But the Victorian RSL does not know how many sub-branches bought shares, or how many shares they own. It has issued a survey seeking that information.
Earlier this month RSL president Dr Robert Webster told The Age as many as 30 sub-branches took up the priority offer of 5000 shares — the maximum allowed under the share offer.
On Monday an RSL spokeswoman called into question Mr Webster’s estimate but, assuming he was correct, the RSL and sub branches would have held Tattersalls, then Tabcorp shares worth more than $500,000 in 2005.
Lucas Moon, who served in East Timor and is a leader of the reform group, described the shareholdings as “conflict of interest” and inappropriate for a registered charity like the RSL.
He said that in the years since 2005 the RSL has made major decisions about gaming, including whether to keep poker machines at all, and whether Tabcorp or another company should manage its 2800 pokies.
“We should not have been a shareholder when we were making such important decisions,” said Mr Moon, a chartered accountant.
“The RSL is 100-year-old charity with a brand name built on trust and integrity. In its relationship with the gambling industry the RSL leadership has failed the … test.”
Mr Moon said it was unforgivable that the RSL did not know the full extent of its Tabcorp share ownership.
The Age has confirmed that in 2005 the RSL Victorian branch, based at ANZAC House in Collins Street, purchased a parcel of 5000 Tattersalls shares (valued at about $20,000) in the name of former chief executive officer, John Deighton.
The RSL insists the shares always belonged to it and not Brigadier Deighton, who died in 2015.
At the time, the Victorian branch also wrote to RSL sub-branches which had Tattersalls pokies advising that the Tattersalls share offer was an “appropriate” investment.
Current RSL president Dr Robert Webster also personally owned Tabcorp shares as recently as March this year.
An RSL spokeswoman denied the shares represented a conflict of interest, insisting the Victorian branch and the sub branches had adopted a rigorous conflict of interest policy and a register.
“The number and value of the shares held by the RSL Victoria network are immaterial to the total asset base and the income derived from the dividends,” said the spokeswoman.
“The shares are also immaterial to the total income of the Victorian RSL Branch. The same is true at the sub-branch level.
In 2005 Tattersalls and Tabcorp were the duopoly owners of licences for all the state’s poker machine licences outside Crown Casino. Under changes by the Brumby government pubs and clubs, including the RSL, now own their own pokie entitlements.
The RSL is the biggest owner of such entitlements in Victoria after the Woolworths majority-owned ALH group which runs pokie pubs.
Tabcorp still contracts to manage most of the RSL’s 2800 machines, a deal worth about $30 million to the company. It also provides $500,000 a year in corporate sponsorship to the RSL as part of a $5 million 10-year sponsorship deal.
Of the 19 RSL sub-branches that have responded to the RSL Victoria’s survey so far, five had confirmed that they acquired Tattersalls shares.
The Dandenong-Cranbourne RSL Club is one sub-branch that lists ASX-listed shares among its assets. It does not specify whether the shares are Tabcorp shares.
Dr Webster said his own Tabcorp shares had been properly recorded in a confidential conflict of interest register held by the RSL chief executive.
The Victorian RSL is made up of a central state organisation pus about 280 semi-autonomous local sub-branches. Of the sub-branches, 52 have poker machines.
Royce Millar is an investigative journalist at The Age with a special interest in public policy and government decision-making.
Ben Schneiders is an investigations reporter at The Age with a background reporting on industrial relations, business, politics and social issues. A two-time Walkley Award winner, he has been part of The Age’s investigative unit since 2015.