Gabfest puts gambling pie in the sky

Senator Ferris said the online moratorium that failed to pass this October "is still alive and it would not surprise me to see it back in the Parliament in the next fortnight". Yet, as many delegates said, the government wins regardless of the bill's introduction or eventual passage. The Commonwealth has created so much doubt that most operators have either put their plans on hold or shelved them altogether.

Venturing offshore is an easy and reputable option for Australian operators, said Michael Toohey, managing director of Australian Gaming Specialists. For about $2 million, operators can be up and running with a slice of the online gambling pie, which he estimates at over $10 billion.

His upbeat presentation argued that offshore is good and, as long as the casino pays, customers don't care which country handles the licensing. Toohey listed about 40 countries that already license virtual casinos.

Four of these areas Vanuatu, the Cook Islands, Norfolk Island and South Africa shared information on their infrastructure and background with online gambling. The most lively of these presenters, Mathilde Hurle of Cook Islands, blasted past Aussie entrepreneurs that tried to finagle a licence and challenged future operators to prove they merited Cook Island licensing.

If the moratorium passes, operators fall into one of two camps. Those with a strong Australian presence, such as an ASX listing or physical casino, have sunk millions of dollars into a lost cause. It's up to their lawyers to help them sue the government to recover their lost investment. These operators thought they were following the law and take umbrage with the introduction by press release of the proposed moratorium earlier this year.

For those that have little physical affiliation with Australia, they simply pack up their site and move. For example, Richard Farmer, chairman of Canbet, made it clear that he'd already built up a reputation and solid customer base that would follow him offshore.

Aside from the confusion, the delegates felt frustrated with misconceptions about online gambling in Australia. Thanks to technology, they contend that online gambling has more player protection and harm minimisation controls than land-based gambling especially pokies. Age verification, minimum bets, cooling-off periods and other initiatives are already in place at some virtual gambling sites.

And many sites cater to a predominantly non-Australian clientele. Canbet for example, said about 90 per cent of its customers hail from the US. Were Canbet to move offshore, the ACT would lose this tax revenue paid by non-Australians.

Some operators have put their online plans on hold and others are looking overseas. Most are scratching their heads, wondering what the next two weeks in Parliament have in store for them.

Jamie Murphy is a visiting fellow at the University of Western Australia.

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