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Australia Loses Fight for Legal Online Poker

It appears the last-ditch effort of Australians to fight for legal online poker has fallen short.

The Australian Senate passed the Interactive Gambling Amendment Bill 2016 on Wednesday, effectively fencing the country in from regulated operators of online poker. The bill was initially meant to close off loopholes that allowed in play sports betting but also has the side effect of making it impossible for regulated online poker to be offered.

The passage comes on the heels of a final push from online poker players and advocates, led by the Australian Online Poker Alliance and Australian Sen. David Leyonhjelm.

After the bill’s initial movement late in 2016, things looked grim for online poker Down Under. However, the AOPA formed in response to the bill and Leyonhjelm took up the cause, initiating an inquiry to highlight what he and others saw as a foolish and hypocritical law.

Poker players responded and the group presented their case before at an Aug. 1 hearing. Joseph Del Duca of the AOPA said the support was all he could have hoped for.

“The Australian poker community should be very proud of how they have held themselves through the campaign,” he said. “We have rallied together as a strong community. The inquiry has received so many submissions from people who want to save our game that they haven’t been able to keep up with the work load.”

The band also recruited a pair of expert witnesses who pushed the idea of regulation rather than prohibition. Dr. Sally Gainsbury, a university professor, pointed out that black market sides exist that will swoop into the vacuum in the market and cater to Australians.

“A lot of people will continue to play, and they will be forced to use sites that potentially have fewer consumer protection mechanisms and be exposed to risks related to developing gambling problems, as well as potentially being cheated or losing their funds,” she said.

Long-time Australian online poker player Oliver Gill, a key voice in the AOPA, also called into the meeting to voice his support for a regulated market.

“Prohibition has been tried in other countries with disastrous results, including the creation of black markets, with millions of dollars being stolen from players by illegal online poker operators like Lock Poker with no recourse for players who have been cheated or stolen from,” he said. “I do not believe it’s in any party’s best interest to subject Australian online poker players to the reality of black markets, if the online poker industry is banned in Australia.”

In opposition, representatives of the Salvation Army voiced concerns about expansion of gambling in Australia. They argued the ease of access to online poker via credit cards and PayPal as “the preferred method” of gambling made it a haven for problem gamblers.

A number of highly placed government workers also took the stand. In their interview, they admitted that online poker was a different beast from other forms of internet gambling.

“That would still be the department’s view, that if any of the games under the IGA were allowed it probably would be online poker,” said Andrew Verdon, assistant director of online gambling in the Department of Communications and the Arts.

“We do acknowledge that online poker is a mix of skill and chance. There is a lot of skill involved, but there is still that chance element. But it would not be in the same area as roulette and slot machines, which is pure chance.”

However, the efforts of the pro-poker community appear to have done nothing to slow the guillotine from dropping. It took a merely a little over a week for the Australian Senate to come to a decision, and the decision means regulated online poker is likely finished in Australia. That means the 130,000 or so who play online Down Under face the undesirable choice between hanging up their mouse and keyboard or hopping into the murky waters that are home to black market operators.

While things are looking grimmer than ever before for Australian poker players, Del Duca urged players and supporter to keep up the fight.

“Whilst it was unfortunate that the government did not wait for the Senate Inquiry findings to come through, we urge Australian poker players to not give up hope,” he said. “Our game is not dead and we will continue to campaign for safe, legal online poker when the Senate Inquiry is handed down.

“Our call for a safe, regulated online poker market in Australia is still the only option that provides freedom for players, revenue for the government and protection for those in need.”

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Why Online Poker in Australia Needs You

This is a guest contribution from Joseph Del Duca, founder of the Australian Online Poker Alliance (AOPA). The AOPA is a community run organisation and advocate for safe and sensible online poker legislation ensuring that Australian poker players are heard.

If the poker community doesn’t act now, online poker will no longer be permitted in Australia. Legislation currently sits in parliament which effectively ends online poker. Reputable, regulated sites have announced that they will withdraw from the market if this law comes into effect.

