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Victorian RSL owns shares in poker machines

Wed, May 1, 8:58am by Staff Writer

Victorian RSL branches have owned tens of thousands of shares in poker machine companies since 2005, triggering allegations of conflicts of interest by young veterans seeking reform of the 103-year-old league.

The Age can reveal that the RSL’s Victorian branch and an unknown number of its sub-branches purchased shares in the former pokies operator Tattersalls after the company offered priority share parcels when it floated on the stock exchange in 2005.

The Tattersalls shares became Tabcorp shares when the two businesses merged in 2017.

On Monday, after inquiries by The Age, the RSL Victorian central branch said it would sell its own Tabcorp shares because they are “non-core assets”, and may also recommend its sub-branches sell.

But the Victorian RSL does not know how many sub-branches bought shares, or how many shares they own. It has issued a survey seeking that information.

Earlier this month, RSL president Dr Robert Webster told The Age as many as 30 sub-branches took up the priority offer of 5000 shares – the maximum allowed under the share offer.

On Monday, an RSL spokeswoman called into question Mr Webster’s estimate but, assuming he was correct, the RSL and sub-branches would have held Tattersalls, then Tabcorp shares worth more than $500,000 in 2005.

Young members fighting back

News of the shareholdings comes as the RSL’s old guard faces a revolt from younger members, who say the league has lost its way and must get out of poker machines.

Lucas Moon, who served in East Timor and is a leader of the reform group, describe the shareholdings as “conflict of interest” and inappropriate for a registered charity like the RSL.

He said that in the years since 2005, the RSL has made major decisions about gaming, including whether to keep poker machines at all, and whether Tabcorp or another company should manage its 2800 pokies.

“We should not have been a shareholder when we were making such important decisions,” said Mr Moon, a chartered accountant.

“The RSL is 100-year-old charity with a brand name built on trust and integrity. In its relationship with the gambling industry, the RSL leadership has failed the … test.”

Mr Moon said it was unforgiveable that the RLS did not know the full extent of its Tabcorp share ownership.

The Age has confirmed that in 2005 the RSL Victorian branch, based at ANZAC House in Collins Street, purchased a parcel of 5000 Tattersalls shares (valued at about $20,000) in the name of former chief executive officer, John Deighton.

The RSL insists the shares always belonged to it and not Brigadier Deighton, who died in 2015.

At the time, the Victorian branch also wrote to RSL sub-branches which had Tattersalls pokies advising that the Tattersalls share offer was an “appropriate” investment.

Current RSL president Dr Robert Webster also personally owned Tabcrop shares as recently as March this year.

An RSL spokeswoman denied the shares represented a conflict of interest, insisting the Victorian sub-branches had adopted a rigorous conflict of interest policy and a register.

“The number and value of the shares held by the RSL Victoria are immaterial to the total asset base and the income derived from the dividends,” said the spokeswoman.

“The shares are also immaterial to the total income of the Victorian RSL Branch. The same is true at the sub-branch level.”

In 2005, Tattersalls and Tabcorp were the duopoly owners of licences for all the state’s poker machine licences outside Crown Casino.

Under changes by the Brumby government, pubs and clubs, including the RSL, now own their own pokie entitlements.

The RSL is the biggest owner of such entitlements in Victoria after the Woolworths majority-owned ALH group, which runs pokie pubs.

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