hearing are not due for consideration until September 21, which seems all but moot now, as Wednesday’s senate vote calls for enforcement of the ban to begin in 30 days, on September 9.

Online poker companies have been leaving the land down under since January in preparation for the new law to take effect, and now those plans are accelerating.

Companies that have departed or are departing posthaste include 888poker, PokerStars, Partypoker, 32Red, and Gaming Innovation Group, among other reputable providers.

As of next month, operators that continue to offer services in Australia face fines of up to AU$6.75 million (US$5.32 million) a day.

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