top of page

Missteps and Missed Opportunities: The Need for Fresh Vision at RSL Victoria

Is this the best we’ve got? Are these comments appropriate?

“When I get a voice that is having trouble speaking English asking me for the ‘min-u-ets’ of the meeting… I was thinking about that”

I don’t think so. I especially don’t think so when they come from the president of an organisation that has 200,000 members and is supposed to represent the almost 100,000 veterans in Victoria.

My entire adult life, I’ve been told to call out bad behaviour. That the standard you walk past is the standard you accept. Well, I don’t accept this.

Three days after saying it at the RSL Victoria State Conference to an audience of hundreds of people, Rob Webster acknowledged the comments were wrong too:

While attempting to make a point about the compliance burden on volunteers and Sub-Branch committees regarding the Australian Charities and Not-for-Profit Commission (ACNC) and Consumer Affairs Victoria (CAV) annual reporting, I made a comment that had a xenophobic connotation.

On reflection, my comment was not professional, inappropriate and made in poor taste. Although I intended no offence, I am sorry to say that my comment was offensive. For this, I apologise and will seek to speak with more care in the future.

They were made during a rambling speech regarding the proposed RSL Victoria strategic plan. The anecdote was not only irrelevant and unlikely to have actually happened, but offensive and xenophobic. The clear inference is that if this mystery caller from the tax office can’t speak English then they shouldn’t be questioning him.

People who come to Australia learn English so they be part of this country. So they can not just survive but thrive. And this is a country where they can do that. We should be proud of that.

Publicly mocking people for not being able to pronounce the word “Minutes” is xenophobic. Plain and simple.

I don’t accept it and don’t think it has any place in our society, especially from supposed leaders within the veteran community. This person has been an RSL Victoria representative since 1989 and is currently in his third term as State President.

His views aren’t representative of an organisation that represents me or is in the 21st century.

So why does the RSL exist?

On the RSL Australia website it states, “We advocate for the best possible conditions for our serving men and women and for those who have served the nation in the past.

This doesn’t seem to have spread to the Victorian President.

Asked by the President of the Beaumaris RSL Sub-Branch, “Has there been any forward thinking on the voice for veterans? Both to motivate the younger veterans on why to come to us, but also to motivate the public on why we’re important… What is the current thinking of who and how we’re going to start raising our voice?”

Dr Webster responded, “… It is an issue that the national board is grappling with… This is an argument I’ve made in a number of places. We have a voice. It’s called the Department of Veterans Affairs and to a lesser extent the Department of Defence. Do we use it the best way? Sometimes I’m not sure.”

To summarise, from the President of Victoria’s largest ex-service organisation, the voice for veterans is the DVA and Department of Defence. This is equivalent to a Teachers Union saying the voice of its members is actually the Department of Education, or a Nurses Union saying the voice of its members is the Department of Health. Those things would never happen. A union would never advocate themselves out of their job.

Contrast this with the response to the same question by the CEO of RSL NSW, Jon Black:

“It’s something I’ve grappled with. When you think about the Bruce Ruxton era (and) how the voice was conveyed through what was limited media channels in those days… When you think about the Royal Commission and individuals that initiated petitions and how they could access the government your President just mentioned… I think it is embracing the RSL and get as many people as we can behind it because it is actually a human face, human body … and generating that.

There’s a lot of awareness, I think, certainly in the parliament about the RSLs role. It’s really pleasing to know our national president has direct access to the Prime Minister and that continues today because the RSL proudly is represented across every community… saying that, unless we get the younger generations to join our ranks and continue a cogent argument about why the veteran community needs support in any area we will lose ground, there’s no doubt about it.

I’ve been a member of RSL Victoria since 2017. In that time, I’ve been a sub-branch Vice President and President, as well as being on numerous RSL Victoria committees and groups. I’ve been immensely proud to be a leader in this community. It takes up a lot of my spare time, even though I work two jobs and have a wife and young daughter. I give my time and efforts to it because I believe in the organisation, and I believe in its mission for making the lives of veterans better.

This year’s Victorian State Conference was the worst I’ve been part of though. The lack of vision, the lack of coherence, and the lack of leadership were plain to see. The entire thing lurched along, appearing embarrassingly obsolete and out of touch. Professionalism was beyond its grasp and awkward jokes filled the space where once strong speeches inspired the audiences. This from an organisation that once stood on a pedestal in our community and earned the respect of the population through its advocacy and efforts for the diggers who fought our wars. But more than 100 years into this journey, RSL Victoria has stepped down from that pedestal and is shuffling itself into the background. If RSL Victoria is intent of irrelevance and absolving itself of its responsibilities to advocate for its veterans, who will take its place? I want to help lead our community, but do others care enough to join me?

I hope so.


bottom of page