Australian Online Poker Players Prepare for Shutdown
Online poker players in Australia have been fighting a battle against a planned online gambling ban for some time, but it seems they might have lost the war. The Senate passed the Interactive Gambling Amendment Bill 2016 on August 9, 2017.
The bill has been in motion since the fall of 2016 when Human Services Minister Alan Tudge decided the ban on offshore internet gambling sites would best protect consumers in Australia. With the passage of the bill this week through the upper house of Parliament, the gambling reforms are set to take effect within the next 30 days.
Australians have had notice of the impending ban, with sites like 888poker exiting the market months ago in anticipation of the bill becoming law. This will prevent the devastation that came with Black Friday for US poker players, which happened abruptly and harshly in 2011, but Australian players will be faced with similar decisions following the implementation of the bill.
How It Happened
Online poker operators catered to Australian players for many years under an ambiguous law called the Interactive Gambling Act of 2001. The holes in the bill prevented the government from effectively enforcing it, and operators were able to find easy loopholes through which to continue doing business in the lucrative market.
That market became even more lucrative after Joe Hachem won the 2005 World Series of Poker Main Event for $7.5 million. The Aussie became a worldwide poker celebrity with a PokerStars sponsorship but nowhere was he more respected than in his home country. Australia then saw its own poker boom of sorts, as live and online poker became even more popular. It spurred PokerStars to launch the Australia New Zealand Poker Tour (ANZPT), and the Aussie Millions became one of the most anticipated live series of the year at the Crown Casino in Melbourne.
It is unclear if anything in particular prompted Tudge and Communications Minister Mitch Fifield to spearhead the movement to ban online poker and casino games. However, they were clearly intent on doing so and found a great deal of support in Parliament.
Sites Prepare for Departure
Not long after the bill was introduced in Parliament, PokerStars informed its players that it may have to leave the market. Then-CFO of Amaya, Daniel Sebag, spoke to the issue in a November 2016 phone conference by saying the company was reviewing the legislation. “At this time, it would appear likely that if the legislation passes, we would block players from Australia,” he said.”
At the start of 2017, 888poker went a step further. Australian players received an email on January 13 to notify them that the site would no longer be available in that market as of January 16. “Following a business reevaluation, we’d like to inform you that 888poker’s services are not being offered to players residing in Australia,” the message read, “and therefore, your account will be closed 16/01/2017.”
In March, the Australian Senate passed its first version of the Interactive Gambling Amendment Bill 2016, and it was forwarded to the House for consideration. The House, however, had more important issues to consider and put the online gambling bill on hold until the summer months.
Meanwhile, the Australian Online Poker Alliance formed as a grassroots organization dedicated to saving online poker from the bill by creating a carveout for the game as one of skill. They found a friend in Liberal Democratic Senator David Leyonhjelm, who introduced an amendment to the bill to exempt online poker, worked with the group, and poker players around the world, including Hachem, reached out to lend their support. Even the public outcry for online poker changed few minds in the government, though.
@DavidLeyonhjelm Thanks for the effort to keep online poker in Australia. You seem to be the only one in that mad house with common sense
— Diamond (@DiamondDerr) August 9, 2017
PokerStars reached out to players at the end of March and assured a smooth exit from the country if/when it would be necessary but again warned players that they may lose access to the site if the bill passed.
— Matthew Wakeman (@mjw006) March 31, 2017
Summer Sadness for Poker
The House did eventually pass the bill, and a vote in the Senate on August 9 was the final nail in the poker coffin for Australia.
Significant crackdown on illegal offshore gambling & ban on providers offering credit betting passed Parl today: https://t.co/cGwJeYiwSu
— Alan Tudge (@AlanTudgeMP) August 9, 2017
Many anticipated more time to pass before the Senate vote, as a study was being conducted with input from industry experts and online poker players alike. Open submissions were still open as of the time of the vote, which means the government chose not to wait for the results of the report and had already made up their minds.
The official media release about the vote noted “the most significant set of online gambling reforms introduced by a federal government.” Some of the details of the bill that will impact online poker players and gamblers in Australia include:
- Overseas gambling companies will be prohibited from offering gambling services unless they hold a license under state or territory laws.
- The Australian Communications and Media Authority can impose new civil penalties and handle the complaint process from receipt to enforcement, alongside the Australian Federal Police.
- Offending companies will be placed on the Movement Alert List to disrupt any travel to Australia.
- Online gambling companies will be prohibited from offering lines of credit.
- Gambling advertising will be restricted during live sports programs.
While it may seem as if major online poker operators could simply apply for licenses to legally offer services in Australia, it is important to note that Legal US Poker Sites has yet to find any licensing regime dedicated to online poker or any sites based in Australia that can now offer online poker to citizens. This means online poker will be as prohibited in Australia as it was in the US after Black Friday.
The law is scheduled to go into effect in early September.