Wednesday, August 13, 2008

How South Sydney's no-pokies leagues club plan died, by Josh Massoud - The Daily Telegraph - 13th August 2008

On Sunday morning fewer than 100 people will gather in Redfern Town Hall to end South Sydney's proposal for a no-pokies leagues club.

What was once a heart-warming campaign has sunk with so little trace that it now settles alongside Harold Holt as Australia's most perplexing vanishing act.

It was only in September when Rabbitohs co-owners Peter Holmes a Court and Russell Crowe declared they wanted South Sydney Leagues Club to make history and re-open without poker machines.

Their rhetoric was woven in a feel-good thread of "corporate responsibility" that fitted oh-so-snugly with prevailing social moods.

In a co-signed letter e-mailed to the club's 6500 members in December, they wrote: "We are not moralising here, we just believe that low-income areas like Redfern need less poker machines rather than more."

Who could argue? If Satan walks among us, it is surely in the guise of a one-armed bandit. They take food from the table, rob children of their textbooks and pollute the audiosphere with a bleeping so demented it makes the Crazy Frog ringtone seem bearable by comparison.

Little wonder, then, that Holmes a Court and Crowe were feted as saviours when they announced the plan.

Problem is, it takes more than a cape and external underpants to save the day in clubland.

Despite boasting a Facebook page and several hundred "No Pokies" T-shirts, the campaign has since withered in a silence almost as deafening as the angels' trumpets and that heralded its arrival.

That fanfare is the only reason why leagues club directors are persevering with a members' vote on the proposal during Sunday's AGM at Redfern. To a man, they fully expect it to be defeated.

After being swept along in an overwhelming tide of benevolence, the general public is now entitled to feel confused. Community-minded organisations like the Salvation Army which applauded the idea are entitled to feel duped.

They deserve to know why their faith in Holmes a Court and Crowe's vision was not returned with a sustained endeavour to bring it to life.

Just days after the pair penned their heartfelt on-line entreaty, directors voted to endorse the idea.

But the final count - 4-3 in favour of no-pokies - was not emphatic enough to implement the plan without consulting the membership.

In the meantime, Holmes a Court vowed to devise a business plan to convince members their club could survive without the $1 million its 60 machines would otherwise provide.

To this end, he created a consortium between the Rabbitohs football club, restaurant guru Con Dedes and developer Trivest - which purchased the leagues club building earlier that year for $10 million.

The consortium offered to pay Souths Leagues Club $300,000 for the right to manage the licensed premises, and in doing so, accept full liability for any losses.

It also planned to operate the venue "like a pub" and wanted the State Government to waive the long-standing duty for club members and guests to sign-in before entering.

On this contentious point, club chairman Bill Alexiou-Hucker and Holmes a Court held a positive meeting with Premier Morris Iemma in January.

Recalling the events, Alexiou-Hucker said this week: "It was a great proposal because they took on all the risk and we got money to put back into the community."

There was one catch. Of the three directors who wanted pokies, Frank Zappia was the most strident opponent. A brother of Sharks CEO Tony Zappia, the Liverpool real estate agent insisted on a cut-off date for Holmes a Court to gain legislative approval to abolish the sign-in desk.

Holmes a Court wanted an April deadline, but Zappia pushed for March 31. If the Government did not agree by that date, then both parties would be able to walk away.

But why March 31? "Because I did my homework," Zappia replied. "I knew the Parliament only sat on three or four days in March and there would be a minimum chance for them to get the legislation through.

"I was looking at the calendar, counting the days until March 31."

The fateful day arrived and no progress had been made.

Redfern became very quiet, a calm before the storm that would see Crowe oust Holmes a Court as Rabbitohs executive chairman six weeks later.

With the football club in turmoil, its owners suddenly had little time to prevent the poker machine plague from infecting their sickly neighbours.

The offer was withdrawn, the consortium disbanded and the leagues club left without a safety net to cover for the $1 million black hole.

That is why boardroom enemies Alexiou-Hucker and Zappia can agree their members have little choice but to vote in favour of poker machines.

In fact, both believe the issue is now so clear-cut they can't envisage more than 100 people bothering to show up.

(Credit: The Daily Telegraph)

Comment by Greg Tingle

There's no doubt that Russell Crowe's heart is in the right place and that he means well. There's a number of commercial realities at stake here. Don't forget, and corporate and public will, South's lost Firepower. No doubt Branson's Virgin Blue was relieved. Australian's and much of the world loves a punt, be it pokies, horse racing, a wager on the boxing, and there days, firms like Virgin, PKR, 888 and others are offering online casinos. Even Warnie's got in on the act. Abroad online casino business has been keeping Calvin Ayre on his toes, but Ayre was in online business, not like James Packer, who recently lost a bundle on a casino deal gone wrong abroad. The Gaming Expo is coming up at Darling Harbour on the 24th August. Don't suppose we will see Russell Crowe or Peter Holmes a Court there, but maybe a few online casino tycoons will show up, and perhaps some Rabbitoh board members also. Wonder if any TAB Corp and Aristocrat brass will show. Rabbitohs, you have South Cares, so ensure the money goes back to the community, and you should be fine. I think the community has faith in The Bunnies to do the right and ethical thing with the profits.

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