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.”
While the RSL is ostensibly a membership-based organisation, its members do not have an equal say in determining the course of their organisation.
This lack of direct representation has made it easy for RSL Victoria to create a culture of secrecy at the top. RSL Victoria’s leadership rejects scrutiny of its deliberations and avoids direct accountability for its decisions. So second-nature has this culture become that anybody who dares question these closed-door deliberations is branded traitorous and can be summoned before tribunals to argue why their membership should not be cancelled.
Whether it’s the secretive and ultimately aborted sale of Vasey RSL Care, the farce of the on-again/off-again Anzac Day march, its position on the royal commission into veteran suicide, or the resignation of CEO Jamie Twidale under the murkiest of circumstances, this is not a leadership that likes to explain itself.
The secrecy surrounding the suspension and internal investigation of Twidale was an egregious corporate governance failure. Quite apart from the circumstances of the CEO’s departure, Twidale’s time as CEO was one of constant undermining by and continual conflict with the president and executive committee, exacerbated by the ill-defined roles of all-powerful president and bag-carrier CEO. Any potential CEO worth his or her salt would be well advised to give RSL Victoria a wide berth.
The secrecy, sensitivity to criticism and basket-case antics of RSL Victoria matter because the organisation has a vital role in the veteran community; it also has a position of trust with the wider Victorian community. It is the organisation that raises and manages funds from Victorians for the care and welfare of veterans; it also owns and manages a significant property portfolio, although how effectively and transparently it does this is questionable. RSL Victoria also controls enormous gaming resources: whether it should be in the pokies business – particularly given its obligation to the health and wellbeing of veterans – and how it manages and distributes gaming proceeds is largely obscured.
NSW offers a proven path to reform. While it was malfeasance that brought RSL NSW to the attention of the NSW government – and the Australian Charities and Not-for-profit Commission – in 2016, an inquiry into the branch’s governance, finances and fundraising led to landmark changes to the Returned and Services League of Australia (NSW Branch) Incorporation Act 1935.
The 2018 reforms were aimed at “restoring the heart of the iconic veterans’ organisation and ensuring greater accountability to its members”, said then NSW Minister for Veterans Affairs David Elliott. This included measures that would “empower each individual member of RSL NSW to vote for their new board of directors as part of representative voting reforms”.
“These historic reforms will democratise RSL NSW and ensure it is accountable to its members and the broader NSW community,” Elliott said.
In addition to introducing a representative voting system where each member has one vote, amendments to the Act established a board with a minimum of three and maximum of 10 directors, including at least one independent director, and enabled the remuneration of directors.
Reform of RSL Victoria cannot be left to the continued machinations of old guard versus new guard politics. The structure of RSL Victoria – and the leadership’s resistance to change and penchant for secrecy – is geared to the preservation of the status quo. This is especially important as Afghanistan war veterans seek vital RSL support in the years ahead.
The first step in this necessary reform process is the resignation of the president and state executive and the appointment of an interim administration. If it is not forthcoming the Victorian government should demand it.
Mark Schroffel is a veteran, co-founder and editor-in chief of Australian Veteran News. Mark can be followed on twitter @MarkSchroffel