Sunday morning "sick parade" at the North Sydney RSL sub-branch club in the 1940s

As the nation embraces the “Anzac spirit” tomorrow, NSW RSL president Don Rowe has cast an unwanted spotlight on the legitimacy of the famous clubs.

Rowe this week lifted the veil on an issue that has been dividing the RSL movement for years. Clubs, he says, have been masquerading as bearers of the Anzac tradition for decades when in reality they are little more than pokies palaces. Its not just that they’ve outlived their usefulness to veterans and the RSL movement, he says — they’ve also “trashed” the brand.

These clubs were created by the sub-branches of the NSW RSL after World War I. The sub-branches themselves were set up by veterans to meet the repatriation and welfare needs of returned servicemen (those who had seen action) and their families. The scraped up the money to buy their own digs from the proceeds of balls, smoke concerts, weekly dances, euchre nights and other fundraising events, ably assisted by the ladies’ auxiliaries. Some had property gifted to them.

The sub-branches also doubled as social venues for their members, serving as places of retreat and respite for these psychologically fragile and traumatised men who found it difficult settling back into civilian life — and where a digger could get a drink after 6pm when the pubs closed.

These so-called clubs were little more than sly grog shops — a room with a bar, some tables and chairs and a handful of poker machines. The healthy bar sales generated a reliable source of income for the sub-branches. Despite the occasional police raid, the government tolerated these “drink clubs” as a concession to this special group. It was almost impossible to obtain a club licence (registration) until restrictions on the number were lifted in 1954 (as part of liquor law reform). That’s when the sub-branches were finally able to form legitimate and properly constituted registered clubs. The RSL club was born.

These clubs became a “home away from home” for veterans of the First and Second World Wars. Only sub-branch members were eligible to join. The honour roll, eternal flame, memorabilia cabinets and nightly recital of the Ode of Remembrance, all features of these clubs, gave shape and expression to their shared experience and identity.

Well before post-traumatic stress disorder was even heard of, many members chose the only treatment available: self-medicating on alcohol within the safe and understanding confines of the club. A “skinful” on Saturday night was followed by the mandatory Sunday morning “sick parade”, a “hair of the dog” drinking session.

The 1950s and ’60s were the halcyon years. When poker machines were legalised in 1956, the money started pouring in, transforming clubland into a multimillion-dollar industry. Offering cheaper beer and extensive leisure and entertainment facilities, all thanks to pokie subsidies, the hundreds of RSL clubs across Sydney and regional NSW quickly became part of the social fabric of this state — and the financial backbone of the sub-branches.

But strains in the relationship were already emerging by the late ’60s. As sub-branch numbers dwindled the clubs were forced to relax their membership rules in order to survive, first allowing ex-servicemen and women in, and later “civilians”. Even so, clubs continued to trade on the RSL brand — and receive all the benefits of being a registered club: a licence, the operation of poker machines and generous tax concessions extended to them as mutual associations. In the public’s mind, the sub-branches and RSL clubs remained one in the same entity.

Kogarah RSL sub-branch opening of its new memorial hall in the 1920s

Rowe’s comments were sparked by recent legal action by a group of RSL clubs against their local sub-branches. They are among the few that failed to buy the land on which their clubhouses now sit from the sub-branches in previous years. With many of these clubs under financial pressure they’ve now turned on their sub-branches, claiming they have a rightful stake in these multimillion-dollar properties on the basis of a “special and unique relationship” similar to that of a de facto couple.

It’s certainly a measure of how dramatically the relationship between clubs and sub-branches has changed, and the guile and shameless sense of entitlement of registered clubs generally.

With the imminent return of thousands of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, the cash-strapped RSL is seeking to reassert its relevance by professionalising its services and modernising its image.

By contrast, the surviving RSL clubs are increasingly abandoning the very brand they played such a large role in shaping — old men sitting around drinking beer and playing the pokies — as they reinvent themselves in order to appeal to an entirely different demographic. Any association with the RSL is now considered bad for business. Yet their outrageous claim of fealty to the Anzac cause goes unchallenged

It begs the question: what is the purpose of RSL clubs today? Surely the meagre support they give to charities and sports associations, as measured against forgone government revenue due to tax concessions, does not represent value for money.

As Rowe has pointed out, why should the RSL be in the business of propping up RSL clubs when its only interest is in helping veterans and their families? It’s time the government started to ask the same question.

Rowe’s blunt call for a divorce from the RSL clubs may well mark the beginning of a long overdue debate  about what social benefits — if any — clubland offers the community.

*Dr Jennifer Cornwall completed her doctoral thesis on the history of registered clubs in NSW and is currently writing a book on the subject

Peter Fray

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