Finance Finance News Stephen Mayne: How councils can help RSLs exit the toxic pokies business
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Stephen Mayne: How councils can help RSLs exit the toxic pokies business

City of Manningham has struck a deal that other councils should emulate, writes Stephen Mayne. Photo: AAP
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Australians are the world’s biggest gamblers in per capita terms with around $25 billion a year in losses and we even lose more than $1.5 billion a year on poker machines in RSL-branded venues.

But it doesn’t have to be like this.

Local councils, which see none of the tax revenues generated by the $14 billion in annual pokies losses that so compromise state governments, could help RSLs exit the gambling business.

They could help them return to their core mission of veteran welfare, advocacy, service delivery and camaraderie for those who have served.

At the City of Manningham, in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, the council has just agreed to buy the struggling Templestowe RSL for $1.25 million and to lease it back to the RSL for 20 years – provided that it remains a pokies-free venue.

Templestowe RSL president and former Victoria Police Fraud Squad detective Ron Twining has been battling to ensure poker machines never come to his local RSL, even though RSL Victoria is the state’s third biggest pokies operator after Woolworths and Crown Resorts, with gamblers losing around $260 million a year to poker machines at its 51 sub-branches.

The confidential Manningham deal was approved at a council meeting in August 2020 and after the sale settled last Friday, councillors revealed the arrangement at Tuesday night’s council meeting. (Watch the debate starting at 49 minutes.)

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Stephen Mayne. Photo: AAP

The unanimously endorsed resolution included a request that Manningham mayor Andrew Conlon write to the 30 Victorian councils that host RSL pokie dens “informing them of Templestowe RSL’s innovative sale and lease back arrangement with City of Manningham”.

The request called on Mayor Conlon to highlight the arrangement “as a model for how local government can partner with RSLs to assist them in moving to a more socially acceptable pokies-free operating model whilst remaining financially sustainable with a benevolent and stable long term council landlord”.

Victorian RSLs are the most asset-rich in the country, because they directly own almost $1 billion worth of property across more than 200 sub-branches, along with the licences to operate a fleet of around 2800 poker machines, which are controversially managed by Tabcorp for an exorbitant fee of almost $30 million a year.

In NSW and Queensland, the big RSL-branded pokies venues are not actually owned by the RSLs, but by separate licensed clubs that were established as a vehicle for the poker machine manufacturers to control the roll-out and management of their addictive products.

However, there is no material barrier preventing these member-controlled, not-for-profit “RSL clubs” actually handing over their vast land and buildings to the RSL proper in NSW and Queensland, emulating the Victorian model.

Alternatively, there is nothing stopping councils across Australia from stepping into the fray just like Manningham has done.

For instance, the enormous and controversial Dee Why RSL on Sydney’s Northern Beaches could be purchased by or gifted to the Northern Beaches Council, which could then lease it directly to the RSL NSW and also decide if it wanted to stay in the poker machine business.

Australians are the world’s biggest gamblers in per capita terms. Photo: AAP

Lucas Moon, an East Timor veteran who is president of the pokies-free Hawthorn RSL, is spearheading a push by younger veterans for the Victorian RSL to scale back its loss-making pokies empire.

But he has met fierce resistance from a group of older pro-pokies veterans who control the RSL Victoria board.

Mr Moon told The New Daily that Manningham’s Templestowe RSL sale and leaseback arrangement was an ideal model for the rest of Australia.

“If councils care about veterans they should step in and buy and lease back more RSLs around Australia with a view to either preventing pokies ever coming to the venue or removing them from existing RSLs,” Mr Moon said.

“This is particularly relevant in NSW and Queensland where the pokies industry is profiting enormously whilst trashing the good name of the RSL by creating the impression that the RSL is more focused on fleecing vulnerable gamblers than advocating for veterans at a time when we are seeing record numbers of veteran suicides.

If the pokies industry really cares about veterans, they should either stop running suburban and regional casinos under the RSL name in NSW and Queensland, or instead gift the assets of these clubs to the RSL proper.

“[That way], these resources can be applied to advancing the interests of veterans, rather than lining the pockets of non-veterans who sit on these ‘RSL club’ boards or pocket six-figure salaries as pokies club executives effectively working for the pokies manufacturers like Aristocrat Leisure.”

It’s an interesting and little discussed concept that may take off after the innovative deal struck by Manningham for the Templestowe RSL, which was founded on the back of a land gift by three returned WW1 soldiers back in 1920, and now has a guaranteed pokies-free future for at least the next 20 years.

Stephen Mayne is a journalist and City of Manningham councillor. He was not paid for this item and can be reached on stephen@maynereport.com or via twitter on @maynereport