By Mark Schroffel
We often hear references to the veteran “community” – including in these pages – which can create a misleading impression of universality of opinion, outlook and circumstances.
As a base definition, one favoured by Australian Veteran News, the veteran community comprises those men and women who have served in the Australian Defence Force. This meaning is contested by some of a more traditional bent who firmly believe that one must have been deployed overseas to qualify as a veteran, but the contemporary understanding of “veteran” is both fitting and inclusive. (Regular correspondent Eamon Hale recently reflected on the changing face of the Australian veteran.)
That said, however, the common thread of military service is where the homogeneity ends.
The reality is that the veteran community, despite the common bond of service, is divided by competing philosophies, world views and priorities. This might be summoned as evidence that there is no such thing as a veteran community; but more realistically it suggests that like all communities there is a divergence of attitude, temperament and perspective.
The fragmentation of the veteran community also reflects a failure of leadership, some might argue the absence of leadership.
This has a particular significance when the “veteran community” needs to speak with one voice on issues of moment.
We have witnessed the emergence of cabals, factions and social-media mobs of all persuasions opposing each other on a range of contentious issues of relevance to veterans – the royal commission into veteran suicides, the conduct of Anzac Day observances at a time of continuing COVID restrictions, the impending investigations into alleged war crimes by Australian soldiers, and the future off the RSL.
There is nothing amiss about a difference of opinion but so-called leaders of the veteran community are more notable for the tawdriness of their contribution to public discourse than for their thoughtful reflections, whether it’s the relentless sniping by those professing to champion reform of the RSL – in itself a worthy and urgent objective – or the bumbling and wayward pronouncements about Julie-Ann Finney (albeit privately expressed) by national RSL president Greg Melick, for which he has since apologised.
The failings of veteran community leaders – both actual and self-appointed – make it easy for political leaders to sidestep veterans’ concerns. Politicians and governments too little held to account believe their work is done with a few mealy mouthed platitudes, usually punctuated with the infuriatingly glib “thank you for your service”, or in social media-speak, #TYFYS.
This is not to suggest that the veteran community is entirely bereft of leadership. There are many excellent leaders who work tirelessly to improve the lives of veterans and their families. Their leadership is quiet and persistent, and when it comes to results they outperform the whingers, bombasts and finger-pointers any day of the week.
The veteran community has very big challenges ahead. The Morrison government’s mix of complacency, incompetence and bullheadedness is standing in the way of progress on so many issues, whether it’s the dead hand of Department of Veterans’ Affairs bureaucracy or the long overdue royal commission into veteran suicides. As for the latter, while the government has been forced to back down on its previous opposition, there has been no announcement that the royal commission will take place, let alone any indication of what its terms of reference might be. The government can do this because there is no single voice calling the government to account. There is certainly no leadership from the moribund RSL on this matter.
The need for a united voice is vital as the veteran community faces a multitude of issues. Had that unity of purpose existed chances are the royal commission would have been a reality by now.
An overhaul of the RSL, including its role and structure, can only take place with a concerted and unified approach to its modernisation. Were that to be achieved the veteran community, as disparate as it may be, might at last find itself with a more receptive ear in the corridors of power.
The urgent need for action – to ensure justice and a fair go for veterans and their families – cannot be properly addressed by relying on the tenacity and goodwill of a few. It is time for a new brand of leadership in the veteran community: more principled, more visible and more representative.
Mark Schroffel is the Editor-in-Chief of Australian Veteran News. Mark is a veteran and has a day-job as strategy consultant and researcher interested in veteran support policies and transition programs. He designed and led the Melbourne Legacy sponsored ShoutOUT research initiative to gather insights and stories about post-1991 veterans and their families. Mark can be followed on twitter @MarkSchroffel
If you or someone you know need support you can contact:
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