“I can’t expose the club to a debt we can’t cover,” said Mr Steedman, who served in the navy.

“We are compelled to continue with pokies in the face of that debt. We are missing the opportunity to be able to diversify our base away from gaming.”

Caulfield RSL, which has 52 poker machines, recorded a $159,000 loss last year and has been desperately trying to attract the public to its club with its bar and family-friendly cafe, which was funded through grants from RSL Victoria and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

It’s one of many sub-branches in the red. A report by consultants EY has also raised concerns about the finances of the head office, RSL Victoria. “The immediate and long-term financial sustainability of RSL Victoria is in jeopardy,” the report said in August.

RSL Victoria state president Rob Webster said while gaming helped fund welfare for veterans, it was not the “be and end all”.

He said RSL Victoria was looking at alternative models to reduce its reliance on poker machines, and sub-branches needed clarity on what costs might be involved.

Victorian president Rob Webster says the RSL is looking at alternative models to reduce its reliance on poker machines.

Victorian president Rob Webster says the RSL is looking at alternative models to reduce its reliance on poker machines.Credit:Rob Gunstone

“If you are going to change your business, you need to find out what the costs are,” Mr Webster said.

He said some clubs were concerned they had paid gaming entitlements to the government over a nine-month period when they were unable to operate due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Caulfield MP David Southwick, who wrote to the minister on behalf of his local RSL, said clubs should not be unfairly penalised if they decided to move away from gaming.

“Because of the Andrews government’s inability to provide clear directions and certainty, vital community clubs like the RSL are forced to stay in the game to pay off debt,” he said.

New 20-year licenses will come into effect in August 2022 and venues including Caulfield RSL have already begun paying fees under the long-term deal.

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A government spokeswoman said the Gaming Minister and Victorian Commission for Gambling and Liquor Regulation had received queries from peak bodies for the club sector and individual venues about the possibility of waiving payments for post-2022 entitlement holders who exit the gaming industry. She said these were “currently being considered”.

She said the government recognised the significant challenges facing liquor and gaming businesses this year and had waived liquor licence fees, delayed gaming machine taxes and provided $430 million of grants and funding to the sector.

Veterans Minister Shaun Leane congratulated the move by Manningham Council.

Veterans Minister Shaun Leane congratulated the move by Manningham Council.Credit:Eddie Jim

RSL Victoria is the state’s second-biggest pokies operator; 52 of its 277 sub-branches have poker machines. But the machines are controversial, and a breakaway group of young veterans has been campaigning for the RSL to divest of gaming.

They argue that veterans are particularly susceptible to problem gambling and say the machines only create problems.

The Age reported earlier this month that the number of veterans seeking welfare from RSL Victoria plummeted during the COVID-19 lockdown, with ex-servicemen linking the decline to the shutdown of poker machines at RSL clubs.

Earlier this week, Manningham Council purchased Templestowe RSL club for $1.25 million to keep it free of poker machines. The council has launched a campaign for 30 more municipalities to follow suit.

Victorian Veterans Minister Shaun Leane congratulated his local RSL club and Manningham Council for the move, tweeting “great work”.

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But he told The Age he did not want to weigh into whether poker machines should be in RSL clubs.

“RSL members would not appreciate a Victorian minister for veterans meshing himself in their commercials and administrative matters,” he said. “They need to be independent of government.”

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