Victorian RSL clubs mired by pokies uncertainty
As RSL clubs consider whether or not to ditch poker machines, they say the Victorian state government has left them in limbo about licensing fees.
The Age reports that the RSL’s controversial involvement in gambling continues to divide veterans, while Victoria and Caulfield RSL have asked the state government if it will waive mandatory licensing fees if venues choose to divest.
Victorian Gaming Minister Melissa Horne told clubs in a letter she was “unable to provide a definitive answer.”
Caulfield RSL president James Steedman said his club didn’t have the option of planing its future out of gaming because it would be liable for about $1.1 million in licensing fees to the state government over a 10-year period from 2022.
“I can’t expose the club to a debt we can’t cover,” Mr Steedman said.
“We are compelled to continue with pokies in the face of that debt. We are missing the opportunity to be able to diversify our base away from gaming.”
Caulfield RSL, which has 52 poker machines, recorded a $159,000 loss last year and has been desperately trying to attract the public to its club with its bar and family-friendly cafe, which was funded through grants from RSL Victoria and the Department of Veteran Affairs.
It’s one of many sub-branches in the red.
A report by consultants EY has also raised concerns about the finances of the head office, RSL Victoria.
“The immediate and long-term financial sustainability of RSL Victoria is in jeopardy,” the report said in August.
Pokies not be and end all for RSLs: Victorian president
RSL Victoria state president Rob Webster said while gaming helped fund welfare for veterans, it was not the “be and end all.”
He said RSL Victoria was looking at alternative models to reduce its reliance on poker machines and sub-branches needed clarity on what costs might be involved.
“If you are going to change your business, you need to find out what the costs are,” Mr Webster said.
He said some clubs were concerned they had paid gaming entitlements to the government over a nine-month period when they were unable to operate due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Caulfield MP David Southwick, who wrote to the minister on behalf of his local RSL, said clubs should not be unfairly penalised if they decided to move away from gaming.
“Because of the Andrews government’s inability to provide clear directors and certainty, vital community clubs like the RSL are forced to stay in the game to pay off debt,” he said.
New 20-year licences will come into effect in August 2022 and venues including Caulfield RSL have already begun paying fees under the long-term deal.
A government spokeswoman said the Gaming Minister and Victorian Commission for Gambling and Liquor Regulation had received queries from peak bodies for the club sector and individual venues about the possibility of waiving payments for post-2022 entitlement holders who exit the gaming industry.
She said these were “currently being considered.”
She said the government recognised the significant challenges facing liquor and gaming businesses this year and had waived liquor licence fees, delayed gaming machine taxes and provided $430 million of grants and funding to the sector.
RSL Victoria is the state’s second-biggest pokies operation, with 52 of its 277 sub-branches featuring poker machines.
The machines are controversial and a breakaway group of young veterans has been campaigning for the RSL to divest of gaming.