Jeff Kennett may be the saviour that RSL Victoria desperately needs
By Eamon Hale
Can you feel that? It’s the winds of change gently blowing through the veteran community.
In Victoria last week, an Extraordinary General Meeting of the Camberwell RSL sub-branch appointed a new committee. There are a couple of names on it that might ring some bells, chief among them a gentleman known across Australia whose leadership credentials are well established. He is the Honourable Jeff Kennett AC and he’s now filling the role of Camberwell sub-branch president. Alongside him as Treasurer is the Honourable Ted Baillieu AO.
To have not just one but two former Victorian premiers on a sub-branch committee is without precedent in the more than 100-year history of the RSL.
With this election, a ripple of excitement has run through the veteran community. Veterans have been looking for leadership and many believe Kennett may be the person to provide it.
For years, frustration and angst have been brewing over poor leadership and a lack of representation by the RSL. Time has marched on, with the youngest veterans of the Vietnam war reaching 70 years old and the Second World War generation almost all gone. With their passing, advocacy at national and state levels has fallen to a negligible level. The focus for many current leaders appears to have shifted from running a membership-based service organisation dedicated to welfare to operating a major commercial business specialising in hospitality and gambling.
The RSL was once a moral and ethical pillar of Australian society with a view on everything; now it is almost completely silent and rapidly selling itself off with at least 20 sub-branches in Victoria sold in the past decade to recover debts, including the Cranbourne RSL sub-branch just weeks ago.
The days of leaders within the RSL making their voices heard in the community appear long gone. In Victoria, the long-serving branch president Dr Rob Webster is virtually unknown outside the RSL. The RSL, at both state and federal levels, was dragged kicking and screaming to the debate around the royal commission into veteran suicide. Interaction and communication with the membership is lacking, with RSL Victoria for example taking 118 days to release its state conference draft minutes.
RSL NSW (with CEO John Black and President Ray James) and RSL Queensland (with President Tony Ferris) have done tremendous work to rebuild the image of the RSL in their states, interacting with members and working to reform their state branches. They are dragging their states into the 21st century to ensure that they can continue for another hundred years.
Victoria has done none of these things.
Enter Jeff Kennett.
A crisis is brewing
Conscripted as a national serviceman in 1968, Kennett was an Officer Cadet Training graduate, commissioned as a second lieutenant and sent to 1RAR (1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment). He was a platoon commander there, deploying to Malaya and Singapore in 1969. When he left the Army, Kennett wasted no time in joining the RSL as a returned serviceman in 1971.
Kennett’s experience as Victoria’s premier over two terms may be what he is best remembered for, but he describes the 17 years as founding chairman of Beyond Blue as, “Part of my DNA. Outside my family, it has been my most important role”. Kennett will also be well known as president of AFL club Hawthorn.
There is no doubt he is a divisive character that some people love to hate. Critics are plentiful, but his supporters are still legion. As premier, against a background of economic crisis, he reformed the inefficiencies of the state, privatising underperforming assets and bringing the budget back into the black. His leadership style jarred with some; authoritative and direct, it had more in common with the leadership we know from the Defence Force than that seen in government. But it worked and under his premiership he pushed back the dark clouds of crisis and pointed Victoria to economic stability and growth.
That memory of his time as Premier of Victoria is causing a wave of positive muttering and excitement among many in the veteran community.
Kennett has proven that he can solve a crisis and there is an immense one brewing in the RSL in his home state.
COVID is causing a deep financial crisis within RSL Victoria – denied by them but reported to be a debt of $82million across the 52 gaming sub-branches at the end of 2020 – and service membership is falling off a cliff with a 20% loss over the past two years (26,810 in 2019, 23,787 in 2020 and 21,672 at March 2021).
Adding to RSL Victoria’s catalogue of woes: at least 20 10A (gaming) branches have been sold off to pay debts in the past decade, without counting 10B and 10C traditional sub-branches also sold; there appears to be no stated or published strategic vision; and most recently it was revealed that state CEO Jamie Twidale had been stood down and is under investigation, although scant detail has been provided by RSL Victoria. All these things affect the core purpose of the RSL: caring for veterans and their families. The leader for the job
While there appears to be no palatable saviour at this point within the league, there is one option: Jeff Kennett.
With elections and state conference postponed for the second year running, could Kennett be appointed as a caretaker state president?
Under the constitution, he could do so with a two-year term and a mandate to reform and rejuvenate the league. It would be a role for which he is ideally suited and one he could be immensely successful in.
Kennett could be the man to reform the RSL in Victoria and provide an example of leadership for the league across Australia; a man to cut through the malaise and inertia that runs through ANZAC House, ensuring that the organisation is fit for purpose into the future.
Were it to be carried out, it would surely be universally popular across an apolitical but naturally conservative organisation such as the RSL.
The RSL has dealt with crises in the past and has always overcome them. In the early 1980s, the widening of membership to service members (those who had served in the ADF for a period of six months rather than just those who had served overseas) was bitterly contested across Australia but has proven essential to the continuance of the league.
Forty years later, a dramatic shake-up is again required to avoid the stumbling path to irrelevance and decline.
There is no one better placed in Victoria and no one more capable of uniting the warring tribes than the former Victorian premier. It would require Webster to step aside in a selfless gesture of renewal at RSL Victoria and the state executive agreeing to Kennett stepping in as caretaker president.
Over to you Rob Webster and Jeff Kennett.
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. Eamon is a regular contributor to Australian Veteran News.
Connect with Eamon on twitter: @eamhale