Australia Struggles for Online Poker Legality

When the Australian government initiated progressive gambling legislation in 2017 through the Interactive Gambling Amendment Bill, casinos and poker in the online medium was effectively legalized for Australian citizens. Three years on since the bill was signed into law, a vast array of problems remains. The reality is online poker is still largely inaccessible with complex red tape restrictions still in place.

Chips and dice on a laptop.

Australian activists have been campaigning for the legalization of online poker for many years, according to lawmakers and lobbyists, poker legislation is a matter of when and not if. ©AidanHowe/Pixabay

The battle for liberal gambling laws has been going for over three years in Australia, and progress for advocates of online poker has been laborious. The law changes initiated back then required all operators to hold a license from the Australian Communications and Media Authority, however, licenses for foreign-based gambling services have been almost impossible to obtain, and as of yet no online poker providers have been licensed by the ACMA.

The new laws have empowered the ACMA as a police adjudicator of the industry, deciding who can participate, and making business extremely difficult for companies it doesn’t consider the worth of a license. Penalties and fines are under the remit of the government agency, and they have been incredibly quick to hand out punishments to gambling operators who violate even the most inconsequential aspects of the legal framework, even adding company executives to the Movement Alert Lists used by the Border and Immigration Protection agencies.

A particularly harsh crackdown that has led to three of the world’s largest online poker operators; 888, PartyPoker and PokerStars all have abandoned the lucrative Australian market. Considering pokies are fully legalized across the country, and sports betting is widely accessible, many feel poker is being unfairly targeted. The logic has been baffling to many critics of the government stance against online poker. Taking up the fight for poker players has been the Australian Online Poker Alliance, led by the ex-professional player and lobbyist Joseph Del Luca, they’ve been trying to convince politicians to relax poker laws for a long time.

Tumultuous 2020 Puts Poker on Backburner

In 2019, David Leyonhjelm, a member of the Australian parliament publicly through his support behind making online poker more accessible. Leyonhjelm articulated that the game of poker is one of skill rather than pure gambling, and must be given special treatment outside the harsh set of legal restrictions in place against other forms of online gambling. His efforts and those of others were gathering momentum, but in the wake of the tumultuous start to 2020, these issues are very much at the bottom of the agenda.

Australia was first rocked by enormous wildfires at the beginning of the year, with 18.6 million hectares of land scorched, thousands of people displaced and over 1 billion animals estimated to have perished. The political turmoil that ensued for the Australian leadership was disastrous, with the problem affecting all parts of life in the country. The entire month of January was focused on dealing with the economic and social fallout of the fires.

There were several efforts to initiate relief funding during this period, with Australian poker players raising hundreds of thousands of dollars in aid. The charitable effort was led by several professional poker tournament organizers across Australia.

Just as the fires had seemingly come to an end at the beginning of February, the spread of a novel coronavirus later named COVID-19 quickly took hold. By March it had been labeled a pandemic by the World Health Organization and Australia began rapidly shutting down normal life to contain the spread of the disease.

Much like the January bushfires, the coronavirus has had a devastating economic impact on the country. Lawmakers have been completely preoccupied for the best part of 6 months now, and any previous attempts to bring about reform and new legislation for online poker have been temporarily put on hold as the government handles the crisis.

Confusion Between Pokies and Online Poker

Almost comically, a large part of the problem surrounding the stiff resistance of allowing online poker companies into Australia appears to be the confusion between differentiating pokies (the Australian slang word for slot machines) and poker. The two games are completely different, and yet they are lumped together and cited in many arguments by anti-gambling activists.

Del Luca who we mentioned earlier has been leading the argument for online poker, and he believes online poker should be licensed and legal for Australian players. Poker is a game of skill, unlike slot machines, there is a large gap in winnings of well-experienced players and newcomers. More importantly, the legalization of online poker could bring in enormous tax revenues, something that may catch the ears and support of many on-the-fence lawmakers.

As Del Luca explained on the PokerMedia Australia podcast this week,

I can tell you, of probably 100 different members of Parliament that I’ve spoken to about this issue, easily over 80% of them thought when I was talking about online poker I was talking about online pokies or poker machines, slot machines. Obviously, being the only country in the world that calls them poker machines, there’s the correlation between the two in a lot of people’s heads.Joseph Del Luca, Leader and spokesperson, Australia Online Poker Alliance

The confusion is one thing, but an overarching resistance to allowing its legislation exists too. There is a need to exemplify the benefits that could come from bringing online poker into the legal gambling framework. Revenues from tax dollars could be used to help heal the economic void left by the devastating events of 2020. Besides, people are gambling anyway, the pandemic lockdown has already shown that Australians are gambling en masse at offshore-operators. Therefore, it is evident that prohibition doesn’t work, it is within the government’s interest to legalize and regulate the space.

Del Luca is confident in the future of online poker in Australia, it is a good time to interact with lawmakers and make their voices heard. With plenty of progress being made, and the economy slowly reopening, it is only a matter of time until Australia has a fully licensed poker market like most of the western world enjoys.

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