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Online gambling review should not ignore the problems in our own backyard

Those concerned with the growing harms of online gambling will be disappointed with the terms of reference of a new Australian review. Reuters/Bobby Yip

Online gambling review should not ignore the problems in our own backyard

Those concerned with the growing harms of online gambling will be disappointed with the terms of reference of a new Australian review. Reuters/Bobby Yip

As those who watch sport will attest, online gambling is seemingly ubiquitous. Certainly advertising for it is.

In Australia, the regulation of gambling services is a matter for state governments. However, the federal government has responsibility for telecommunications, which includes the internet. So, there is some division of responsibility for online gambling. This has arguably left the area less well regulated than it might be.

This is one ostensible reason the federal government has announced a review of the online gambling industry.

Background

The current federal legislation is the Interactive Gambling Act. It allows Australian operators to offer online betting. It also seeks to prohibit the provision of casino-style gambling – roulette, slot machines – to Australian residents, but doesn’t prohibit Australians from using such services.

This means that Australian-registered services are not allowed to offer some gambling services, but are permitted to take online bets.

The most recent review of the act reported in 2012. It concluded that it would be useful to consider a trial of some online gambling – suggesting online poker, which is thought to be a less harmful form of gambling than slots or other casino-style gambling.

The review also recommended a host of harm-minimisation measures be introduced into the online gambling arena. These included a pre-commitment system, an effective self-exclusion system and much-improved practices among bookies. The review recommended that better enforcement of offshore providers be implemented, although effective regulation of extra-jurisdictional gambling providers is likely to be futile.

Nonetheless, the review suggested that banking institutions should be rewarded for blocking transactions between Australians and nominated unlawful gambling providers. This may have some effect, although mainstream banking institutions provide only some of the plethora of ways of moving money around the world.

A recent Financial Counselling Australia report highlighted a number of what can only be regarded as very dubious practices among prominent bookmakers operating under Australian regulation. These include extending unsolicited lines of credit, failure to pay winnings on request and repeated inducements to gamble.

These practices are not caught by current consumer protections under credit law or gambling regulation. Bookies also appear to regularly share data on their customers, which is likely to breach privacy legislation.

What this review will focus on

Media reports early this month – when Social Services Minister Scott Morrison confirmed that a review would be held – appeared to focus on a range of the issues highlighted by the 2013 review, including consumer protection.

However, the terms of reference headlined this new review as being into the:

Impact of Illegal Offshore Wagering.

In fairness, one of the terms of reference of the review is concerned with increasing consumer protection.

It will be a quick review. The final report must be with Morrison by late December. Submissions will be sought from industry and the public.

Those concerned with the growing harms of online gambling – and particularly sports betting – will be disappointed with the terms of this review. There are a number of pressing concerns that, from a consumer protection perspective, might have ranked higher in both the terms of reference and Morrison’s messaging.

Online bookies are competing for market share in Australia, where the operators now include global giants such as the British bookies Ladbrokes and William Hill. Their practices have attracted considerable criticism as the scramble for revenue escalates.

Troubling practices include the continuing provision of credit, the pushing of boundaries on such issues as the prohibition of online in-play betting, and blanket advertising of their wares – including to children during sporting events – and the aggressive branding of sporting teams with gambling providers.

What is Australia’s real gambling problem?

Sports betting in Australia is likely to generate revenue – that is, player losses – of around A$750 million in 2015-16. It is the fastest-growing gambling sector and is likely to produce a new wave of gambling problems among the young men to whom these products are marketed.

Although modest in comparison to poker machines – which generated around $11 billion in losses in 2014-15 – it needs to be effectively regulated if Australia is to avoid adding to the already significant burden of gambling harm. The good news is that preventing this harm is actually quite straightforward.

Unfortunately, substantial and powerful segments of the Australian body politic are now closely affected by the fortunes of the bookies. These include Packer interests via CrownBet, the AFL’s official wagering partner. State and territory treasuries are also abundantly interested in maintaining the flow of money.

It is worth asking if the offshore online gambling sector is Australia’s most pressing gambling problem. Undoubtedly, some Australians get into a lot of trouble gambling online. Most of them will fall prey to bookies already licensed in Australia and offering services lawfully. Some will end up in trouble because of offshore sites offering unobtainable services such as online slots or roulette.

Overall, the market going to such offshore providers is estimated at around $1 billion, although there is no way of verifying this under current circumstances.

But, at least 75% of those with a gambling problem have it because of poker machines in clubs or pubs. We see little concern from the government about this group.

And, even in the online gambling environment, there appears to be little concern about first cleaning up our own backyard. The 2013 review made some very sensible recommendations about harm minimisation, including restricting or prohibiting credit betting. This is clearly a source of considerable harm to many. And prohibiting credit betting is in fact current federal government policy.

The Financial Counselling Australia report provided ample evidence of the excesses of the Australian online gambling industry. A recent whistleblower article from within the industry confirmed these concerns. These need to be a major focus of any review of the Interactive Gambling Act and other relevant federal legislation, including the regulation of advertising and banking services.

But if the renewed urgency behind this review is to highlight the “dangers” of offshore online gambling providers, then the bookies will be arguing as hard as they can that the solution is to allow them to offer the same services from Australia. After all, the internet is notoriously difficult to regulate and service providers licensed in Australia would be expected to observe Australian regulation.

It is important to ensure gambling is properly regulated. But it is probably better to address the main game first, or at least simultaneously. That involves making sure that current providers are adhering to the best possible harm-minimisation practice.

The 2013 review set up a clear set of goals for that. We don’t need another review to know what needs to be done, or to do it.

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