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Bill Westhead calls for renewed leadership transparency within the RSL

17 June 2022

Now that the dust has settled on the outcome of Federal election, both major parties have revealed to the veteran community their uninspiring appointments to the veterans’ affairs portfolio.

The new Minister for Veteran’s Affairs is Matt Keogh, who I would describe as factional operative with no obvious connection to the sector. To counterbalance the apparatchik, we have the perennial Barnaby Joyce, who based on past performance will simply leverage the shadow ministry to further his leadership ambitions in the National Party.

In a particularly difficult era for serving members and veterans alike, this apparent lack of priority from our parliamentary leaders is nothing short of a complete slap in the face.

Traditionally, as revealed in last week’s excellent article by Georg Alban and Eamon Hale, when a void in political leadership occurs the RSL has demanded action and rightly led the call for necessary political change.

Not so in 2022!

Instead, the RSL issues a cowering welcome message to the new minister while conveniently overlooking the demotion of Veterans’ Affairs to the outer ministry.

Both the Labor Government and the Coalition appointments are testament to the RSL’s lack of advocacy for veteran issues. The RSL needs to find the courage to break out of its slumber and aggressively push the government to be held to account for supporting those veterans who because of their service need a higher level of care.

I put it to RSL members, that under the leadership of national president Greg Mellick, the RSL has been ineffective in representing the interests of serving members and veterans. I believe that under his leadership we have failed in the following areas:

  • We have failed to effectively lobby either the Government or the Opposition in this election cycle;

  • We have failed to conduct any meaningful research to develop a suite of Veteran related policies and build consensus amongst membership;

  • We have failed to develop and advocate a policy agenda for veterans’ affairs;

  • We have failed to leverage our membership of DVA’s Ex-services Organisation Round Table to hold the bureaucracy to account;

  • We have failed to provide meaningful support and advocacy to RSL Victoria’s submission to the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide; and

  • We have failed to listen to our members on the need to advocate for the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran suicide.

I understand that Mellick is seeking second term as the RSL National President. I suggest that his track record requires that he should not be given the chance. To do so will only serve to reinforcing failure.

RSL Victoria

As for the leadership of RSL Victoria (RSL Vic), there’s not much to see here. They too are conspicuously absent from offering any leadership or advocacy.

The reason: RSL Victoria’s attention is consumed by a financial crisis that it wants to keep under wraps.

A document that was prepared by Ernst and Young (EY) and only distributed Victorian 10A sub-branches reveals the depths of the crisis. The key paragraph in that document summarises the situation as such:

"Having worked closely with RSL Victoria across a number of years, gaining a deep understanding of RSL Victoria and its Strategic Plan, we believe RSL Victoria requires significant financial support and assistance with a bottom-up restructure of RSL Victoria and its Sub-Branch network. Given the immediate and long-term financial sustainability of RSL Victoria is in jeopardy, we believe a restructure is necessary to seek to release “tied up” financial resources and allow RSL Victoria to invest for the next generation of veterans and members.

While COVID hasn’t helped matters, there's no excuse for the inaction and panic that seems to be taking over. It’s understood that State Branch wants to raid the coffers of commercially successful 10A sub-branches to supplement a state headquarters that has been living well beyond its means for some time.

It’s also worth noting that while the EY document was distributed to 10A sub-branches sometime in March 2022, it was only back in September 2021, at the State Council, when the RSL Vic leadership reassured us that RSL Vic was financially stable and would continue to be so into the future.

The Box Hill Meeting

On the 9th of May 2022, an extremely significant meeting occurred at the Box Hill RSL.

Representatives from all 10A Sub-Branches were invited for extensive presentations on financial situation within the State Branch. It’s understood that the meeting was addressed by the State President, the Acting CEO, the Acting COO, the Honorary State Treasurer, the CFO for RSL Victoria and others.

To my knowledge, no 10B or 10C sub-branches were informed of the meeting or invited to attend; furthermore, I am not aware of any information on the substance of the meeting being offered to any of the two-hundred and eighteen (218) 10B and 10C sub-branches.

10Bs and 10Cs have effectively been kept in the dark on matters vital to the future of the state branch in which they belong.

I am sure that the wider RSL Vic membership would be extremely concerned by the revelations contained in the EY document, yet RSL Vic has not even listed this issue as an agenda item for its upcoming state conference.

Whilst RSL National has been conducting its failed “coffee diplomacy” and RSL Vic has been consumed in sorting out its financial affairs, our veterans continue to die by suicide. The ill and the homeless are waiting for DVA to look at their claims, and countless others are falling through the cracks of a hostile system that seems to work against them with the once mighty voice of RSL now whimpering on the sidelines.

Eventually current Veterans will, like their Vietnam era counterparts, take their welfare into their own hands.

They deserve better from Government and the RSL.

Yours faithfully,

Bill Westhead


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