By Ben Blaschke
Online poker giant PokerStars this week officially withdrew its real money services from Australia, but the hiatus might not last long with the federal government considering a new feasibility study into issuing licenses to selected online poker operators.
PokerStars was forced to pull the pin on Monday as the Interactive Gambling Amendment Bill, which closes loopholes in the Interactive Gambling Act 2001 and strengthens the government’s ability to prosecute illegal online operators, came into effect.
However, it seems that months of lobbying by the Australian Online Poker Alliance (AOPA) to legalize and regulate online poker in Australia might pay off with the government reportedly advising that it is “favorably disposed” to reforms that would exempt online poker players from illegal offshore wagering laws.
Senator David Leyonhjelm, a strong supporter of the AOPA, released a statement this week revealing that Communications Minister Mitch Fifield had instructed his department to undertake some preliminary work on a feasibility study.
“While any reforms will be contingent on Minister Fifield obtaining party room approval, he has indicated he has the support of Human Services Minister Alan Tudge, who led the government’s implementation of recommendations made in the Illegal Offshore Wagering Review,” the statement said.
Senator Leyonhjelm added, “I believe we have won the ‘in-principle’ battle. The question now will be how to make it happen in practice.
“Gambling is largely a matter for the states, while communications and taxation are Commonwealth matters. I’m not sure ACMA is an appropriate regulatory agency and would like to see the government consider something similar to the UK Gambling Commission, which appears to have a good understanding of the risks and benefits associated with online gambling.
“I will maintain close contact with Minister Fifield and his department to ensure this matter maintains momentum. Australian online poker players deserve to have a safe, regulated environment in which to enjoy their pastime and not be forced into using offshore sites.”
AOPA founder Joseph Del Duca said that news of the possible feasibility study was welcome news.
“The AOPA is extremely pleased that the Minister is looking into the feasibility of a safe, regulated online poker market in Australia,” Mr Del Duca told IAG.
“The poker community should be very proud of getting things to this point. As a community all we ever wanted was to be heard. We saw hundreds of ordinary Australians make submissions to the online poker inquiry and we are pleased that the government is listening to these players and taking this matter seriously.
“The AOPA wants to ensure the government gets the balance right between individual freedom, consumer protections and government revenue right. I personally urge Minister Fifield to reach out to myself and the AOPA as a whole. We are more than willing to work with the government on this.”
In the meantime, however, online poker has become little more than a memory for Australians with PokerStars emailing account holders late Monday to bid farewell.
“As a result of the Australian parliament passing the Interactive Gambling Amendment Bill (2016) last month, the time has sadly come to halt all real money poker play at our tables for you and all other players in Australia,” the email read.
“The Bill will become law on Wednesday, 13 September. We will halt our real money services in Australia at 15:00 BST on Monday, 11 September.
“As we’ve said before, we respect the Australian Government’s decision and appreciate their motivations. Keeping the online world secure and players safe is a mission that we share wholeheartedly.
“We would like to thank the Australian Online Poker Alliance, which engaged in lobbying for the safe and sensible regulation of online poker for Australian players throughout.
“We are extremely proud that over the last couple of decades we could play a part in helping the Australian poker community grow, but that wouldn’t have happened without you, the players. We want to take this opportunity to thank you for your loyal support to the game and for choosing to play with us at PokerStars.”