So off I head to the AGM of the Ballina RSL on a beautiful Sunday morning. What's the worst that could happen, I say to myself... A tar and feathering, personal abuse, nothing more sinister than that. I hope. The beach looked gorgeous, why wasn't I going there?
Stephen Mayne goes to AGM's all the time knowing he will be an uncomfortable, unwelcome presence. But he still goes. I can do no less. It's a promise I made to myself earlier this year. I would not stand by and let this deceitful campaign enable clubs to continue to hurt people without being brought to account for the harm they cause. I couldn't help my Nephews when their Dad stole from them to feed his pokie adiction, but I won't stay silent any longer.
Maybe it wasn't such a great idea to get a Letter to the Editor in the paper this week, calling on RSL members to join me at the AGM. I didn't really slip them a note to announce my intentions, I kind of slapped them on the forehead with it.
So I walk in with few minutes to spare. There's about 50 people there. The only people anywhere near my age (46) are the staff. No one says hi. They know who I am. My resemblance to dogs balls is uncanny. The only time I've felt this out of place before was as the only bloke attending a Domestic Violence Conference years ago.
The Chair opens the meeting and makes clear that all motions require 28 days notice, so none will be considered from the floor. A person may only speak once in each debate. OK, that’s the ground rules. No point in motions, I wouldn't get a seconder in this room anyway.
We stop then for a minutes silence to remember the 3 diggers that lost their lives in Afghanistan overnight. “Lest we forget”, said with vigour.
The Chair gives his report. Talks about the pressures on the clubs finances. I ask my first question. Could you please enlighten the meeting about the extent of community support provided by the club? I can find $173,000 in donation in the Financial Report, but surely there was more than that? Oh yes, says the Chair. The figure is about $300,000 when we include the free use of facilities provided by the club. They must do lovely morning teas.
So on gaming revenues of $10million they donated slightly more than the minimum 1.5% required by their Licence.
Oh and don't forget we built a boardwalk over the river bank outside the club. We spent $600,000 on that and have now given it to the community. I keep my mouth shut. No point in saying that the Council forced the Club to do that as it had unlawfully built to the edge of the river and closed off public access.
So on to the General Manager's Report. Outlines major sources of income (60% pokies) and expenditure. Electricity and gas prices are up. These will go up further due to the Government's Carbon Tax. Murmurs from the crowd. Damn Govmint!
Total turnover $18million. $750,000 in retained earnings and $173,000 to the community. Yes, we can see the pattern.
And then we get to the devastating impact of pokie reforms. GM proud to be part of Clubs Australia campaign. GM predicts $3million cost to implement and $4million loss of revenue per annum. I ask how the GM derived those figures. A 40% reduction in gaming just because people have to use a card? Ridiculous I said.
Chair intervenes to tell the meeting that the introduction of Mandatory Pre commitment (MPC) will require everyone to use a card. This card will be linked to a National Database. So the government will know exactly where and what you bet on pokies. Outrageous says a bloke behind me. Chair asks the meeting how many people will continue to bet on pokies. Everyone says no way, we won't play. There you go says the Chair, a 40% reduction easily.
At this point a guy in front of me, part of a row of 7 guys wearing their shirts from the Billiards and Snooker Club (supported by the RSL) moves a procedural motion that I no longer be heard. “You said a person can only speak once, Mr Chair”. The Chair overrules the motion. “He is asking questions of reports, not debating”. He and I know its my only chance. I get up again to ask how many of the clubs machines have a greater than $1 betting limit. GM says “All of 'em, you can bet as much or as little as you like. Don't you play the machines here, Sir?” Not my thing I say.
Its clear that was my last question. I have declared myself a non punter. Obviously a crackpot. No, I'd rather spend the little money I do make on my family thanks.
Meeting continues, nothing for me to add, I sit in respectful silence. Kinda.
Meeting concludes and the Chair invites people to stay for a beer and some morning tea. He makes a point of asking me to stay for a beer with him heard by the whole meeting. I say yes, we get our beers and off to a remote corner of the room for 'a chat'.
The chat consists entirely of him telling me how I have got the wrong end of the stick and how this will do so much damage to the club. I point out that it would be less damage than was done to my family through pokie addiction. We have an existing voluntary pre commitment scheme, he tells me. 30 people on the list. I ask does it work. He says he doesn't know details so can't comment.
We go back to the National Database issue. I tell him its a crock, you're just making it up to scare people. Its not in the Productivity Commission Report. Calls me ignorant and a fool. Starting to get a little heated.
Then he says you're involved in ASR aren't you. I said yes, but there was no connection with my stance on pokies. “Well you were happy enough to take our money”. I say I have no problem with the Club, but I don't think we should be taking money away from families in desperate situations. He just stares at me, “but you'll take our money”. I nod, he keeps staring at me. We both know what is happening. No chance of any more funding from the RSL if I don't shut my mouth. Sorry guys.
I go to walk away. I stop, turn and thank him for enabling me to ask questions. Being civil. He shouts at me, so the whole room can hear. “Well, you are ignorant and a fool”. I leave.
In that moment when he tried to stare me down, we both knew. I am his enemy and he is mine.