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ESO Peak Body - Government intervention not self-regulation!

Respected policy advocate for veterans and their families, Bill Westhead, offers the follow analysis and insights response to Mark Schröffel’s article on the RSL's National Forum for Ex-Service Organisations.

Dear Mark,

ESO’s are a necessary part of veteran support system because of the vacuum left by Government, in particular the ADF’s inability to deliver on its duty-of-care in support our personnel and DVA’s failure in its mission to support the health and wellbeing of our veterans.

For the record, it was RSL Victoria (RSL Vic) that initiated the ESO discussions back in March 2022 but their efforts were initially thwarted by the national leadership of RSL Australia (National). Presumably for beating them to a good idea or overstepping some bureaucratic boundary.

I was closely involved with the two forums sponsored by RSL Vic in March and August 2022. Representatives from National, although invited, were conspicuously absent.

The experience from the RSL Vic events, as recorded in the post activity reports, showed the utility of the meetings but highlighted the inability to achieve a consensus on various matters addressed at the meetings. It seems that National finally decided to shoulder its way into a leadership position, probably after detecting the detecting the vibe coming from the Royal Commission and the veteran community at large.

In reference to your comments in relation to criticism of RSL and the ESO Peak Body, the fact is that some ESO’s and RSL branches actively opposed the Royal Commission (RC) and there is still corporate reticence and lethargy in relation to frank submissions and cooperation with the RC. Continued opposition and lack of cooperation to the RC, as bluntly stated by Commissioner Kaldos. This position seems to be injected into the DNA of some stakeholders.

My view is that the RSL, the ADF and DVA aren’t reading the room concerning the outcomes of RC and what it has revealed. This, coupled with concerns about the public services hard earned reputation for inaction and its ability to strive towards the status quo puts the whole process of the RC into jeopardy.

Evidence given at every hearing to date fortified the suspicions and tribulations of Veterans; the appalling behaviour, bordering on the malfeasant, of the culture and administration from DVA and the ADF has reinforced the necessity for the RC. The recent statements from Commissioner Kaldos after the Melbourne hearings and his appearance at the National Press Club have encouraged Veterans that he and the other Commissioners have grasped the core of the issues.

Veterans should be thankful that Commissioners Kaldos, Douglas and Brown have shown great courage supporting Veterans and Defence personnel in the face of significant obfuscation and obstruction from stakeholders.

Across its continuum the RC has revealed a lack of accountability, the hiding behind opaque walls of public service remits and non-compliance with metrics across the serving and Veteran community. In Victoria, the government bodies that supposedly hold ESOs to account, ACNC and CAV, are failing to scrutinise ESOs and respond professionally to member’s grievances.

Clearly, Veterans and defence personnel, need an independent voice to hold stakeholders to account. The proposed appointment of a permanent National Commission(er) (NC) will go to some way to hold stakeholders to account and measure their performance. The Warragul RSL proposes a structure, shown below, for the ESO Registration and Compliance:

The NC will have other functions and responsibilities but ESOs need to subjected to scrutiny by the NC to be considered legitimate ESOs. Under this concept an organisation would be require to meet minimum standards and be able to demonstrate the following:

  • Have and publish a Constitution and/or Rules registered at ACNC and the NC;

  • That the ESO leadership is democratically elected by its membership through a process approved by the ACNC and NC;

  • The ESO is to have a formal planning process with measurable targets submitted to the NC annually;

  • The ESO is to have annual elections, those elections audited by an independent body and the results declared publicly;

  • The ESO is to publish its payroll in detail to the membership and the NC annually;

  • The ESO is to comply with ACNC laws, legislative intent, and direction and the ACNC and State Consumer Affairs departments are to report compliance;

  • Any income derived from the use of an ESO trademark or name, or business income is to be directed to Veteran welfare in the first instance by that ESO;

  • The ESO is to publish its financial results in detail, including the status of the ESO’s “Estate” to the NC and its members annually;

  • The ESO is to detail its financial and operational details to the NC twice per calendar year;

  • The NC is to monitor and report on financial performance and financial viability of the ESO annually; and

  • The NC is to make comment and recommendations on the financial veracity of the ESO.

There is a moral dimension for ESOs, especially the RSL network. Some RSL branches and sub-branches are leveraging community compassion and support to fund their operations via ANZAC and Remembrance Day appeals whilst conducting businesses turning over hundreds of millions of dollars. In Victoria members (and the public) have little visibility on how these business funds are dispersed for the object of the RSL – Veteran welfare.

Despite many attempts by members to reconcile this issue, to no avail, government intervention is necessary to force these ESO entities to comply with appropriate legislation to become operationally and financially transparent. The NC concept is designed to ensure compliance and transparency.

The criteria proposed supported by metrics and accountability are required because self-regulation has failed. The evidence produced at the RC demonstrates that the complexities of the management of defence personnel and veteran health are beyond the ability of stakeholders to self-regulate and report “from the opaque”!

Evidence, history, and historic suicide confirm that stakeholder change will only occur if Government intervenes.

We hope that the Government has the courage to implement (and fund) all the RC recommendations. We hope that the RSL will support the recommendations and advocate strongly on their behalf.

Recent RC’s into Banks, Aged Care, Robodebt and Defence Personnel and Veteran suicide have pilloried our elected representatives and the public and uniformed services. An office of the National Commissioner will need to be armed with comprehensive government support to hold stakeholders to account.

Serving Personnel and Veterans deserve timely, professional, and sophisticated health support. Intense government commitment to these obligations supported by strong ESO advocacy will facilitate the restoration of community faith in the ADF to enable them to be considered as preferred employers for the security of our country.

Yours sincerely,

Bill Westhead



Ann-Maree Buckley
Ann-Maree Buckley
Nov 16, 2023

Wondering why I cannot access funds and need to sell my home and relocate to the country to make ends meet. A bit tired of the old "oh we helped you in September didn't we." I don't need help once and then she'll be right mate because it's not.


Ian Lindgren
Ian Lindgren
Nov 15, 2023

Kudos, Bill Westhead! While individual RSL Sub Branches make significant contributions to the community, it's time for RSL National to let go of the notion that it alone can save the veteran community.

Imposing bans on individuals who offer genuine ideas (as they did with you) and restricting attendance at forums raises concerns about their underlying motives. Instead, we should strive to collaborate without disregarding those with differing perspectives.

Your idea holds merit, and I align with 90% of it. Let's engage in open discussion with others who comprehend the essence of strategic thinking.

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