By Eamon Hale
Greg Melick has been RSL National President since 2019. This month he sat down (via Zoom) with Australian Veteran News for his first public interview. It was a revealing and instructive discussion.
Major General (Ret) Greg Melick AO SC has a long history of service. He joined the Army Reserve in 1966, in 2007 he became Australia’s most senior Reserve officer and in 2018 he retired from the ADF having spent 52 years in uniform. Greg Melick is also a distinguished barrister. He served as Crown prosecutor and principal Crown counsel in Tasmania in the 1980s, was appointed silk in 2001, and has worked extensively on a number of large-scale investigations and inquiries, as well as representing ex-Defence and police members.
Melick’s discussion with AVN editor-in-chief Mark Schröffel begins with a candid statement regarding his continued belief that the royal commission into veteran suicide is inferior to the National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention.
Melick speaks fluently and freely about the national commissioner versus royal commission debate and his thoughts on the superiority of the national commissioner model. It is interesting to speculate that had his thoughts and arguments been articulated earlier in that debate he may well have swung many to his point of view.
He explains with clarity the issues that the royal commission must investigate and he highlights the importance of investigating the whole-of-life experiences of those who have served. This is often skipped over and is critical to recognise.
Melick also acknowledges that RSL National has been “missing in action” for four years and was not functioning properly, but adds that improvements have been made and information is now being made available through its website. He states that this should have been happening earlier, but “we didn’t have the resources to do it”. These are bold comments from the leader of a national institution in the era of instant access to information and in the world of digital media where publishing is inexpensive and accessible to all.
On a positive note, Melick highlights the hard and energetic work of the new RSL National CEO, Brigadier Philip Winter AM CSC ADC, and how his appointment has led to change and things “just getting done”. This is encouraging and shines a light on the positive change that is occurring within RSL National.
His message to those who attack and criticise the RSL is commendable; he argues that the RSL is “a great organisation” that does “so much and can do a lot more”. He encourages those who want change to stand for election and get onto executives.
‘No RSL pokies in an ideal world’
Melick’s bombshell statement comes 20 minutes into the interview: “My view is that I’d like to have no RSL clubs involved with gaming. By this I mean clubs owned and run by the RSL. We get very little income for veterans’ welfare from them. In an ideal world, there would be no RSL clubs with poker machines.”
This is a powerful statement and one that may divide many in Victoria, NSW and Queensland where gaming is prevalent. It is his strongest overall statement since his election and highlights the debate that is raging among many RSL members in the states that have gaming. There are those who believe gaming provides important financial benefits and is necessary to the continued financial survival of the RSL, while others believe it has too big a role in the RSL, causing damage to the financial and mental wellbeing of veterans. The fact that gaming has become a core function of many clubs and sub-branches is clearly an issue for the national president.
Another significant feature of the interview was Melick’s comments in favour of accepting asylum of Afghans who assisted the Australian Defence Force in Afghanistan. His view was unequivocal: “We have a moral obligation.”
That the national president is making public statements on Afghanistan is a massive step toward a renewed advocacy role for the RSL. The RSL is well entitled to engage in this important debate. However, given that the comments are coming almost eight years after combat operations ended and now that the Afghan mission is wrapping up may mean that they come too late to be of help to those who need or needed it. They remain however a sign of positive change within the organisation.
Melick is clearly intelligent and articulate. He has a wealth of experience in the legal arena and an extensive service history. It has, however, taken two years for him to conduct an interview like this and to speak publicly on issues that Australia’s largest ex-service organisation has been completely silent about. This new approach may well put RSL National on the road to relevance again.
Melick’s challenge from here is to attempt to rebuild RSL National’s brand and reputation which have been eroded substantially through its now acknowledged absence over a four-year period.
Greg Melick may or may not be the man to restore RSL National’s standing, but he appears to be the man to begin the process and ensure that his successors do not make the same mistakes that have been allowed to occur in the recent past.
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. He now works in emergency services and is a regular contributor to Australian Veteran News.
Connect with Eamon on twitter: @eamhale