A pokie in the eye for the big clubs

pokie.jpgIs there anyone less deserving of our sympathy than the big registered clubs who whinge about the pokie machine tax? Being forced to pay a large proportion of the funds they gouge from problem gamblers to the State Government that’s forced to deal with the huge social problems these clubs create is not unfair. It’s good policy. And given how much they whinge, it’s also quite good fun.


After Michael Egan identified them as a lucrative source of additional revenue, and created a differential system where the mega-clubs with hundreds of pokies pay higher tax, ClubsNSW has done everything in its power to turn public opinion against Labor. Premier Iemma did his usual bad compromise that pleases nobody and reduced the tax, but kept it differential. But that wasn’t enough for the greedy clubs. So now they’re hosting a massive $1000 per head fundraiser for Liberal leader Peter Debnam – who would be better advised to follow the example of his Queensland counterparts, who are arguing that the Beattie Government is addicted to gambling revenue, and that pokie numbers should be slashed.
Their spokesman had a hilariously bitchy little whinge about it, too:
Jeremy Bath, a ClubsNSW spokesman, said: “We would have liked to be doing this with the ALP but there’s no point as they have made it clear they don’t value the world of clubs.”
The ALP does value it enormously, actually. At about $1.3 billion in extra tax revenue.
Let’s just reflect on the statistics, shall we? NSW has a ‘limit‘ of an astonishing 104,000 pokie machines. (That’s one pokie machine per 65 people!) We have 10% of the world’s pokies. 78,020 of these are in clubs. In 2003, according an SMH article, the average pokie generated $47,000 per year in revenue (I assume that’s the profit after taxes). So that’s $3,666,940,000 that the clubs make out of pokies a year. And the Liberals want to freeze the tax at its 2005 rate, saving the clubs $800 million. No wonder the clubs are shouting them a dinner.
The problem is that the clubs have outgrown the umbrella of legislation designed to help promote community groups, like RSLs, sport clubs and cultural clubs, and are running more or less like businesses. Panthers has gone way beyond what was necessary to support Penrith rugby league, becoming a massive conglomerate that has taken over lots of smaller clubs in the area. So too the Bulldogs club, whose Oasis folly – now aborted – had very little to do with the purported aims of supporting rugby league.
Yes, these are non-profit organisations. But what that means, judging by my visits to them, is that they reinvest their income into making their clubs more profitable, and building more room for more poker machines. Just because you can’t return your profits to shareholders doesn’t mean that a club can’t become incredibly greedy.
And so can its employees. In 2003, it was revealed that Panthers was paying $3 million to a company owned by its chief executive, Roger Cowan. Not exactly the “sport and community projects” that the clubs like to argue their revenues go into.
By becoming addicted to fat pokie profits, clubs have abandoned their original aims. Instead of providing places where people from the local area can come together and socialise, furthering the aims of the original organisation, they’ve become mini-casinos. And instead of building communities, they have started to destroy its members.
I’ve had the pleasure of visiting the Rooty Hills RSL Club several times in the past few years. It once billed itself as “The Vegas Of The West”, but it’s changed that to “The Venue Of The West” – the original slogan didn’t quite conform with the goal of being about more than pokies. The main area is a massive pokie parlour the size of a football field, with a couple of bars and eateries squashed onto the side. I can’t think of an environment less conducive to socialising – or honouring the memory of returned servicemen. Who evidently fought and died for this country so that its most vulnerable could be fleeced by pokies in their name. Something to ponder during the compulsory minute of silence.
I once slept there as part of a foolhardy student excursion to Australia’s Wonderland, and I’ll never forget the queue of elderly women waiting out the front at 9am, when the pokie lounge opened. It’s one of the most depressing things I’ve ever seen.
Sure, Rooty Hill does good things. They gave over a million dollars to the community last year. But I couldn’t find anywhere on its website the total amount it earned from its massive number of pokies.
Besides, the extra tax will go to the community. In the form of a higher health budget. Which is a bit more important than trying to stave off rugby league’s inevitable death.
Personally, I think pokies simply shouldn’t be legal, as is that case in most territories. The social detriment far outweighs any dubious benefit. If they are legal, then sure, I support the clubs having them ahead of publicans, because at least some of the profits do go to good causes. But the number per venue should be hugely limited.
And therein lies the way for clubs to beat Egan’s differential tax, other than resorting to political blackmail by consorting with the Liberals. If they simply reduced their number of poker machines to a slightly less obscene number, they won’t have to pay such a high tax. Who knows, maybe some of that reclaimed space could be used for something really controversial and different for a registered club? Like, I don’t know, providing a place for people to actually sit and socialise. Which is presumably what the ex-servicemen actually wanted when they started the clubs after returning from the war.
Dominic Knight

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