Big pokie-filled “Clubs” – A Victorian calls it as it is

This country may be federated, may be full of “common wealth,” but its the things that divide us that catch the eye.

So when I crossed the Murray recently, I was hyper-aware I was in Club land. A fact that left me simultaneously enchanted and repelled.

For those not familiar, a “club” is a multi-tiered pleasure dome, full of salad with viniagrette, taps dispensing Tooheys New, tucked-in shirts, and screens on which are displayed simulacrae of spinning wheels, creating a vortex into which many a fortune has fallen.

Like this:


 This blog has been coming to you from a secret bunker in the last week, but secret bunkering can only take up so much of your time, and so it was that last night I was able to visit Tomakin‘s club yesterday evening.

These clubs retain vestigial connections to the like-minded groupings that formed them, once upon a time. There are tennis courts and bowling greens out the front at Tomakin, for example. But those were empty.

These days the clubs, which can be found across NSW, the ACT and Queensland, serve a primarily different function, which is to do house the functions of a good bar, a good restaurant and a good casino in one apricot-hued 1990s construction, while omitting any “goodness.”

The purpose of our trip to Tomaking was to sample its lightly-famed Left Bank Brasserie.


More gauche than rive gauche, the Tomakin Sports and Social Club Brasserie dishes up a mighty cheap lunch, at $6 Monday to Friday. At dinner time you can get a serviceable Chicken Schnitzel Parmagiana for around $17.


 The crowd consists entirely of people of anglo-celtic extraction and the carpet features a repeating pattern.  One can easily get lost in there.

The dining experience is marked by frequent public announcements, piped at quite audible volume to all parts of the establishment. One is forced to assume the majority of the clientele do not still retain their hearing, but whether Tomakin Sports and Social Club can bear responsibility for that or is merely reacting is not clear. Nevertheless the identity of the raffle winner and the timing of the courtesy bus departures will remain seared forever into my brain.

But the true raison d’etre of a club is to house pokies. They sit in the centre of the club, visible from every food outlet and every bar, encouraging those who ride the courtesy bus home to do so substantially lighter of pocket than on their arrival.

I rue the $3 I invested in this Jumpin’ Jalapenos machine, for nil return.


As a Victorian, my gut reaction is to find the downside of all things New South Welsh: Big bridge may look nice but it creates a terrible traffic choke point, exterior of Opera House is lovely but inside is entirely aria-hostile, warm weather is very pleasant but means a higher hatching and survival rate for bogans, etc, etc.

These clubs are popular. Wildly so. Am I being unfair to them?

I say no. The absence of such clubs in Victoria is telling. The only reason they have spread across the wide plains of Queensland and NSW, like the prickly pear and cane toad before them, is the legal quirk that permits not-for-profit clubs to put pokies on their premises. That has been permitted since 1956 in NSW.

These clubs serve the communities rather than making profit, sure. But such profist are calcualted after paying for the poker machines.

Here’s a telling quote from an article published late last year.

Anti-gambling campaigner Reverend Tim Costello said about 40 per cent of poker machine revenue came from addicts.

“The social costs are high, including relationship breakdown, mental health issues, unemployment, debt, financial hardship, theft and other crime, social isolation and all too often suicide,’’ he said.

Victorian clubs have only been permitted to have pokies since the 1990s. Their spread has not taken them as far as in NSW, nor have they become as deeply embedded in the community. Here’s why that’s a good thing.

“The maximum average loss rate per hour for Australian poker machines in Australian dollars is $720 per hour compared to $156 for New Zealand machines (outside casinos), $130 for the United Kingdom machines, $52 for Japanese machines and $705 for United States machines.”

Clubs Australia, the peak body for little outposts like Tomakin Social Club is powerful enough to defeat comprehensive pokie reform that everyone without a vested interest agrees would be a good idea. The centrality of poker machines to these clubs means they should be renamed pokie clubs. That or try their luck going back to being actual sports and social clubs. Surely communities like Tomakin would get on better if the residents were sitting around a Bridge table or standing round a pool table, instead of lined up in rows feeding the machines?Image

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Thomas the Think Engine is the blog of a trained economist. It comes to you from Melbourne Australia.

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