5 November 2021

It's been 45 years since ClubsACT first stood up for Canberra's community

| James Coleman
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Craig Shannon and Kate Palmer from ClubsACT

ClubsACT CEO Craig Shannon and operations manager Kate Palmer. Photo: Thomas Lucraft.

This year marks 45 years since Canberra’s community clubs received a united voice, and there’s no sign of it losing its strength.

ClubsACT is the peak association representing the interests of the ACT’s not-for-profit licenced club industry, with aggregate memberships well above 500,000 across the local region.

It was established on 12 July, 1976, as the Licenced Clubs Association of the ACT, and initially comprised six clubs including the Canberra Southern Cross Club, a country club, a workers club and a few sporting clubs.

In 1997, 34 clubs came together to push the approvals through for poker machines.

Since then, the number of clubs onboard has exploded and, in 2000, the association’s name was changed to ClubsACT.

At around the same time, it helped establish the ACT Gambling and Racing Commission, which regulates lotteries, gaming machines, raffles and trade promotions on behalf of the ACT Government.

The organisation’s mission has remained the same since it was formed.

In much the same way as a union serves an industry, ClubsACT is an advocate to myriad local licenced clubs, giving them a stronger, united voice on issues that can then be taken further up the chain.

Craig Shannon has been CEO of ClubsACT since April 2021, although he is no newbie to Canberra. He was born in the city as a sixth-generation local and has spent most of his life in the ACT.

“I joined my first club in Canberra at the age of 18,” he says.

“Several years later, in my 20s, I had the privilege of being elected as a director of Canberra Labor Club where I first started to appreciate the diverse role clubs play across the community, and the challenges involved in running, maintaining and developing a club.”

Craig Shannon

Craig Shannon giving a speech at ClubsACT’s 45th birthday celebration. Photo: Thomas Lucraft.

Craig served a stint as the chief of staff for the Western Australia Police Force, before returning to the ACT as the CEO of People with Disabilities ACT.

With his previous work in the community sector, ClubsACT seemed a natural fit.

ClubsACT makes submissions and representations to the ACT Government and its agencies on all issues that affect the club movement. Licenced clubs come on as members, while organisations that supply goods and services to such clubs can become partners.

At the coalface, ClubsACT provides a range of services to its members, including utility offers, workplace relations advice and administration assistance.

It also delivers additional publications, seminars and networking events, including its annual Clubs & Community Awards dinner to recognise and celebrate the achievements of local clubs.

Craig describes 2021 as “an interesting time”, with COVID-19 having left clubs with the need for a helping hand.

“In these times, the important role members of ClubsACT play in supporting the community spirit in Canberra is even more fundamental, and will be important for the recovery of our community on the other side,” he says.

READ ALSO ClubsACT signs agreement with Pharmacy Guild to offer health services to club members

“The role community clubs play as meeting and gathering places for their members, families and their friends importantly contributes to our community spirit and cohesion.”

As for the future, ClubsACT hopes to pursue greater emphasis on mental health and wellbeing.

Pen was put to paper regarding this when ClubsACT signed a memorandum of understanding with the ACT Branch of the Pharmacy Guild in August 2021. The agreement is primarily about assisting the guild’s 75 community pharmacies to play a part in the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine, but ideally it will blossom into long-term results within the health sector.

Craig says ClubsACT has also turned its attention to the areas of education and employment.

For more information on what ClubsACT does and how to get involved, visit ClubsACT.

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Hopefully the new leadership will not take such an adversarial approach to everything, which I’m sure was not helpful and focus more on the good that clubs can do, while recognising that the momentum for change (or should I say agitation?) is unlikely to abate any time soon – so a focus can’t remain solely on ‘same old same old’ ways of doing things.

I don’t think it’s the Club leadership that has an adversarial approach.

The disdain for the Clubs is openly stated by multiple members of the government, who on one hand want to wipe out their business model whilst at the same time taking significant revenue from them to use on their own pet projects.

The government approach has most definitely not been aimed at building a collaborative relationship. The antagonism is clearly coming from the government side, the Clubs have a right and a duty to respond against them.

I don’t doubt the Government does not help itself in this space.

But it was certainly not ‘one way’ antagonism at all. There was a permanent ‘passive aggressive’ streak in almost every single public uttering from the sector for a while there, even on fairly mundane policy matters that in the grand scheme of things were of very little consequence. They then also chose to play Russian roulette in an election campaign in a big way – so it should be of no surprise that they ended up burnt by the political class when it turned out they backed the wrong horse.

There is advocating for the sector, and then there is pushing things to a point that a rival club representative group was set up and became a preferred venue for government to engage with. Yes I’m sure there were political machinations involved in that – no doubting that. But it still takes a lot to get to that point.

Like it or not, the default starting point of the clubs sector needs to recognise its financial sustainability by and large relies on government regulation that provide them with an effective monopoly on one good/service to the community. That could disappear with the stroke of a pen overnight and the sector would largely be completely unviable.

In a town where local government leans left anyway, and then there is an increasing influence of a party that has clearly defined policies that promote the removal of poker machines from the community on a widespread scale – then surely its sensible to tread carefully, not call in a platoon of elephants.

What you’re suggesting is that the Clubs should lick the boots of people who openly state that significant parts of their business shouldn’t exist at all.

This is not a situation where open and collaborative engagement by the clubs would achieve anything. The politicians I’m talking about aren’t interested in dialogue or an understanding of different positions. The authoritarianism is strong in this government and acquiescing to that kind of stance only ensures the end of Clubs as we know them.

And although government could wipe the Clubs out tomorrow as you say, the main reason they haven’t is because of the political pressure and power wielded by the clubs and their significant membership groups.

The platoon of elephants as you call it is the only thing keeping the doors open.

Happy to agree to disagree Chewy.

I’m not suggesting boot licking at all – I’m suggesting a nuanced approach that isn’t ‘shouty and stampy’ as the automatic first call, but properly considered will be far more effective then what has been seen in recent years.

At the local electoral level, I actually think the events of recent years have underlined how little political pressure and power the sector actually yields. ClubsAct went very hard at the 2016 election, and were reasonably vocal in 2020, yet that effectively came to zero impact at the ballot box.

It would likely be a different story if some crazy policy idea was put out there (Such as banning poker machines completely) – but despite the dislike for some of their activities of clubs with poker machines, that is hardly a likely outcome any politician is going to run with actively anytime soon.

But if the clubs sector keeps burning political capital on a regular basis like it did under the last regime, then it only encourages such people that might dream but currently not dare to actually to pursue such radical outcomes.

Anyway, time will tell whether the new leadership team has learnt from the ordinary outcomes of recent years or not.

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