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Conflict and disunity as RSL Vic slides towards insolvency

The minutes of RSL Victoria’s State Executive meeting of the 25 June 2020 lifts the lid on the dysfunction within the Victorian branch.

RSL Victoria “is on a possible path to insolvency” and the state executive is in open warfare with state branch CEO Jamie Twidale as he strives to reduce costs and cash-strapped sub-branch presidents as they struggle to survive.

During the executive meeting chief financial officer David Ridley explained that the Victorian branch “has acted upon the direction to cut $500,000 from the budget”. Measures included four redundancies, the temporary cutting of wages by 20% and the compulsory reduction of annual leave to 10 days by the end of the year.

The minutes, admirable for their candour if nothing else, lay bare two things: the toxic relationship between the state executive and the CEO and the stubborn refusal to face up to RSL Victoria’s creaking finances.

Despite the relatively modest nature of the cuts, Twidale was taken to task by the state executive, including the query: “What was the basis of the decisions on the redundancies and who made those decisions?”

One board member, according to the minutes, “stated his belief that restructure discussions and redundancies had occurred before there was any talk of COVID restrictions and there being a budget emergency”.

Twidale replied that “work on redundancies occurred in early May” and reminded the state executive of “advice provided at the May State Executive that RSL Victoria Inc is on a possible path to insolvency and that hard decisions are required in these times.”

Twidale also noted that budget concerns were raised in a paper to the state executive in February and COVID-19 “budget issues” were raised in budget papers in March, April and May, “each highlighting that if revenue did not return that expenses (including employee expenses) would need to be cut significantly”.

The atmosphere of disunity and dysfunction between the board and CEO is palpable. The aforementioned director evidently did not appreciate Twidale’s punctilious recollection of events and “questioned who was responsible for running RSL Victoria, the state executive or the CEO”?

It’s possible that the board member posed his provocative question with a smile and a wink. But Twidale’s response suggests that if there was any smiling it was through gritted teeth. The CEO assured his interlocutor that he would welcome “clear guidance and direction on the role of the CEO” before pointedly concluding that “the State Executive should decide if they want a CEO or a Company Secretary.”

This breakdown in corporate governance and the state executive’s hamfisted approach to RSL Victoria’s perilous finances provide reason enough for the board to stand down en masse, but there are many other reasons why RSL members in Victoria are so disillusioned. They have either left the RSL, or remain members despite the glaring absence of leadership and strategic insight.

After many months of negative and highly charged feedback from veterans and the wider community about the proposed sale of Vasey RSL Care, RSL Victoria is yet to clarify its position. Instead, it has published worthless “fact sheets” and uttered a few PR clichés that explain nothing and reassure nobody.

Then there is the matter of state executive elections and the AGM – both of which have been delayed for no good reason. There is a challenge for the presidency, board members have resigned and the only nomination for the position of treasurer has been rejected on a procedural technicality – a technicality that the state executive has the authority to suspend subject to ratification at the AGM.

Sub-branches are also feeling the financial strain. Several sub-branches look like they need to be bailed out (some of them not for the first time), but money is running out and some sub-branches are raising concerns about inequitable distribution of financial support.

The Foundation RSL Group – which represents the Ararat, Bendigo, Bentleigh, Box Hill, Cheltenham-Moorabbin, Dandenong-Cranbourne, Phillip Island and Watsonia sub-branches – wrote to Jamie Twidale on 15 June (a copy of which was attached to the State Executive Minutes of 25 June). Frustration with the lack of leadership and communication from ANZAC House is at boiling point.

The letter begins without a formal salutation, opening simply and starkly with “Jamie”.

If the suspension of courtesies does not provide clue enough, the opening paragraph reflects the tone of the letter:

“On 30 April 2020 Jeff Mawkes [Watsonia] wrote to the State President Mr [sic] Rob Webster, seeking an audience with both yourself and Rob to discuss issues raised by a group of concerned [sub-branch] Presidents, regarding FAF [Future-Assistance Funding]. As usual, we were met with ‘sounds of silence’ and no reply.”

The letter accuses ANZAC House of a “flippant…arrogance” that has caused sub-branch presidents “a lot of angst and anger”.

The Foundation RSL Group is critical of “no support from RSL Vic throughout the COVID-19 lockdown” and is particularly scathing of the secretive and deeply unpopular proposal to sell Vasey RSL Care: “We believe the handling of matters concerning the sale of RSL/Vasey has been deplorable.”

The sub-branch presidents go on to say: “The future of Victorian RSL’s looks very bleak to us…”

It’s a damning assessment, one made with increasing frequency throughout RSL Victoria and the veteran community. The state executive seems completely oblivious to RSL Victoria’s potentially fatal shortcomings. It views the dissatisfaction of members as an impertinence and its own position to be beyond question.

Fortunately, despite the best efforts of this deeply flawed state executive, the veteran community remains precisely that: a community. There are pockets of leadership and sub-branches uniting to shoulder the load. The only question now is: will their efforts be sufficient – and in time – to prevent a complete and irreversible collapse of RSL Victoria?


Mark Schroffel is the Editor-in-Chief of Australian Veteran News. Mark is a veteran and has a day-job as strategy consultant and researcher interested in veteran support policies and transition programs. He designed and led the Melbourne Legacy sponsored ShoutOUT research initiative to gather insights and stories about post-1991 veterans and their families. Mark can be followed on twitter @MarkSchroffel

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