'I tried to join an RSL club ... then I asked a difficult question'

Why is it so hard to join Sydney's Rooty Hill RSL? Here’s what happened to one SBS News journalist when he tried to sign up.

Rooty Hill RSL

Rooty Hill RSL in Western Sydney, and inset, journalist Jarni Blakkarly. Source: Rooty Hill RSL Facebook / Supplied

“Wow, that’s a good job.”

I’m at Rooty Hill RSL in Western Sydney, signing up. I’ve just told the woman at reception I'm a journalist.

I say thanks and smile back. It has been less than five minutes since I walked through the club’s massive glass doors and told the staff member scanning membership IDs that I’d like to join.

He directed me to the grinning receptionist, who took my ID and gave me a membership form.

After filling in my basic details and handing over the $7.50 one-off joining fee - giving me access to club facilities and discounted food and beverages - she punches my information into a computer.

She then takes my photo and prints off my plastic membership card.

It was as straightforward as promised by the club’s website, which assured me that my member “benefits and rewards” would be immediate.

Rooty Hill RSL boasts three bars, multiple restaurants, performance showrooms and a hotel - all set within an impressive multi-storey complex of glass and concrete amid the low-slung surroundings of single-storey suburbia. My membership would include access to it all immediately. 

My Rooty Hill RSL membership card.
My Rooty Hill RSL membership card. Source: SBS

But it’s the venue’s huge gaming room that really makes an impression.

Banks and banks of pokies – 726 machines all up - glitter and chime across the darkened expanse that appears to take up much of its main floor. Such are the profits from this space that the club announced last year that it was entirely self-funding a new $100 million theatre - work on which has already begun next door.

But here's the catch.

Members - even provisional ones like me - are entitled by law to know just how much the club profits from pokies, as set out in Part 5 Clause 22 of the NSW Registered Club Regulation 2015.

Rooty Hill RSL gaming room.
Rooty Hill RSL gaming room. Source: Next.

The transparency clause allows members to ask for details about a dozen different aspects of the club’s management finances - such as what their top staff earn and how much they spend on consultants, overseas trips and legal fees, as well as gifts received from contractors.

That was how I was able to find out that Mounties, NSW’s most profitable club headquartered in nearby Mount Pritchard, made almost $113 million in pre-tax pokie profits - or player losses - in the year to August 2016. The total remuneration for the club’s top executive was worth up to $710,000 in the 2015/16 financial year when it paid out almost $5 million to consultants.

For this kind of detail, all members have to do is ask, and in writing.

So not wanting to waste any time, walking back to the car park with my new membership card in-hand, I email a request for this information through to Amanda Stephens, Rooty Hill’s general manager for legal and human resources.

A couple of hours later I get a call. It was the same receptionist I had spoken to at the club, but she wasn’t as friendly this time. She tells me that there had been an error on my membership form and my membership wouldn’t be processed.

“It was filled in incorrectly so it won’t be validated at this stage, you would have to come back and re-do it, unfortunately,” she says.

I asked her what the error was. She didn’t know, she says, just that it had been rejected.

“If I come back in again will my membership be processed?” I ask.

“I’m not sure of that. All I know is that the computer has just told me that it’s invalid. Alright then?”

An hour later I call back and get a different person. I ask him why my membership being rejected, and he pulls up my details.

“That’s strange, just says ‘rejected’. Doesn’t say why,” he says.

Four days later, I hear back from Ms Stephens via email. As my membership form was rejected, she says, my request to see the club’s financial disclosures would not be met. My membership fee would be refunded by a cheque in the mail instead.

Ms Stephens says my application form had been filled in incorrectly but offers no explanation as to how. Nor was she able to send me through my original handwritten form so I could try and work that out for myself.

“Your membership application was destroyed in accordance with our usual practice as the membership application was unable to be finalised,” Ms Stephens’s email says.

“Information of a private nature is not retained by the club if it is not being used for the original purpose for which it was obtained. Accordingly, I am unable to comment on the deficiency in the application.”

Rooty Hill did not respond to questions about whether it rejected my membership application because of the request to access documents.

But my experiences with the club come months after it rejected the membership of another SBS News journalist who asked for the same information. A Fairfax Media reporter who also made a similar request had their membership knocked back too.

The circumstances surrounding the rejection of the earlier SBS News journalist’s request is now being investigated by the regulator.

“It’s not appropriate to comment about ongoing investigations,” a Liquor and Gaming NSW spokesman said.

Do you know more? Email jarni.blakkarly@sbs.com.au

5 min read
Published 9 April 2018 at 3:58pm
By Jarni Blakkarly