Aussie Senator Prepared to Fight for Poker, Warns of Long Battle

Senator Leyonhjelm
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  • Meet Sen. David Leyonhjelm, the man fighting for online poker in Australian government.

Online poker is on the ropes in Australia. But while it's on wobbly legs, with the referee beginning the slow count to 10 that signals the end of the game Down Under, one lawmaker has the ice packs and gauze out, diligently working to keep the fight going.

Sen. David Leyonhjelm of the Liberal Democratic Party has been the voice of the online poker players in Australia, presenting the cause of the Australian Online Poker Alliance. He has presented their case before parliament and fought for an amendment to the pending Interactive Gambling Amendment Bill that would have excepted online poker from the forthcoming ban.

While he was unable to get the amendment pushed through, "the Bernie Sanders of Australia" said recourse still remains and he's still committed to the fight. He's getting things in motion for the next steps in the fight to keep online poker legal in Australia.

"I am prepared to try to pursue this issue," Leyonhjelm told PokerNews during an April visit to the United States. "I didn't stop it, but what I did do was highlight the fact that the government hadn't really been attempting to stamp out online poker."

While Leyonhjelm isn't a poker player or even a gambler of any sort himself — "I've played poker for a beer once, I think" — the issue hits home with him nonetheless. That's because Leyonhjelm, who was first elected in 2013 and then re-elected in 2016, is a staunch libertarian.

"I have two rules," he said. "I will never vote for a reduction in liberty or an increase in taxes. I am constantly reminding the government to leave people alone, to reduce taxes, to balance the budget and generally stick to things only governments can do and leave everything else alone.

"As long as [people] aren't hurting anybody else, my view is it's none of my business and it's none of the government's business."

With 888poker already pulling out of Australia and PokerStars announcing they'd do the same once the bill becomes law, the writing appears to many to be on the wall. However, Leyonhjelm outlined the steps ahead, that could lead to a reversal.

"If I initiate an inquiry which highlights the stupidity of the law as it stands, perhaps some changes can be implemented," Leyonhjelm said.

The stupidity comes on a number of levels. Not only does Leyonhjelm find the idea of the prohibition route ridiculous — "Australia can be very silly at times" — but the law wasn't even intended to target online poker players.

In reality, the IGA was meant to close a loophole in the Interactive Gambling Act from 2001. That law sought to eliminate in-play betting on sporting events, but sports betting companies found a way to circumvent the law. Fearing the prospect of match fixing, the government tried to close off that loophole, and in the process, effectively put legislation into motion that bans online poker.

A backbench member of the Liberal Party alerted Leyonhjelm to what was going on. Furthermore, Leyonhjelm reasoned that it made no sense to effectively ban online poker and continue to allow Australians to play poker live. When he pointed this out in a speech to the Senate, he felt he reached at least a few ears.

"They got very uncomfortable," he said. "I don't think they understood what they were doing."

Since the speech failed to marshal the necessary support for his amendment, the next step is the aforementioned inquiry. First, Leyonhjelm will have to lobby some other senators to get support for an inquiry. As there's already a bit of backlog in the legislature, adding another to the list won't be popular.

However, Leyonhjelm has some currency that gives him leverage: his vote. When the current controlling party in the government and the opposition parties disagree, the controlling party needs the votes of Leyonhjelm and 11 other senators that make up the "crossbench" in order to get legislation passed.

Sen.Leyonhjelm
Sen.Leyonhjelm

"There are various things we can extract from them in exchange for our vote," Leyonhjelm said.

Poker advocates are hoping one of those things will be the inquiry that could save online poker in Australia.

It will be an involved process. After the lobbying, they'll have to lodge a report, which could take months. Speeches will be given in the Senate, and the government will take some time after that to respond. A year would be an optimistic timetable.

Poker players can help the process. Once the inquiry is underway, they can go to the House of Representatives website and make submissions in support of online poker.

"We need to hear from Australian poker players," Leyonhjelm said. "And, it's useful to hear from poker players in other countries. Explain that what Australia is doing is out of step with what other countries are doing. It helps for Australian politicians to hear that what they're doing is different from the rest of the world."

Until the inquiry goes into motion, not much can be done. And poker players are a notoriously hard-to-rally bunch. But Leyonhjelm has felt the support, and with the continued work of the senator and the AOPA, there remains a chance online poker will survive in Australia.

"They kicked up quite a noise in the lead-up to the vote on the bill," Leyonhjelm said. "I appreciate the fact that they're there, they're cheering me on. And when the time comes, I know they'll spring into gear and make their voices heard.

"And I will need their voices to be heard."

Photos courtesy of davidleyonhjelm.com.au

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