First draft of Aussie online gambling released

Back to square one Downunder?

The first draft of the much anticipated review of Australian gambling by the government's Productivity Commission was released this week, with some predictable conclusions...and some surprisingly practical suggestions regarding online gambling regulation.

The draft will now enter a public hearing phase through November and December, with the final report submitted to the federal government by 26 February 2010, according to a statement at http://www.pc.gov.au/projects/inquiry/gambling-2009/draft/media-release.

A key finding in the extensively researched report is that Australia's ban on online gaming is just not working, with Australians increasingly gambling abroad on sites "with minimal consumer protection," an outcome widely predicted by experts when the government abandoned its progressive regulatory policy on the pastime some years ago.

The Commission proposes the 'managed liberalisation' of online gambling, with supply being made legal in Australia, contingent on the introduction of stringent 'harm minimisation measures'.

This could herald a return to the previous and more liberal policy of regulation rather than prohibition.

Much of the report is devoted to problem gambling and the proliferation of land-based 'pokie machines'.

The Productivity Commission proposes stronger regulatory measures, mainly aimed at the 'pokies', including lowering the intensity of play and facilities whereby gamblers can set spending limits on themselves.

Gamblers in Australia spend (lose) over $18 billion per year including nearly $12 billion on poker machines, the draft claims.

The Commission estimated that problem gamblers account for around 15 percent of regular gaming machine players, with a further 15 percent facing moderate risks. It also found problem gamblers' share of total spending on pokies ranged alarmingly around 40 percent.

Productivity Commission Chairman, Gary Banks, observed that "...despite progress since our last report 10 years ago, there is considerably more that [territorial] governments can do to make gaming machines a safer recreational pursuit."

The Commission has drawn from experiences in Australia and overseas to craft proposals that help reduce the social costs of gambling without unduly impacting on its recreational value. Key proposals are directed at:

* Reducing the amounts that people can lose (currently up to $1200 per hour) through lower limits on bets per button push and on how much money can be fed into machines

* Giving people the choice to set limits on how much time and money they spend on gambling, through a universal 'pre commitment' system harnessed to improved technologies.

Banks claimed that a large number of people have problems with their gambling, and that it is vital that they are given a tool to achieve greater control.

Other regulatory proposals include limiting access to cash in venues, longer and earlier shutdowns of gaming rooms (drawing from the Queensland approach), and better warnings (based on Victoria's model).

The Commission has also proposed an overhaul of wagering regulations that will promote competition and lower prices for punters, while sustaining the racing industry.

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