Australian Policy Makers Grapple with Amendments

28 June 2001
The Australian Senate is expected to vote on the future of Internet gambling today. The vote is due after weeks of public debate and policy changes to the Internet gambling bill. Some amendments to the bill were dropped this week; others were added.

Greens Senator Bob Brown, who owns a key vote among those senators riding the fence on the issue, came out in support of the bill earlier this week after the bill was amended to prevent foreign bookmakers from taking online bets on Australian horse races.

His public support of the bill came a day after the Australian Newsagents Federation (ANF) came out in opposition of it.

The ANF's problem with the bill was the exemption of online lottery sales. The group felt that if lotteries were able to sell their tickets online, business would be dramatically affected for news agents all around the country.

The federal government may have a bigger mess on its hands now that the bill has targeted offshore bookmakers that are profiting from the Australian horse racing industry.

One of the world's richest men isn't likely to support the new amendments either. Because the amendments would hamper offshore bookmakers, PBL's Kerry Packer has already expressed displeasure with the bill. With the amendments in place, Packer's strategy of moving PBL's I-gaming subsidiary, Ecorp, offshore, becomes virtually impossible.

Like Packer, casino lobby groups that feel they are being targeted by the bill now that exemptions have been made for horse racing, sports betting and online lottery sales have raised their eyebrows to the bill.

The casino industry is up in arms now that the government has included provisions in the bill that will prevent operators from offering bets to players located in countries that choose to outlaw Internet gambling and wagering.

The government had to make such a provision to save face after initially saying that Australians wouldn't be allowed to gamble online unless it was with an offshore company and that Australian operators wouldn't be allowed to accept play from customers located in Australia.

Online casino groups laughed at the notion of Australian residents not being able to visit an online casino that had to live up to high standards set forth by the Australian government while being allowed to visit sites offshore where the chances of them getting defrauded were increased.

Brown said the amendment allowing countries to request that Australian Internet casinos don't operate in their jurisdiction is more of an international courtesy than anything else.

"It's a good neighbor policy," he said. "If New Zealand, Canada or Hong Kong were to ask the minister to designate them as being a country which Australian gambling houses cannot service through the Internet, then they will be listed as a designated country and taken out of that ability to be serviced," Brown said.

Brown also said it was necessary for him to support the bill once he knew the interest of Australian sportsbooks was being looked out for.

"Overseas gambling houses could run a book on at least the more prominent sporting events in Australia and I think that's a bad thing," he said. "It wasn't what the amendment was meant to do. The government needs to tighten up on that, and I've got some suggestions to put to them which would make sure that it's kept to the Australian industry."

Meanwhile the ANF claims to be the first lobbying group to openly oppose the bill.

The ANF argued in a letter to Prime Minister John Howard that allowing lottery companies to market their products online could damage news agencies, which earn up to 50 percent of their revenue from lottery ticket sales.

ANF CEO Paul Waite, said he was concerned that news agencies would lose the chance to make sales to customers who no longer visited their shops.

"We thought the purpose of this legislation was to limit access to gambling, yet the government has announced amendments that will enable lottery companies to sell online 'scratchie' tickets and consumers to buy their lottery tickets directly without going to the news agent," Waite said.

A spokesman for Communications Minister Richard Alston said the government was aware of the ANF's concerns and they would be considered during debate over the legislation.

Despite the objection from online casino operators and the ANF, the bill is expected to pass in the Senate now that key members such as Brown have voiced their support for the bill.