Andrews government must intervene to save RSL Victoria from itself

By Mark Schroffel

RSL Victoria is broken. The salvation of this moribund, unfit for purpose – as clouded as that purpose has become – once great organisation does not lie in a new president or CEO, slick manoeuvrings on the state conference floor, or the earnest fantasy that reform is even possible within an organisation that has so zealously inoculated itself from change.

Nothing short of Victorian government intervention can restore the relevance, standing and good governance of RSL Victoria.

The endemic dysfunction at RSL Victoria ultimately does not come down to personalities. That is the first mistake of those driving for reform. It takes guts and perhaps not a little ego to take on the state president in a game that he has mastered over more than three decades as a member of the state executive, but while the antics of the would-be reformers might rattle a few cages, their overall approach is based on the flawed assumption that RSL Victoria can be repaired from within.

RSL Victoria is all leak and no roof. There is only one way to rebuild this once stately edifice: tear out the rot and introduce some much-needed adult supervision.

As president, Webster is naturally the focal point of discontent. And while taking potshots has unfairly become something of a sport for his critics, Webster does himself no favours when he applies the black-letter law of arcane bylaws and constitutional technicalities to silence criticism, rebuff opposition, enforce secrecy and fortify the status the quo.

Webster represents the “old guard” and traditionalists within RSL Victoria would argue that he does that well. The problem with the old-guard mentality is that paranoia becomes a way of life, change of any kind is anathema and protecting the status quo becomes an end itself. “No” becomes the starting point of any conversation, no matter how sensible, reasoned or well intentioned the impetus for that conversation might be.

An almost comical case in point is the attitude of RSL Victoria’s leadership to Hawthorn RSL president Lucas Moon. In recent years Moon has been gagged, threatened with legal action and blocked from seeking election to the state executive, all because he is an unashamedly harsh critic who dares to insist that RSL Victoria can and must be modernised.

For Webster, the very mention of Moon’s name must be akin to fingernails scratching a blackboard.

It would be a safe bet that Webster welcomed Moon’s unsuccessful tilt for the role of senior vice-president at the recent state conference.

That said, were Moon to have become senior vice-president, it might have led to some entertaining fireworks, and possibly even generate some much needed discussion on important matters, but it is unlikely to have resulted in substantive progress.

Glimmers of support for reform

The recent state conference was not without glimmers of support for reform.

Much of that credit goes to the Hawthorn RSL sub-branch which sponsored five policy remits that demonstrated a deep understanding of the needs and interests of the veteran community. Three of the remits (relating to advocacy, a policy stance on amendment to the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act, and the removal of advertising from membership cards) succeeded with overwhelming support and became RSL Victoria policy.

The two failed remits (relating to voting arrangements and term limits) generated welcome discussion about improving state branch governance.

Not all delegates appreciated calls for reform. In response to the “one member, one vote” remit the president of Box Hill RSL, John Howard, responded on behalf of the aforementioned old guard: “If the system is not broken, why repair it?”

Except that it is broken. While there are many illustrations of this, one need look no further than the voting process for State Branch Executive Committee (STEX) positions.

Many RSL members seem not to realise that their voting power stops at branch level as it is the branch that votes for STEX appointments, not members.

Another obstacle to fair voting is the entrenched distortions that make a mockery of any notion of democracy within the league.

The Hawthorn sub-branch, for example, has about 250 life and service members which entitles its committee to cast three votes, while the Camberwell City sub-branch has around 16 life and service members, which entitles its committee to cast one vote. Converting these figures to a ratio shows that Hawthorn’s voting power equates to just 0.012 votes per member and Camberwell’s voting power equates to 0.063 votes per member. This means the Camberwell sub-branch has five times the voting power per member compared to their Hawthorn mates just down the road.

The RSL gerrymander – there is no other word for it – serves only one interest: the status quo. As my old regimental sergeant major used to say, “We fight for democracy but we won’t be practising it.”