Reader's contribution by Eamon Hale
The Returned and Services League is one of the great Australian institutions and Australian veterans have benefitted from it for more than 100 years.
Established in 1916 by those who had served and were serving in the Great War, the League advocated hard for Australian veterans throughout the 20th century and become an almost sacred and unassailable institution.
But as we continue into the 21st century, the RSL, and for the purposes of this paper RSL Victoria, is at a crossroads of identity and purpose. Does it exist to serve veterans, or has it lost its reason for being by entering so heavily into the role of commercial hospitality and acting as community clubs?
The principles and purpose of the RSL from those early days in the 1920’s were clear; ‘to preserve the spirit of mateship formed amidst the carnage and horror of battle, to honour the memory of the fallen and to help each other whenever required’. These noble and enduring aspirations were crafted by the very men that embodied the ANZAC spirit, and by association their organisation has enjoyed a level of reverence and respect rarely encountered in modern day Australia. But the RSL cannot be held beyond reproach. Indeed, if ever there was a time for criticism and constructive debate within the RSL, that time has come.
The RSL is failing speak-up for its veterans and lives are being lost.
The suicide rate of Australian veterans 20% higher than the national average, and ex-servicewomen are twice as likely to take their own lives compared with other Australian women. All the while, National and State headquarters of the RSL remain conspicuously silent on this any many other serious issues.
It is no wonder that members are losing faith and say that the RSL’s relevance has been eroded by the “3 Ps” - Pots, Parmas and Pokies.
There should be no confusion about what business the RSL should be in, yet there is plenty. In an open letter to Victorian members, a candidate for the State Presidency wrote that “Our League's business is hospitality”, but then went on to explain that the leagues “business” and “core purpose or mission” are “two very different things”.
Say again, over... Words twice… nope still doesn’t gel.
This is why the RSL has lost its standing amongst veterans as an organisation for advocacy and support. In simple terms, the RSL has lost its way.
Honest reporting and communicating would go some way to restoring the faith in our RSL. But instead of openness and transparency RSL Victoria waited eight months to inform members that the state branch was heading for a consolidated loss of $3.5M. A line in the May 2020 State Executive minutes disclosed the realisation that “reporting a loss of this magnitude will need to be explained to the membership”. Yet, as of September 2020, members haven’t been advised of very much at all. We certainly haven’t heard anything from the State President on this. In the face of numerous scandals, resignations, and financial uncertainty it seems as though the leadership of RSL Victoria has become permanently lost for words.
No wonder there are those within the membership who feel so powerless that they resort to activism. Just look at the way the RSL executive is treating the 400 or so independent living residents of RSL Vasey Care. Despite desperate pleas from all quarters of the wider veteran community, RSL Victoria still cannot bring itself to offer the residents any reassurances about their future.
RSL Victoria should be advocating for our veterans not dragging them into tribunals for speaking out.
While the RSL has been pouring its attention into running the business side of things, veterans are not being heard. There are many issues to be looked into, such as the loss of important entitlements brought about by the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act (MRCA) which applies to a huge number of those who have fought our recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, changes in the management of mental health services in connection with Ward 17, veteran housing employment issues, aged care, incarcerations, and the growing rate of veteran suicides.
Strong leaders within the RSL would not be silent on these issues.
These are some of the problems. What are the solutions?
In the military, the phrase “Check Nav” is one that means to check your map and confirm your heading. It stops us from becoming lost, or some might say “geographically challenged”. While one person navigates, a second is appointed to check nav to pick up issues early and correct them before one becomes completely and unequivocally lost.
This is what is required of RSL Victoria. A genuine and dramatic change in direction is a necessity. Our current heading is leading us to moral and financial bankruptcy; at best, leaving us with the remnants of an organisation that no longer represents those for whom it was raised to serve.
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.
Hawthorn is the largest traditional Sub Branch in Victoria, with 230 members,
the majority of whom are post-Vietnam veterans.
We want to hear what you think about this article
please sign-up and comment below