The Returned and Services League (RSL) Australia has, over the past year, coordinated a series of National Forums for Ex-Service Organisations (ESOs) with the intention of unifying the voices and efforts of various groups dedicated to veteran welfare. This initiative has seen the collaboration of over 70 organisations nationwide and sought to harness a collective strength to tackle challenges faced by veterans, including the implementation of recommendations from the Interim Report of the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide.
The RSL's National Forums for ESOs, which spanned from November 2022 to October 2023, involved subject matter experts both local and international. These experts, drawn from a spectrum of backgrounds including the Australian Defence Force and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, contributed insights aiming to coalesce the sector around common goals and strategies.
RSL National President, Greg Melick, acknowledged the need for legislative reform and improvements in claims processing at the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. He emphasised the importance of ex-service organisations working in a spirit of collaboration and shared purpose to support the wellbeing of veterans and their families, saying:
“Our ESO sector is now presented with an opportunity to more effectively deliver on its shared purpose and leverage its collective strengths by uniting to advocate for the needs of those we represent, provide valuable and efficient services, and collectively work to reduce suicide and suicidality among the veteran community.”
A significant outcome from the initiative was the consensus on the need for a national peak body to represent and advocate for the interests of Australian veterans and the ESO sector. Furthermore, participants highlighted the necessity for a national implementation body to ensure the recommendations of the Royal Commission are actioned promptly and effectively.
Yet, amidst this progress, critical voices from within the veteran community have identified some concerns about the approach taken and potential weaknesses in the peak body model being developed. Ian Lindgren, a respected figure within the ESO landscape, expressed reservations about the operational focus of the forum's discussions. He contended that there was an excessive focus on granular details at the expense of higher-level strategic planning.
Lindgren urged for leadership by professionals with substantial expertise and called for innovative thinking rather than adherence to potentially ineffective existing models. He further questioned the self-governance allowed to ESOs by DVA on advocacy issues, the need for oversight of ethical conduct, and the legal status of volunteers within these organisations.
Despite such critiques, the forums have charted a potential pathway toward a more united and robust ESO sector. This with Melick's earlier acknowledgements of past fragmentation within the ESO community and the commitment to rectify this is a promising pivot toward greater effectiveness and collaboration.
The forums have set the stage for enhanced collaboration and represent a pivotal shift with the potential to transform service across the veteran sector, yet as Lindgren cautions, it demands a fresh and vigilant mindset to avoid the pitfalls of the past.