• Leo D'Angelo Fisher

RSL Vic hits dead end with criticism of Daniel Andrews’ coronavirus roadmap

By Leo D’Angelo Fisher

Critics who believe that RSL Victoria has lost its way will no doubt be struck by the irony that the state branch has decided to strongly condemn the Victorian government’s much anticipated “roadmap” out of coronavirus restrictions.

The Andrews government relaxed some restrictions but extended the Stage 4 lockdown in Melbourne for another two weeks until 27 September. Premier Daniel Andrews believes that reopening the state too quickly carries an unacceptable risk of a third wave of infections.

The cautious path to “COVID normal” has been condemned by Prime Minister Scott Morrison – a relentless critic of Victoria’s handling of COVID-19 – along with the state opposition, business groups, sections of the media…and now RSL Victoria.

In a letter to sub-branch presidents dated 8 September, RSL Victoria president Robert Webster and CEO Jamie Twidale noted that the state branch had previously supported the government’s response to COVID-19, “but to say that the details of the roadmap were disappointing is an understatement”.

Dr Webster and Mr Twidale went hard:

“The roadmap is confusing, inconsistent with other states and sets a path that will not see our sub-branches opening for months to come.”

The consequences of the “prolonged lockdown”, they argue, would include a curtailment of “our charitable activities”, “result in continued social isolation of veterans and their families”, and this dire warning: “Some sub-branches may not see out the year.”

This was evidently a matter of some distress for the state president and his CEO.

“Coming together at our sub-branches is in our DNA and we want to see our members back in a COVID safe way,” they wrote.

“We remain focused on providing the best possible support to all generations of veterans. You and your sub-branch are at the heart of this mission and it is vital that we all work together to get through more tough times ahead.”

RSL Victoria’s right to criticise the Victorian government’s roadmap is not at issue; what is at issue is the tone-deaf hypocrisy of the letter to sub-branch presidents.

The professed concern for the future of sub-branches is in stark contrast to the organisational failure to address pleas for assistance by struggling sub-branches.

As Australian Veteran News revealed in August – Conflict and disunity as RSL Vic slides towards insolvency – several sub-branches desperately seeking financial assistance from head office have raised concerns about the inequitable distribution of financial support.

The Foundation RSL Group – which represents the Ararat, Bendigo, Bentleigh, Box Hill, Cheltenham-Moorabbin, Dandenong-Cranbourne, Phillip Island and Watsonia sub-branches – wrote to Jamie Twidale on 15 June. Frustration with the lack of leadership and communication from ANZAC House was at boiling point.

The letter noted that in April Watsonia sub-branch president Jeff Mawkes wrote to Dr Webster seeking a meeting with him and Mr Twidale to discuss Future-Assistance Funding.

“As usual, we were met with ‘sounds of silence’ and no reply,” the Foundation group’s sub-branch presidents observed.

They went on to accuse ANZAC House of a “flippant…arrogance” that had caused sub-branch presidents “a lot of angst and anger”.

The Foundation RSL Group is critical of “no support from RSL Vic throughout the COVID-19 lockdown” and is particularly scathing of the secretive and deeply unpopular proposal to sell Vasey RSL Care: “We believe the handling of matters concerning the sale of RSL/Vasey has been deplorable.”

It’s a damning assessment, but the state executive seems completely oblivious to RSL Victoria’s potentially fatal shortcomings, despite no shortage of angry voices from the veteran community. It views the dissatisfaction of members and former members as an impertinence and its own position to be beyond question.

The motherhood statements in the “coronavirus roadmap” letter to sub-branch presidents deserve to be dismissed as tawdry PR tosh. RSL Victoria has been found wanting in its dealings with sub-branches, their representatives and the veteran community, whether veterans in need of health and welfare support or veterans who are demanding organisational and policy reform within RSL Victoria.

Entreaties about “coming together” at sub-branches, providing the “best possible support to all generations of veterans” and “work[ing] together to get through more tough times” simply do not ring true.

If RSL Victoria had a better track record on these and other matters, if the organisation’s leadership was not so thin-skinned about challenges to the status quo, the letter condemning the Andrews roadmap may have been more credible.

To his credit, Jamie Twidale has acknowledged the need to modernise RSL Victoria and provide veterans with a greater voice. In a frank Q&A exchange with AVN, Mr Twidale agreed that RSL Victoria has more to do in meeting its role in policy development and public advocacy on behalf of members.

Mr Twidale has a plan – one might even say a roadmap – but his not insignificant challenge will be ensuring the support of the hidebound state executive as he pursues his ambitious reform agenda.

Without that crucial support Daniel Andrews is much more likely to arrive at his destination than the well-meaning CEO of RSL Victoria.

Leo D'Angelo Fisher is a regular columnist and Editor-at-Large at Australian Veteran News.

Connect with him on Twitter: @DAngeloFisher

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or write to australianveterannews@gmail.com

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