Apathy and absence: RSL Australia plays politics at the expense of veteran advocacy
By George Alban and Eamon Hale
On 1 June 2022, RSL Australia’s entrenched failure to speak publicly on behalf of the veteran population and its continued lack of visibility in the nation’s political sphere finally came home to roost.
On that day, the newly elected Labor Government announced the demotion of the Veterans’ Affairs portfolio to its outer Cabinet. RSL Australia responded to this move on 2 June 2022 by welcoming the Honourable Matt Keogh as the new Minister. In doing so, it strategically avoided addressing the elephant in the room: the loss of ministerial status of the veteran portfolio.
This was met with an immediate backlash from a frustrated and angry veteran community. Such was the response that, within hours, the President, RSL Australia, released a second statement. While he “acknowledged that many veterans [were] deeply concerned and angered at the apparent downgrading of the Veterans’ Affairs portfolio,” he carefully avoided criticising the Government’s actions. For many in our ranks, this represented the final nail in the coffin of an executive that has been unwilling to change or advocate publicly on behalf of Australia’s veteran population for the better part of the past 40 years.
Since the 1980s, the RSL’s once formidable reputation as a political powerhouse that advocated for the veteran community has descended into the comfortable mediocrity of old men whose previous positions and generous pensions remove them from the reality of the veteran experience. Theirs is a very different life to that of a younger cohort of veterans whose entitlements they have squandered for political alliances and the benefits they bring.
It must be remembered that the RSL was built on the shoulders of young men fresh from the bloodiest wars of their generations. These were men whose military career lasted for the duration of the conflict in which they fought and, afterwards, they returned to their pre-war lives and occupations. For many of these men, the memory of war shadowed them - and their families - for the rest of their lives. The common bonds of service along with the experience of post-war life united these men in ensuring the sacrifices of their mates were not forgotten by government.
Gilbert Dyett was one of the men who carried the responsibility of representing his comrades for the rest of his life. Dyett enlisted in the AIF soon after war broke out. Promoted to captain, he was wounded at Gallipoli and repatriated home.
In 1919, Dyett assumed national presidency of a struggling RSL when its inaugural president – 53-year-old Brigadier William Bolton – entered politics. The defection of Bolton to Billy Hughes’ Nationalist Party was not received well by RSL membership. Neither was the election of its new National President, the 28-year-old Dyett. Many thought he was too young, too inexperienced, and not of sufficient rank to lead the returned community. It was thought that only Generals could lead an organisation like the RSL. However, it was Dyett’s absence of seniority that benefited the returned community. Rather than being distracted by existing political alliances and League politics, the young President got to work and started lobbying the government for the post-war benefits promised to the AIF during the conflict. After a series of personal meetings with Prime Minister Billy Hughes, Dyett stunned his critics by winning a raft of veteran entitlements that became the envy of the Commonwealth.
It was Dyett’s absence of seniority that benefited the returned community. Rather than being distracted by existing political alliances and League politics, the young President got to work and started lobbying the government for the post-war benefits promised to the AIF during the conflict.
Dyett continued to lobby the government for benefits throughout the 1920s and into the 1930s. A politically astute and tactful president, he ensured that his executive’s actions – along with those of the government – were widely reported in the press. The media – newspapers and radio – formed an integral part of the RSL’s operational agenda. Sub-branch, State and Federal leadership provided the Press with copy of meetings, portraits of committee members and notice of important events: the RSL was constantly in the news and both the veteran community and general population understood its purpose. Consequently – and unlike today’s generation of veterans – veterans saw the value that RSL membership offered. The organisation was rewarded with steady growth, and this accelerated during the Great Depression as Dyett and his executive fought tooth and nail to preserve entitlements in the face of ongoing pension cuts. The political authority that the RSL wielded on behalf of its membership was substantial and unmatched with Dyett being knighted in 1934 for his services to Australia's returned community.
The RSL’s National executive continued to actively lobby the government on behalf of the returned community until the 1980s when a cultural shift in league leadership occurred. Rather than the citizen soldiers of WWI and WWII who had won presidency and governed during the previous decades, professional servicemen – career officers – began assuming the mantle of leadership. Whereas volunteer servicemen like Dyett negotiated openly and actively with the government, career officers moved these negotiations behind closed doors and away from the veteran gaze. From the 1990s, the voice of the RSL progressively disappeared from newspaper and television. In the second decade of the 21st century, and as evidenced this week, RSL executive only speaks out to defend itself against what it perceives to be ‘ignorant veterans.’ This is very different to how the RSL communicated with its members – and built its political powerbase – during its formative years.
The emergence of social media in the early 21st century filled the void left by the League’s unwillingness to communicate with its constituency. State borders have become fluid as veterans share information – and criticism – across jurisdictional boundaries. This ability to swiftly disseminate ideas and opinions challenges the traditional authority of RSL leadership. However, rather than recognising that the nation’s veteran community has united against it, the RSL National executive continues to discount the legitimacy of this form of communication and adopts a siege mentality against it. It steadfastly refuses to engage with the issue of a disenfranchised veteran population as it perceives political alliances to be more important than the community that it should be listening to and representing. This has evoked considerable rage among veterans: “It’s the failure of the RSL to take a stand on these unacceptable outcomes for veterans that make the RSL a shrinking, irrelevant and unattractive organisation to be part of” one veteran wrote. Another observed that “as opposed to issuing rubbish [and] lovey duvey (sic) political statements, why don’t you stand up for veterans?” The spectre of League firebrand Bruce Ruxton was evoked by one veteran who challenged: “what would [he] be thinking… of the current state of the RSL and the political “Yes” men in charge of it?”
It steadfastly refuses to engage with the issue of a disenfranchised veteran population as it perceives political alliances to be more important than the community that it should be listening to and representing.
By not publicly contesting the relegation of the Minister of Veterans Affairs to the outer Cabinet of the Labor Government, RSL Australia demonstrates it is no longer capable of representing our community. We veterans must collectively hold the National executive to account and actively reject a standard of leadership that would never have been tolerated when each of us wore the uniform of the Navy, Army, or Airforce. Looking to the past provides us with a template to move towards the future but, to do so, we must return to the core values of the RSL that men like Gilbert Dyett forged. If the National executive is incapable of communicating with, listening to, and advocating on our behalf, then it needs to go. And we – the grass roots membership of the RSL – are the only force that can make that happen. We must ensure that we hand to the men and women who represent our future the same opportunities that our forebears fought to achieve for us: a functional and effective RSL.
Lest We Forget.
George Alban served in the Australian Army in the 1980s and 1990s. Committed to the resurrection of the core values of the RSL, he continues to serve the veteran community in several capacities within the RSL and other ESOs.
Eamon Hale is the Vice President of the Hawthorn RSL Sub-branch in Victoria, having served in the Australian Army as a cavalryman for 16 years. Eamon is a regular contributor to Australian Veteran News. Connect with Eamon on twitter: @eamhale