Gambling bill approval puts local online punters offshore

As new antigaming legislation heads for Royal Assent, Australia's online gambling industry is busily ripping up the red carpet it once unrolled for Aussie punters.

Shortly after the Interactive Gambling Bill 2001 won approval Thursday night, Lasseters Casino began refunding so-called "purse balances" - money deposited with them by their Australian gambling patrons.

Lasseters was also steering customers blocked by the new legislation from gambling at Australian sites toward what it believes are trustworthy offshore cybercasinos.

One foreign cybercasino being given Lasseters' seal of approval is UK-operated Aspinalls.com. UK online gaming sites in general appear to be winners from the new legislation.

Of five online casinos located in Australia, Lasseters was the only one still providing services to Australian citizens following the Federal Government's year-long crackdown on online gambling.

All derive the bulk of their revenues from overseas patrons and are "about 95 per cent content". The new legislation will minimally impact their offshore revenue streams, according to Australian Casino Association executive director Chris Downy.

However, a flurry of last minute amendments accompanying the passage of the antigambling bill sparked concern.

An amendment that requires banks to dishonour overseas casino site payments was attacked by Internet Industry Association chief executive Peter Coroneos.

The amendment, sponsored by Greens Senator Bob Brown, effectively blocks overseas casinos from disbursing winnings or collecting debts from Australian punters.

It gives the Government six months to put the appropriate regulations in place.

The amendment sets a bad precedent for e-commerce and "will simply set a precedent for users to move to forms of digital cash which will be harder for governments to control," Coroneos said.

Another amendment allows Canberra to respond to requests from other countries seeking to protect their citizens from online gambling.

Operators here may be banned on 90 days notice from offering their services in countries that had passed laws similar to Australia.

The amendment was criticised by Peter Bridge, managing director of Lasseters Holdings, as "a dangerous precedent".

Preliminary legal advice to Lasseters indicated the amendment may be unconstitutional, he said.

"At what point do we get to see some sort of finality without being concerned that the minister can turn around and bring in changes that affect our business viability."

Bridge said the industry was "sick and tired of this illogical and poorly thought-out legislation."

A mass of exemptions for wagering and lottery industries plus last-minute amendments to guarantee the support of key Senate votes left the legislation looking "like a dog's breakfast".

The new laws guarantee the online casino industry will throw its weight behind Labor as the next election looms.

Labor's intention of addressing online gaming problems through regulation rather than outright prohibition "gives us hope and confidence", Bridge said.

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