Update: Australia’s Pending Online Poker Ban

There are several developments to report in the pending ban of online poker and most other forms of online gambling in Australia, following that country’s Senate’s passage earlier this week of the Interactive Gambling Amendment Bill 2016 (IGA).  Since online poker wasn’t specifically approved within the bill, and an amendment to create a carveout for online poker bill failed by a wide margin, the days that Aussies can play online on the world’s largest sites appear certain to end within a few weeks.

Exact Cutoff Date Yet to be Determined

Though Australians’ ability to play freely online for real money will soon end, the precise date on which international sites must stop servicing the country remains unknown, pending the official finalization of the bill.

Two steps remain before the bill becomes law.  First, the country’s House has to approve or deny a series of small amendments added to the bill when it passed in total this week.  No major controversies are expected to emerge that would hinder the bill’s overall passage.

From there, it’s on to the “Royal Assent,” the official approval from Australia’s Governor-General.  Again, this is expected to be a rubber-stamping for the measure, given the broad support for it throughout Australia’s ruling coalition.  The House approval could occur any day, while the royal assent, which would follow immediately thereafter, can take anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of weeks.

Then it’s on to the bill itself, and its implementation timeline.  The first three sections of the bill take immediate effect, but they rely entirely upon the supporting language and definitions present throughout the bill.  That majority of the bill, however, doesn’t go into effect until 28 days following the decree of royal assent.

Add it all together, and the likeliest exit date is a two-week stretch spanning the last days of April and the beginning of May.  April 30th or May 1st is thus a rough approximation of when most major sites will end their active service to Australia, with that few days’ leeway to either side.  The expected exodus from the Australian market, if events flow as expected, will likely begin in the middle of April.

This chart from the Australian Parliament’s overview of the Interactive Gambling Amendment Bill 2016 shows what forms of gambling will and won’t be allowed once the new rules go into effect.

AOPA Acknowledges Legislative Defeat

Providing updates to one major poker discussion forum, Australia Online Poker Alliance representative Joey Del Duca confirmed the failure of the online-poker carveout amendment and the almost-certain final passage of the larger bill, within which is the de facto ban on online poker.

Del Duca, who met directly with several of Australia’s Parliament members, posted the following:

***OFFICIAL STATEMENT FROM THE AUSTRALIAN ONLINE POKER ALLIANCE***

As you are by no doubt now aware, our amendment to amend the Interactive Gambling Act (2001) did not pass through the Senate when voted upon today.  We know that this decision has hurt and saddened a lot of the Australian Online Poker Community. Our message to you is – We may have lost today’s battle, but we will win the war.

One thing that all poker players should know that it doesn’t matter if you lose a big pot, as long as you have a chip and a chair you are still in the game. We are definitely still in the game.

In December last year, when the Australian Online Poker Alliance was formed, the industry generally accepted that we were doomed and that nothing that could be done.

In three short months, we have gone from that position of total helplessness to a position where today:

– An Australian Senator moved an amendment on our behalf

– That amendment received support from Senators representing four other parties

– The Government Minister spoke about the Australian Online Poker Community in the Federal Parliament.

This is major progress that we should all be proud of.

In his remarks, Senator Mitch Fifield said that ‘online poker was a debate for another day’. We say – BRING IT ON!

We will take this challenge head on. The Australian Online Poker Community will gladly accept this opportunity to inform the Australian Government about our right to play and the overall benefits safe, regulated online poker has for a free society operating in the 21st century.

Almost every politician we have spoken to over the course of this campaign has agreed with our position. There is no greater example of this than Senator Nick Xenophon, who made clear that he understood our position in his remarks both today and when we met with him in person.

There is no reason that when presented with the facts the government will not do the same and support online poker.

So where to from here?

Firstly, if you haven’t already please ensure that you thank Senator David Leyonhjelm for his amazing work in bringing this to the floor of the Senate.

Senator Leyonhjelm is looking to present a Committee Inquiry to have this law amended. If you haven’t already let him know that you support this move and that you are willing to help. Let the Australian Online Poker Alliance know as well because we will work with the Senator on behalf of our poker community to ensure the message is strong.

Secondly, please recognise and support those Senators and parties who voted for our motion today. These Senators voted against both the government and the opposition to represent us which is never an easy task. Thank you to Senator Derryn Hinch, Senator Cory Bernardi and One Nation Political Party members Senator Pauline Hanson, Senator Malcolm Roberts and Senator Brian Burston – NSW Senate – One Nation.

Thirdly and most importantly keep bringing the noise. This is not the end, this is just the beginning of a fight that we can and will win. Stay connected with our page and keep in touch to find out how you can help in this fight!

It will be long and it will not be easy but if we work hard and stay focused we can still leave our mark on Australia by ensuring #AusFight4Poker is a success!

Thank you.

Joseph Del Duca on behalf of the Australian Online Poker Alliance

Major Sites Preparing for Exit Down Under

As mentioned, most major sites are expected to leave Australia within the coming weeks.  Most industry watchers have been keeping especially close tabe on market leader PokerStars, which acknowledge in a corporate conference call last year that it was preparing for such an eventuality.

PokerStars, however, has not announced a firm exit date as of yet, nor have most of its competitors.  According to Stars’ VP of Corporate Communications, Eric Hollreiser, in a quote given to OPR a few days back, “Amaya continuously monitors the regulatory environments of the countries in which it operates, and where a regulatory model exists always seek to comply with it. While Amaya currently offers poker to Australian customers through PokerStars under its Isle of Man global gaming license, if proposed legislation passes into law players located in Australia would likely be blocked from playing on our sites.”

