Australia's Clubs



If you want a beer in regional Australia, you may have no choice but to (temporarily) join our club writes David Whitley

Once you step out of the centre of Australia’s big cities, with their cosmopolitan elites and food that’s occasionally not fried, you enter the dark, often bleak world of the club. It may be a Leagues Club. It may be an RSL Club. It may be a Bowls Club. It may be a Greek or Serbian Club. But it really doesn’t matter – they’re all pretty much the same. 

These clubs theoretically exist for the benefit of their members – although in reality they are often self-sustaining juggernauts. Those linked to sports teams, in particular, can be utterly gargantuan. Yet, irrespective of size, they all have a remarkably similar feel. They’ll have a number of different bars, yet all will be open plan and depressingly utilitarian. There will be a food outlet that serves burgers, pizzas and chicken schnitzels – they’ll give you a buzzer and you go and collect it when it’s ready. In some instances there will be a secondary, marginally more upmarket food outlet upstairs, where bangers and mash or half-hearted lamb shanks are brought to your table. The room for this restaurant will look pretty much the same as the one for the bar, albeit with someone having gone round with the Mr Sheen.

The real driving force behind these clubs, however, is the partially sealed off room with neverending banks of pokie machines. For those who’ve not come across the pokies, they’re skill-free slot machines that involve  the old, the lonely, the desperate, the poor and the downright stupid just sitting there, feeding them with money. Imagine the atmosphere of a bookie’s shop, combined with the moral fibre of someone who stands in car parks offering to ‘protect’ your car for a fee. Forget the food or the drink, it’s these pokies that – more often than not – fund the club. People just joylessly pour all they’ve got into them. 

In suburbia and regional Australia, these clubs dominate the drinking landscape. This is partly due to stinginess in handing out liquor licences – small operations don’t stand a chance when the big boys can essentially block them out. It’s also partially down to tax. The clubs are theoretically for members only (although anyone can sign in as a temporary member and drink there), and they get a whole raft of tax exemptions as a result of it.

Thus, they’re almost always the cheapest place to drink in town – although don’t expect any craft beers, cocktails or interesting wines. Size and economies of scale mean they only buy in from the big producers. 

There’s nothing wrong with this per se. The clubs serve a purpose for those who want cheap drink in zero atmosphere. The problem comes when their presence is so overwhelming that there’s nowhere else to have a drink for miles around. Any small bar that wants to try something different simply isn’t going to be able to compete – even if it gets a licence in the first place.

Thus, across Australia, there’s a dominance of these cheerless barns. There are over 6,500 of them in the country, and you’d be hard pushed to tell the difference between them. They act as a surprisingly major political lobby group too, and hype up their community/ charity status as a way of any action being taken against them. Any sane Australian would love to see the pokies ripped out. But it’ll not happen as the clubs need them to survive. 

Yet, surely, if the drinking scene is dominated by places that make their money from gambling rather than drinking, something is wrong?

Handily, you can get Australia included as a stopover on a Navigator RTW

Australia travel expert David Whitley answers questions about holidays in Australia at