Anti-gambling campaigners have urged RSL sub-branches and affiliated clubs around the country to follow the Tasmanian organisation’s lead and completely divest from poker machines.
The last Tasmanian sub-branch with poker machines, Devonport, has agreed to remove its machines by the middle of the year, in return for more financial support for veterans services from the state branch.
The RSL Tasmania chief executive, John Hardy, said the decision was entirely about putting the best interests of veterans first and protecting them from gambling harm.
“I am not opposed to pokies and gambling, but you wouldn’t sell cigarettes in a doctor’s surgery, so we have to be quite careful,” Hardy said.
Hardy said RSL Tasmania’s position on gambling was influenced by a Melbourne University study that found 40% of Australian veterans with gambling addictions have thought about ending their lives while one in five have attempted to kill themselves.
“Vulnerable veterans – people that leave the service for medical reasons – there is some fairly compelling evidence that identifies that group of people are more vulnerable to things like gambling,” Hardy said.
“I fundamentally believe that this is the right thing to do. We had an opportunity, we took it.”
About 50 RSL sub-branches in Victoria have poker machines, as does the state branch at its headquarters, Anzac House. In New South Wales, the RSL is separate to the RSL Services and Clubs Association, which runs pokers machines across the state.
Charles Livingstone, an associate professor of public health at Monash University, said RSL Tasmania’s divestment should inspire other state organisations to do the same.
“The writing is on the wall,” he said. “There is no doubt that pokies are on the nose, particularly if you are an organisation focused on charity that is trying to help the community.
“The RSL in Tasmania has said this is in conflict with their own existence, their reason for being and their charter, which says they should be looking after veterans.”
The future of poker machines has become a key issue in the NSW election campaign, with the premier, Dominic Perrottet, proposing a cashless gaming card to limit losses.
But Hardy said RSL Tasmania was apolitical and the decision to divest was not influenced by interstate election campaigns or policy debates.
“That’s nothing to do with us,” he said. “We have based this purely on what we believe to be a foundation of the RSL and that is recognition of service and the welfare of veterans and their families.”
Devonport’s decision to remove poker machines will lead to a decline in revenue, but the state branch will step in to ensure veteran services are not affected.
“It will have an impact on them,” Hardy said. “This is bravery and that always comes at a cost, but we are not expecting it to be detrimental to a point where the sub-branch will need to close.
“We will put significant welfare facilities in there and literally take over one of the floors, so there will be a place for veterans to go in without even thinking they’re in an RSL.”
Livingstone compared RSL Tasmania’s decision to quit pokies with the situation in the AFL, where several football clubs have removed machines years ago while others rely on them for millions of dollars in revenue.
“There are precedent for this with football clubs in Victoria, including the Hawthorn, Collingwood, Geelong and Melbourne – they’ve all got out of pokies, as they don’t see it as compatible with their priorities and goals as family-oriented organisations,” he said.