Blacklist Possibility Exists

Some Australian online poker players have already sought out the metaphorical silver lining in the approachig storm, noting that there will be a handful of grey-market international sites that will still accept their business.  That approach echoes the United States experience following 2006’s UIGEA enactment and 2011’s “Black Friday” crackdown.

One concern is that the language contained within the Interactive Gambling Amendment Bill 2016 opens the door to a possible government-run blacklist.  The possibility of such a blacklist has gone underreported within the larger scope of the bill, but language that could open the door to such a blacklist exists nonetheless.  To date, the largest force holding back such blacklist intentions are the opposition from the countrys ISPs and free-speech advocates, both of whom also assert that an industry-wide blacklist blanket is generally unworkable as envisioned.

Still, Section Three of Australia’s Gambling Act 2001 is to be repealed in its entierety, and replaced with a new section, summarized as follows (reprinted in its entirety from the bill’s list of “Schedule 1” amendments; bolding ours):

○ This Act imposes the following prohibitions:

(a) a prohibited interactive gambling service must not be provided to customers in Australia;

(b) unlicensed regulated interactive gambling services must not be provided to customers in Australia;

(c) an Australian-based prohibited interactive gambling service must not be provided to customers in designated countries;

(d) prohibited interactive gambling services must not be advertised;

(e) unlicensed regulated interactive gambling services must not be advertised.

○ The ACMA may, on its own initiative, or in response to a complaint, investigate whether a person has contravened a provision of this Act that imposes any of those prohibitions.

○ A body or association that represents internet service providers may develop an industry code.

○ The ACMA has a reserve power to make an industry standard if there is no industry code or if an industry code is deficient.

○ The ACMA must notify prohibited internet gambling content to internet service providers so that the providers can deal with the content in accordance with procedures specified in an industry code or industry standard.

Nick Xenophon’s Anti-Poker Influence

A check of the supporting documents for the IGA shows that centrist Australian Senator Nick Xenophon played a strong role in preventing online poker from receiving a carveout.  This truth emerges despite the paragraph from the AOPA’s Del Duca referencing Xenophon, from the above.

Wrote Del Duca, “Almost every politician we have spoken to over the course of this campaign has agreed with our position. There is no greater example of this than Senator Nick Xenophon, who made clear that he understood our position in his remarks both today and when we met with him in person.”

Unfortunate, Xenophon’s alleged agreement regarding AOPA’s online-poker position directly contradicts Xenophon’s position on the topic as stated in the supporting documents for the IGA itself.  Several years back, Xenopho led an Australian governmental push for a blacklist approach targeting both online-gambling and online-porn sites, until his effort was beaten back by free-speech advocates.

As for online poker, specifically, the IGA documents show this:

The PC’s (Productivity Commission) 2010 report had recommended allowing regulated online poker card playing (a subset of online gaming prohibited under the IGA) ‘subject to very strong harm minimisation and probity requirements as a better means of protecting the many Australians who use such services from overseas (that is, prohibited) websites’.

The JSCGR (Joint Select Committee on Gambling Reform) had identified a range of arguments for and against regulated access and the majority of that Committee supported the prohibition. In his submission to the DBCDE’s (Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy Review) interim report of its review, Senator Nick Xenophon, a member of the JSCGR, warned of possible parallels between the opening up of access to electronic gaming machines in the early 1990s and allowing regulated provision of online gaming. However, the chair of the JSCGR, Andrew Wilkie, supported the PC recommendation for regulated access to online poker card playing. In recommending that a five-year trial of online tournament poker should be instigated, the DBCDE noted arguments from clinical psychologist Dr Sally Gainsbury who considered that ‘due to the fixed costs of tournament poker, this type of online poker appears to have relatively low likelihood of leading to gambling problems’.

Senator Xenophon criticised what he called the underlying reasoning of the DBCDE Review declaring that simply because people ‘could already access interactive gambling across the online border was not a good enough reason to legalise it’ and argued that, once a type of gambling was sanctioned, the implication was that it was safe. However, according to the Senator, ‘it’s a downhill slide from there. Given how accessible and addictive online gambling is, the risk is just too great’. The Government’s response to the DBCDE Review was to announce that it would work with the various state and territory regulatory bodies to establish a consistent national framework for harm minimisation and consumer protection that would address all legal online gambling activities. …

And later, this excerpt:

Policy position of non-government parties/independents

Senator Nick Xenophon has consistently called for tighter gambling legislation. In his comments in the JSCGR Inquiry report on the Interactive Gambling and Broadcasting Amendment (Online Transactions and Other Measures) Bill in 2011, the Senator argued for the strengthening of the IGA to improve its effectiveness. The Senator argued further that he supported additional measures to deter people from using overseas websites to gamble, such as a government-maintained ‘blacklist’ of merchant identification numbers to enable financial institutions to prohibit transactions to certain vendors (this was discussed in the 2011 JSCGR Report). In separate comments in the JSCGR Report, Chair of the JSCGR, Independent Member of Parliament Andrew Wilkie also considered that the possible introduction of a blacklist should be investigated.

In his submission to the O’Farrell Review, Senator Xenophon expressed concern that its terms of reference were ‘too narrow and ambiguous’ given the devastation caused to individuals and their families from legal onshore online gambling sites authorised under the IGA. The Senator considered that these legal sites should also be examined.

Specifically in relation to the IGA Senator Xenophon called for more power to be allocated to ACMA to make determinations about prohibited gambling services and noted the problems ACMA had faced after referring the licensed operator William Hill’s click to call betting practices to the Australian Federal Police (AFP). …

Reassurances to the AOPA notwithstanding, there’s no reason to believe that Xenophon wasn’t one of the driving forces behind Australia’s upcoming ban on online poker.

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