This puts Australian poker players at a great risk. The vacuum that will be left after these large sites leave will present two choices to those that want to continue playing poker. Firstly, play exclusively in live venues or secondly, use sites that choose to deliberately operate outside the law by continuing to offer games to Australian players. Both of these scenarios are unfavourable outcomes for Australian players.
Live poker is fantastic, it is something that we all enjoy and it doesn’t matter how much you play online the thrill of playing a live game is always exciting and something that every poker player enjoys.

However, should it be the only option?

Access to live games is limited in Australia by both cost and location. Costs are much higher in live games. At Crown Casino in Melbourne, the cheapest tournament available costs $60. At The Star in Sydney the cheapest tournament is $220. Compare this to online where more than 75% of tournaments played are for a buy in of $10 or less. There are significant costs in running a live tournament such as hiring staff and other overheads so it is simply not possible for casinos to offer tournaments at this price point.

What does this mean to the player that only wants to play a $5 tournament? They are being told that they must either quit a hobby that they enjoy or play for larger sums of money than they are comfortable. This does not seem to be in the best interest of Australian citizens.

The other issue is location. In the time since founding the Australian Online Poker Alliance I have spoken with thousands of Aussie poker players. An overwhelming number of these players are from regional and rural areas, often great distances from their local casino or pub poker game. They are limited in their choices outside of online poker.

As a society we are moving so many services online to improve access, why are we scaling this back in poker and telling players that because of where they live they do not have the same ability to enjoy those hobbies as other Australians do? In addition to this there are our elderly and our disabled for whom many, going to a public venue to play may be impossible. Poker is a game of strategy and mental stimulation enjoyed by players of all ages. I recently received an email from an elderly gentleman by the name of Mick. This is what it said:

“I would like to tell you why I play online poker. I am 80yrs old and need to keep my brain active, I have played poker for many years and find it very stimulating and challenging, it also adds to my social life, I am a disabled pensioner so don’t get out a lot, i don’t spend a lot of money playing, you can play as low as 25 cents or even less depending on what game you play, i like to chat to other players from all around the world, it can be very social. i used to play in the hotels, but can’t get out any more. Without online poker my life would be miserable to say the least, i think if you ban poker online most people will go to the poker machines in the hotels and this would be 100 times worse than online, please look at all the repercussions that will occur if you ban our hobby.”

The other option available for players like Mick is to choose to play with sites that deliberately operate outside the law. We have seen countless examples in America post Black Friday of this ending in tragedy. Sites have disappeared and taken millions of dollars in players funds with them, as they were operating outside of the law to begin with the government was powerless to help the victims.

If sites are comfortable operating against the will of a sovereign nation what hope is there that they will act with an appropriate level of integrity and social responsibility when it comes to protecting players funds and running honest games? What the current government position does is effectively replace the regulated, publicly listed companies that are currently serving Australia to smaller sites choosing to deliberately act outside of Australian law. Clearly this is not in the country’s best interest.

What can I do to help?

Our campaign is working. The government is holding a Senate Inquiry into the future of online poker in Australia. We have until July 21 to make our voices heard. We need you to do one of two things.

1) Head to the Australian Online Poker Alliance website and use our talking points to write a submission that personally explains your position and why you are so passionate about regulated online poker remaining in Australia
2) Not sure what to write? Head to the Inquiry Page and leave the below statement with your name and contact details.

“I want regulated online poker in Australia. All banning online poker does is ensure that reputable operators will no longer operate in Australia and replaces them with those that purposefully act outside of Australian law.

As an Australian citizen and a taxpayer I should have the right to enjoy the hobby I love without the government interfering. Regulating online poker will allow me to continue playing poker whilst ensuring that appropriate consumer protections are in place and that an additional government revenue stream is secured.”

We can make a difference. But we need to act now! Don’t wait for somebody else to act. It is up to YOU to save our game.

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