The Victorian RSL’s old guard is facing a revolt from younger members who say the 103-year old league has lost its way and must get out of poker machines.
Veterans, including those from Afghanistan, Iraq and East Timor, are campaigning for reform ahead of the RSL state conference in July, where will they will contest leadership positions and propose constitutional change.
They argue that young veterans were either not interested in the clubs, or were struggling with post-service mental health issues, and were prone to problem gambling. This made the presence of pokies in many RSL clubs a welfare problem.
Dave Petersen 32, is an Afghanistan veteran who was medically discharged for mental health reasons. A former army artilleryman, he is now president of the Camberwell sub-branch, the youngest sub-branch president in Victoria, and a leader of the group challenging the RSL’s old guard.
Mr Petersen said the RSL management and executive was dominated by older men – now predominantly Vietnam veterans – who had been convinced that gaming would be a gold mine for the organisation. There are no women on the RSL Victoria executive.
But his comrades have begun questioning the financial merits of pokies, and are highlighting other negatives for RSL culture.
“The problem with the big gaming clubs,” says Petersen, “is that they’re focused on drawing in pokie players from the wider community, rather than on looking after veterans.
“Pokies, cheap parmas and pots for the general punter. That’s what these clubs are about. Younger vets look at these clubs and see nothing there for them.”
A move out of gaming would be a seismic shift for the RSL, which enthusiastically embraced pokies when they were first introduced to Victoria in the early 1990s. The push for change comes as sporting clubs are also under pressure to exit the gaming industry.
Of the 250 RSL sub-branches in Victoria more than 50 have poker machines. The pokie clubs made more than $200 million a year through player losses, making the RSL Victoria’s second biggest pokies operator in Victoria after Woolworths/ALH.
But a modest profit margin across the gaming venues is boosted by interest-free loans and capital provision from the Victorian RSL’s building fund. Some of the gaming venues actually run at a loss.
Mr Petersen said very little pokie money found its way into veteran welfare.
He said the RSL would be better off rationalising local clubs, selling pokie licences and either selling or leasing the valuable real estate needed to house and operate pokies.
On Sunday the Camberwell city RSL sub-branch, which has no poker machines, held a public barbecue and gave away $10,000 to help local veterans who are now studying.
The event was intended to show how a traditional, non-pokie RSL club could be profitable and genuinely helpful to veterans.
“We see no reason to believe that poker machines provide benefits to veterans that cannot be provided in other ways,” said Mr Petersen.
The reform group is working to build RSL membership, including rebuilding dormant sub-branches and trying to attract veterans from recent military conflicts into the organisation.
Despite warnings from the RSL leadership that public criticism is at odds with league rules, the reformers are rallying support through social media. “Go and join your local RSL who (sic) doesn’t support poker machines, vote for a committee that wants to get rid of poker machines and let’s get RSL Victoria to return to its roots – comradeship and support to veterans and their families,” says a Camberwell city Facebook post.
The campaign follows revelations last year that the Victorian RSL – like its equivalents in NSW, Queensland and South Australia – had not met governance and financial management standards set by the national charities regulator
The Age has sought an interview and comments from RSL Victoria, but the organisation has not responded.
While the reform group is being led by young veterans, Petersen says his group is getting strong support from the Vietnam veteran generation.
“They’ve seen what has gone out in their lifetime and they don’t want it repeated.”
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