Australian Senate Makes Online Poker Ban Official; PokerStars Set to Depart in September

Despite an ongoing inquiry into the matter, on August 9 the Australian Senate used a simple voice vote to complete a federal ban of online poker.

The Senate voted to authorize a legislative package known as the Interactive Gambling Amendment Bill (IGAB) of 2016, which also prohibits online casino gaming and “in-play” wagers placed during live sporting events.

The IGAB was introduced last November by Mitch Fifield, who serves as Minister of Communications, after governmental inquiry titled Review of Illegal Offshore Wagering. The report concluded that offshore iGaming sites in Australia were flouting restrictions against certain advertising practices, while offering in-play wagering which is already banned under federal law.

In response, Fifield’s IGAB sought to amend that law – known as the Interactive Gambling Act (IGA) of 2001 – by clarifying statutory language regarding iGaming regulations and associated enforcement.

Lawmakers also took aim at internet casinos, arguing that the original IGA specified sports betting as the only legal form of online gambling. However, in doing so, they crafted the new amendments to cover all non-sports related wagers, effectively including online poker in the IGAB’s ban.

When it became clear that the new law would outlaw online poker, Senator David Leyonhjelm – the sole member of the libertarian-inspired Liberal Democratic Party to hold a Senate seat – called on his colleagues to reexamine the law’s purview. Leyonhjelm argued that online poker was a game of skill, rather than gambling as referred to by the IGA, and pointed out that the Senate never intended to ban online poker when writing the bill.

Working alongside a grassroots lobby group formed by players called the Australian Online Poker Alliance (AOPA), Leyonhjelm compelled the Senate to hold an inquiry into the issue, with the public invited to submit written testimony as to their views of online poker.

On August 1 the Senate Environment and Communications References Committee commenced a hearing to investigate the online poker ban, but eight days later, the debate was ended via voice vote – before that hearing had even produced its findings.

AOPA spokesman Joseph Del Duca issued a statement in response to the Senate’s sudden change of course:

“The Australian poker community should be very proud of how they have held themselves through the campaign.

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.”

Del Luca also urged his fellow online poker players to continue the fight to preserve their iGaming rights in the future:

“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. 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.”

Even as major operators like 888 Poker have already fled the Australian market, industry leader PokerStars has held firm, waiting to see if the AOPA’s last-ditch effort produced results.

On the latest news, PokerStars sent an email to its Australian player base to confirm that the site would indeed be withdrawing its real-money services:

“We’re proud to have seen the Australian poker community grow so strong over the last decade.

We do respect the Australian Government’s decision in taking steps to protect consumers and hope that in time we’ll be able to serve real money poker to you again.

We’d also like to thank the Australian Online Poker Alliance for their campaigning on behalf of the game and suggest that you consider lending them your voice if you’d like to see a regulated return of online poker to Australia.”

The mid-September date is based on the 30-day enforcement window called during the Senate’s passage, which would see online poker made illegal on September 9. However, the IGAB must still receive royal assent to become the law of the land, so that timeframe remains flexible.

PokerStars will continue to offer play-money versions of its games to players in Australia, and all player account funds will remain available for withdrawal.