top of page

RSL leadership’s ‘abject failure’ on royal commission misreads mood of veterans

By Bill Westhead

In an era when the RSL is struggling for ex-service organisation (ESO) primacy, significance and credibility with veterans the recent manoeuvrings by the RSL leadership regarding the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide have left many veterans, RSL members or not, disillusioned with the RSL’s arrogance in this matter.

RSL National and RSL Victoria embrace the merits of policy development and public advocacy as part of their constitution and rules. Yet the recent veteran suicide debate has been characterised by an insensitive and deliberately sluggish stance regarding submissions, advocacy and timeliness of intervention.

RSL leadership has been dragged “kicking and screaming” to a royal commission and now to submit a Terms of Reference (TOR) that attacks the plague of veteran suicide. From the outset the RSL leadership has been behind the curve.

Its response has been characterised by a degree public bitterness.

One of the TORs from RSL National to the Attorney-General’s Department is: “Examine the role and effects of social media including the dissemination of disinformation.”

Seriously? Veteran and Australian Defence Force (ADF) uniform personnel are for the first time empowered by social media and they will have their say.

Memo to the RSL leadership: You win the information campaign by being relevant, winning over your constituency through good communication and advocating aggressively on their behalf.

RSL National’s TOR submission is an abject failure that supports the lenient and benign stance sought by vested interests, that is, the federal government, the ADF and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA). It is tacit acquiescence that veteran suicide is a veteran problem, not one of systemic failure. It totally lacks an objective.

It is not what a TOR should be: a direction to the royal commissioners.

The RSL National TOR submission aims to degrade the status of the royal commission to inquiry level. With minor adjustment, the RSL’s submission is almost a reflection of the DVA Themes for the Terms of Reference.

Struggling for relevance

Without the research resources and administrative backup of RSL National or RSL Victoria, ESOs, individuals and RSL sub-branches have provided more sophisticated, comprehensive and relevant submissions to the Attorney-General.

Memo 2 to RSL National: You have failed to read the mood of veterans.

The response from veterans and interested parties to the royal commission has been overwhelming and unprecedented.

There is so much interest that hopefully the federal government’s read of the mood is better than the RSL leadership’s and presents a set of TORs with authority.

With an election looming the last thing the government needs is the threat of angry veterans “gonged-up” at polling booths.

Both RSL National and RSL Victoria are struggling for relevance, particularly with the younger veteran cohort. Yet the preparation of the TOR submission has been characterised by corporate lethargy, tardiness, generational prejudice and a failure to understand the centre of gravity: veteran health.

I do not believe RSL National’s TOR submission represents the veteran community, especially when you consider the trauma and mismanagement experienced by Vietnam and subsequent veteran cohorts.

RSL leadership needs to understand that veteran resentment must be assuaged by acerbic, aggressive, analytical, visionary and strategic leadership from what is purportedly the nation’s lead ESO.

RSL National had the opportunity to advocate for an historic investigation into veteran health and management issues in a duly constituted federal body. RSL has failed veterans in this matter.

Why the lack of direction from the RSL? This was an opportunity missed.

Australians need to be confident that their sons and daughters will be treated appropriately and their health protected during and after their service in the ADF. Veterans need to be assured that service in the ADF will not prejudice their quality of life after service.

This royal commission is unique in our national and military history – we cannot have a “whitewash”.

The TOR outline as proposed by RSL National is superficial and fails to challenge the government as demanded by the respective national and state RSL constitution and rules.

The evidence is that RSL membership overwhelmingly supports a detailed set of TORs that will hold the ADF, DVA and politicians to account, apportioning blame and responsibility.

Why doesn’t RSL National and RSL Victoria support the veteran intent?


Bill Westhead is immediate past president of the Warragul RSL sub-branch in Victoria and a former Army officer.

bottom of page