New Aussie PM no fan of online gambling; Sportsbet punter gets day in court

TAGs: Australia, Interactive Gambling Act, Sportsbet, Tony Abbott

australia-sportsbet-tony-abbottAustralia has a new federal government after Saturday’s election brought Tony Abbott’s Liberal-National coalition to power. At last count, the Coalition had secured 91 seats in the 150-seat House of Representatives, leaving the incumbent Labor party in the dust. The socially conservative Coalition leader Abbott (pictured smuggling budgies at right) has declared Australia is once again “open for business,” but what does it mean for the gambling business?

Abbott has previously opposed any further liberalization of laws to permit online poker or in-play sports betting, having infamously described online gambling as “a dark cave into which people can so easily retreat.” During the campaign, the Coalition warned that existing laws prohibiting any form of online gambling beyond sports betting weren’t being enforced and pledged to “investigate methods of strengthening the enforcement of the [Interactive Gambling Act] and ensuring Australians are protected from illegal online gambling operations.”

Abbott also pledged during the campaign to eliminate the ability of online gambling companies to offer credit to punters – which firms licensed in the Northern Territory are currently within their legal rights to do – but this option wasn’t generally good for much beyond generating headlines that painted the industry in a bad light, so whatever.

While Abbott is no fan of the online flutter, he has pledged to scrap Labor’s “draconian, unworkable” measures to combat problem gambling associated with video poker (pokies) machines, including the mandatory pre-commitment trial in the Australian Capital Territory. The Coalition has instead proposed a system of voluntary pre-commitment programs that would be overseen by the clubs and gaming venues that host pokies – a policy that anti-gambling campaigners have described as putting “Dracula in charge of the blood bank.”

The Coalition’s landslide victory had been predicted weeks ago by Australian bookies. Paddy Power’s Aussie offshoot Sportsbet accurately predicted at least 90 seats would go to the Coalition and decided to pay out over $1.5m on an Abbott victory nine days before Saturday’s vote. As for other parties, such as quirky billionaire Clive Palmer’s Palmer United Party (PUP), Sportsbet spokesman Haydn Lane told the Weekly Times the company hadn’t bothered to set odds on the likelihood of a PUP government, “but I’d be quite happy to offer one billion to one and you could have as much as you like on it.”

That open-ended approach would have been welcomed by punter Robert Euan MacMillan, who earlier this year sued Sportsbet for restricting his betting limits. MacMillan claimed to have routinely lost money wagering with Sportsbet from 2005 until 2012, when his betting hand suddenly went white-hot, netting him $22.5k over five weeks, including $14k in a single day in December.

In a suit filed in May with the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT), MacMillan claimed that Sportsbet reacted to his good fortune by capping his limits and restricting his wagering options. Sportsbet responded by noting that their posted terms and conditions allowed them to adjust punters’ options at will. Sportsbet also questioned whether the VCAT had jurisdiction to hear the suit, given Sportsbet’s online gambling license was issued in the Northern Territory. This latter argument was dismissed by the VCAT and the suit was allowed to proceed.

This week, MacMillan appeared before the VCAT to make his claim for the $35k in winnings he believes would have been his had he been allowed to continue wagering at will. The Herald Sun quoted MacMillan accusing Sportsbet of sorting customers according to their skill and/or luck, with winners subject to restrictions not imposed on losing bettors. “Sportsbet continue to advertise the product each and every day with no intention of offering it as advertised. Of course, were they to overprint in bold type ‘only for punters who lose’, then it might be considered to be offered honestly.”

Sportsbet’s attorney Jamie Richardson rejected the suggestion that Sportsbet had engaged in any ‘bait and switch’ advertising trickery, arguing that MacMillan hadn’t been “forced into something he’s unhappy with.” Richardson summarized MacMillan’s complaint as “I was a good customer of Sportsbet and they don’t want me anymore” but argued that “as aggrieved as Mr. MacMillan feels by being jilted, what he’s asking for is a forced reunion.”

Richardson also rejected MacMillan’s attempt to claim damages as a result of Sportsbet’s actions, suggesting that all MacMillan needed to do to remedy his situation was “mosey down the road to the TAB.” MacMillan countered by pointing out that Sportsbet offered an 8% premium on winning wagers above that offered by the TAB bookies, echoing William Hill CEO Ralph Topping’s recent criticisms of Australia’s corporate bookmakers as “comfortable monopolies” that didn’t “have a place in the modern world.” Topping’s opinions notwithstanding, the VCAT has yet to set a date for rendering a decision on MacMillan’s suit.


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