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Wednesday, 18 October 2017
Page: 7947

Senator LEYONHJELM (New South Wales) (18:28): I rise to speak on the online poker report. The online poker inquiry was instigated by me because the government had passed amendments to the Interactive Gambling Act without, I suspect, realising what it was doing in relation to online poker. While I disagree with the prohibition approach to online gambling in general, the ban on online poker is particularly egregious. The inquiry hearing was attended by me plus Senators Bernardi, Duniam and Whish-Wilson. I thank each of them for their interest in the subject and for their objectivity.

Senator Bernardi and I, as we said in the additional comments we submitted to the report, support the legalisation and the regulation of online poker in Australia. Online poker does not pose the risks of harm as other forms of gambling. There are a number of aspects to poker, including its online form, that make it inherently different to other forms of gambling. Poker is a peer-to-peer game, not one played against the casino or the house, thus there are no stacked odds by the casino or house requiring constant regulator scrutiny. It is a zero-sum game for the players, less any transparent, upfront fees that licensed hosts would have to competitively charge to cover platform provision costs. It involves players precommitting to the dollar amount they want to outlay or risk, helping to contain harm from excessive or addictive behaviour. It is relatively social and involves camaraderie and distinct groups, more often than not comprising males with full-time employment and above-average education and incomes. Over the medium term, poker is far more a game of skill and strategy than luck and chance.

The Productivity Commission agrees. In its 2010 Gambling report, the PC saw online poker as a valid first step to legalisation and regulation of online gambling in Australia, bringing it onshore so that players could be properly protected from unscrupulous platform providers and lack of regulatory standards. As the PC report goes on to demonstrate, in terms of the potential for deep or widespread harm and the degree of regulatory difficulty, if legalised, online poker is one of the most benign forms of gambling, posing few concerns relative to other forms, such as electronic gaming machines in pubs, clubs and casinos.

Indeed, the inquiry heard no evidence suggesting anything other than coincidence between poker and problem gambling. While some problem gamblers are known to play poker, problem gamblers also gamble in other ways well known to lead some into problem gambling.

The general principle here is that, rather than reflexively banning activities that include some risks and potential for harm, they can be legalised, regulated, monitored and of course taxed. The fact is that, as many submissions to the inquiry pointed out, banning the provision of online poker services within Australia will not prevent Australians from playing poker online. They will simply play on sites overseas where they are exposed to greater risk.

The government needs to simply get on with implementing the recommendations in the PC's 2010 report by legalising and regulating online poker. Online poker is unique. Participation and enjoyment are widespread. The risks of harm are low. And it is better to have it regulated and taxed onshore than driven underground or offshore. Other Western countries allow it, including the UK, Italy, France, Denmark, Norway and Sweden, plus various states within the United States. It is time that Australia's ban on and aversion to online poker also end.

Finally, when it comes to legalising it, the government should closely follow the model of the UK Gambling Commission. Its approach, which involves licences specific to each kind of gambling, enables it to address risks to gamblers, sport and consolidated revenue from gambling, in a logical and effective manner. It is relevant that the companies seeking to offer legal online gambling services to Australians also favour this approach. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.