AS the final waves of World War II Diggers pass away and social and demographic trends shift, many of the registered RSL clubs across the nation are closing down in the face of unprofitability.
Once considered a bastion of the nation’s social fabric, particularly in rural cities and towns, the registered RSL clubs’ demise is causing dilemma for many who have long called their local RSL a second home.
In NSW, 43 RSL clubs have been closed or amalgamated since 1995 while in Queensland, country areas such as Goondiwindi, and even the mining boom town of Mount Isa has recently seen the doors to their local RSL club permanently closed.
“It’s just devastating what’s happening to the clubs,” said Paul Phillips, a former Goondiwindi RSL president who had worked for the club for 30 years.
“For so many people, the local RSL has long been a way of life, the lifeblood of communities.”
There are a varied number of reasons for the closure facing many RSL clubs, but according to Victorian RSL president David McLachlan, the biggest culprit is nature. “As a consequence of the Second World War veterans going to their maker, we are seeing a lot of closures,” Major General McLachlan said.
Peter Lanigan, the president of the RSL in the affluent eastern Melbourne suburb of Hampton, which is facing severe financial difficulties, agrees.
“The traditional market base of WWII returned servicemen has almost disappeared and the children of those people haven’t got the same emotional connection to the clubs their parents had,” he said.
“There is no doubt a lot of pressure on borderline gaming venues and old-style branches.
“It’s a constant rationalisation. The number of clubs is reducing and will continue to close because a lot of them are past their use-by date”.
RSL Queensland branch chief executive Chris McHugh said one reason for the pressure on RSL clubs — and many clubs in general — was shifting social trends.
“In a lot of occasions, closure has been due to a combination of poor management, market forces, demographic changes and societal changes that have affected the industry,” Mr McHugh said.
“Younger people on a night out are opting for bars, cafes and nightclubs. They’re not going to clubs anymore.” It is clearly evident that RSL clubs have failed to identify this and failed to adapt to the shifting needs of the younger generation. It is has been too an attitude of “more of the same” when it has come to running the clubs, and the younger generation feel to see its relevance to their needs.
In the cities, particularly in NSW, where poker machines are entrenched in the RSL club culture, there is a split between the affluent inner city and less well-to-do outer suburbs branches. The nation’s biggest RSL club, the Rooty Hill RSL in Sydney’s outer west, is hugely profitable.
Last year, its patrons collectively lost an average of $1 million each week in the club’s poker machines and other forms of gambling — $48.8m for the year — which was about two-thirds of the club’s revenue. Take away the gambling revenues and it can be seen that the club is not doing as well. In clubs were members can not afford to use the poker machines, and revenues are much less, these are the clubs going to the wall.
Chief executive Richard Errington said the club had in recent years reduced its dependence on poker machine revenue, opening a major childcare centre, a bowling alley and a hotel.
“Gaming is still an essential part of our business but it is not the only reason we are here,” Mr Errington said.
At Cabra-Vale Diggers in Canley Vale in outer southwestern Sydney,the second-most profitable NSW RSL last year in terms of gaming revenue, punters collectively lost $47.5m in poker machines and other gambling.
But poker machines were not a panacea for all RSL clubs, said Mr Lanigan, as residents of richer regions were less inclined to use the machines.
In Sydney’s east, many RSL clubs have been closed down or amalgamated, including in Clovelly, Bronte, Maroubra, Botany and Mascot.
In Newcastle, north of Sydney, clubs have closed in Merewether, Hamilton, Adamstown, Lambton-New Lambton and Belmont. Some of these to close were the big, prosperous clubs, that perhaps failed to adapt to the generational changes required of them to attract younger patrons. In the case of Lambton-New Lambton its location in the shadow of a large and profitable leagues club, a bowling club and successful pubs did not help its operating position.
The RSL Sub-branches themselves are facing a similar dilemma, as they too fail to attract the young veterans from conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste into their midst. With strategic changes to RSL policy which enable all ex-serviceman — whether veteran or non-veteran — to join as full members, sub-branches have still failed to grow their numbers, as young servicemen and women perceive the sub-branches as old, conservative and out of touch. What the young veterans fail to identify is the mateship, camaraderie and mutual support that the members can offer them.
What is the future for these sub-branches as the older members die out? Only time will tell.