Election 2013: Grim Tidings for Online Poker in Australia

By: Tim Napper

The imminent federal election brings with it the greatest threat to online poker we’ve ever had in Australia.

Online poker has always flown under the radar. It’s technically illegal for companies to offer Australians online poker under the Interactive Gaming Act (2001), but this has never been enforced (remember also it is perfectly legal for users to play on those sites). The poker community has largely kept their heads down over the years, and we have generally been able to play unscathed.

But the coming federal election could change all that.  

In an effort to inform the poker community what the election outcome will mean for your freedom to choose to play poker online, this article lays out the positions of the various political parties on this issue. I have done so as accurately as possible based on public statements by political leaders and key independents.

Labor

While Julia Gillard was still Prime Minister, her Communications Minister, Stephen Conroy, endorsed a plan to trial legal online poker whilst cracking down on all other forms of online casino gaming (roulette, poker machines, black jack and so forth).

The fact Labor were even willing to make this distinction – most politicians still think ‘pokies’ and ‘poker’ are the same thing – was a huge win for online poker players.

However, with Rudd taking power and Conroy quitting his position as Minister (he was a Gillard supporter), we are at the status quo ante. The work Conroy did on this issue will largely be forgotten. This means the approach to online poker under a future Rudd Labor Government will be the same as it was under the previous Rudd government - we will be able access and play online poker as we do now, but it will still exist in a the legal grey area.

Liberal

The Liberal Party under Tony Abbott has clearly stated it will ban online poker.

As I have discussed in previous articles, Tony Abbott and Nick Xenophon announced at a joint press conference in 2012 their desire to crack down on online gambling, including poker. They want the laws enforced and the poker sites shut down. Tony Abbott has said “…every smartphone is a poker game and that's just not on as far as the Coalition is concerned. It is a dark cave into which people can so easily retreat and there they are beyond help”.

But it gets worse. The Coalition’s ‘Policy to help problem Gamblers’, just released in August 2013, reads as follows:

Labor’s review of the Interactive Gaming Act proposed removing restrictions on online poker – a proposal that would have turned every smart-phone in Australia to a legal, handheld casino.”

“There are ongoing community concerns that the current laws prohibiting certain online gambling, such as online poker and casino games, are not being enforced… The Coalition will investigate methods of strengthening the enforcement of the IGA and ensuring Australians are protected from online gambling operators.”

Or put another way...Australia’s Black Friday is coming.

Some in the poker community have argued that online poker is not a high-order issue for the Liberal Party and thus easily forgotten. This is true. After all, an Abbott government will be focused on repealing the Emissions Trading Scheme, the Mining Tax, and various other Labor policies they have vowed to dismantle.

However, the counter argument is this - it is an easy ban to implement. Online poker has no lobby group behind it, no politically active community, and no funding it can put into emotive campaigns against such a ban. In other words, online poker is unable to run the same sort of campaign the Clubs did to protect the pokies.

Banning online casino gaming is a painless way for a government to appear tough on gambling, and it is for this reason online poker is particularly vulnerable.

Of course, this will ignore the real source of problem gambling in Australia - the pokies. Pokies cause 80% of problem gambling in Australia, while the percentage of problem gambling associated with poker is so small it does not even register on the survey.

Greens

While the Greens have generally been anti-gambling in any form, they do not have any specific policy regarding online poker.

As such we can only go on the actions of the Greens in relation to the PokerStars app – something they were instrumental in having banned in Australia. At the time, Greens gambling spokesperson Senator Richard di Natale argued:

"We don't allow online poker in Australia for Australian people under the Interactive Gambling Act ... they [Apple] have got an obligation to take down apps that are against Australian law and they should do it"

The reality is while the Greens are all over legalizing marijuana and therefore giving the appearance of being libertarian, they are really just looking to their base. And the Greens voting base (though there certainly are exceptions) aren’t big on gambling.

The Greens are no friend of online poker. If there are any moves by a Liberal Government to enforce the IGA, the Greens appear very unlikely to stop them.  

Andrew Wilkie

Andrew Wilkie is likely to retain his seat of Denison in Tasmania. He has waged a high-profile campaign against poker machines during his first term in office, and as an issue he is genuinely passionate about, it can be expected that he will do so again if re-elected.

Surprisingly, Wilkie actually supports legalising and regulating online poker. His opposition to gambling is more sophisticated than most, and he focuses on areas that cause real damage (like poker machines) rather than low-risk activities like poker. Andrew Wilkie is an unexpected ally for poker players in Australia.

Nick Xenophon

Nick Xenophon’s instinctive opposition to all forms of gambling means he will never differentiate between games of skill and games of chance. His opposition to online poker has been steadfast and is guaranteed to continue.

Should the election be close and Xenophon emerge in a balance-of-power position in the Senate, the implications for online poker in Australia will be disastrous.

Conclusion

The status quo for online poker in Australia is the best we can hope for after this election. There is almost no chance of legalisation and regulation of poker.

If, as is increasingly likely, the Liberal Party wins the election, the outlook is grim. Their explicit, stated policy is to ban online poker. The Greens and Xenophon will not stop them in the Senate.

As such, I recommend you reduce your current online bankroll to the bare minimum. As a general common sense measure, you should not have huge amounts online if you are an Australian player in any case. 

While it is possible the Coalition won't follow through on their promise to enforce the ban, chances are you have a few more months to play online poker in Australia. Enjoy it while you can.

Tim Napper is a freelance writer, poker player, and regular contributer to www.makingthenut.com.

Read more articles by Tim Napper