RSL Victoria is on the warpath. Unfortunately it is not fighting the good fight on behalf of its members, but against them. How else can one describe the decision to sell Vasey RSL Care?
Since 2004, not-for-profit Vasey RSL Care has been providing independent living units and residential aged-care accommodation for Victorian veterans. More than 700 people live in Vasey properties across Melbourne. An additional 150 clients receive home-care services.
Just as disappointing as the decision to sell is RSL Victoria’s refusal to engage with the leadership of Vasey RSL Care and its failure to offer veterans and their families assurances about their future. One can only imagine the distress of veterans and their families as they contemplate a precarious future without the benefit of any meaningful information to guide them.
But it seems RSL Victoria has neither the imagination nor the wit to understand the fear, concern and anger that its decision has created.
RSL Victoria insists that Vasey RSL Care is a separate company and that “we don’t own that company in our own right”, to quote CEO Jamie Twidale. Yes and no. Mostly no.
Vasey RSL Care was formed in 2004 by an amalgamation of RSL Victoria and the War Widows Guild. The power to finalise the proposed sale of Vasey RSL Care, RSL Victoria insists, “remains with Vasey RSL Care’s governing members”. But the governing members are appointed by RSL Victoria and the War Widows Guild.
The curt two-paragraph letter announcing the “direction” that Vasey RSL Care Pty Ltd would be sold, was sent to then Vasey chairman David Paroissien in August last year. The letter was signed by RSL Victoria president Dr Robert Webster and his Guild counterpart, and was on RSL letterhead.
Despite assurances of Vasey RSL Care’s independence, neither the chairman nor the CEO of the not-for-profit were consulted about the sale. It is telling that the chairman of Vasey RSL Care, Michael O’Meara, elected in December last year following Mr Paroissien’s retirement, has gone public in condemning the proposed sale.
For this show of independence Mr O’Meara has been condemned by RSL Victoria, which in a “fact sheet” has expressed concern about the “negative impact” the maverick chairman’s campaign is having on Vasey residents and families, which it described as “alarming and concerning”. Irony 1, Veterans 0.
“Targeting RSL Victoria and the War Widows Guild, and the suggestion that either organisation can direct the Vasey RSL Care Board to sell, is false and malicious,” the so-called fact sheet continues.
This will be news to Mr O’Meara who has felt the need to man the barricades.
It is interesting to note how the Vasey RSL Care board sees its role. On Vasey’s website, under the heading of ‘Governance’, it explains that the board of directors “brings a wealth of professional experience and expertise to the organisation”. It further explains that the board “provides the organisation’s vision, mission, values and promises”, and that the directors are “committed to continuing to honour our Veterans and War Widows by providing quality support and care in the residential and community sectors”.
It is clear that the board does not see itself as subservient to the RSL and that it assumes the independence that is only honoured in the breach.by RSL Victoria. Not only was Vasey’s leadership not consulted about the proposed sale but the wishes and concerns of residents have been totally ignored.
Mr O’Meara OAM is no babe in the woods: he is the former Deputy Commissioner of Victoria’s Department of Veterans’ Affairs and is currently Chairman of the Sir Edward Dunlop Medical Research Foundation. He understands governance and he plainly resents that RSL Victoria is riding roughshod over the independence of his board and the concerns of Vasey’s residents and the wider veterans’ community.
RSL Victoria’s “fact sheet” is a masterpiece of weasel words and mealy-mouthed platitudes.
On the question of what will happen to the residents of Vasey RSL Care if the sale eventuates, RSL Victoria responds: “There are federal laws that ensure the continuation of care of residents if their aged care facility changes ownership.”
As to whether RSL Victoria will benefit financially from the sale, the answer is: “Vasey RSL Care is a patriotic fund, as such any monies gained through the proposed sale of Vasey RSL Care must, by law, be invested back into the Victorian veteran community and remain in a patriotic fund.”
Big deal. Veterans know better than anyone what it is to have a legal entitlement and to have that legal entitlement observed.
The sale of Vasey RSL Care is expected to fetch $100 million. No business acquires another for such an amount without intending to make changes. The first change is usually to cut costs to the bone followed by an increase in prices.
The residents of Vasey RSL Care don’t want hollow assurances of what the law promises them. They want to know in direct and unambiguous terms whether they will get to keep their accommodation without disadvantage. But more than that they want to know what happens to veterans in future if they no longer have access to Vasey RSL Care.
A letter sent to RSL Victoria sub-branch presidents, signed by Mr O’Meara and CEO Janna Voloshin, points out that Vasey RSL Care is the only aged-care organisation in Victoria for veterans.
“We know that demand for our services will continue to be strong. Department of Veterans’ Affairs projections show that in the 10 years to 2029 Victoria’s veteran population will increase 21.8% to more than 35,700,” the letter states.
“[T]he Vasey RSL Care board has a well-considered strategic plan to continue to meet the demand from older veterans and their dependents (who make up more than 70% of our current residents and tenants) while adapting to serve the needs of younger veterans and those in transition […] We want to expand our services where veterans need them most, such as in regional Victoria and the western suburbs of Melbourne.”
From Vasey RSL Care, a plan; from RSL Victoria, no such plan for what happens when Vasey RSL Care is sold.
This is not just a Victorian issue. It goes to the heart of what the RSL in the 21st Century stands for. An RSL branch selling accommodation and services earmarked for veterans, without a plan to support those and future veterans, shows a callous disregard for its reason for being.
If veterans young and old cannot rely on the RSL to support them when they need it most who can blame them for wondering if there is any point to having an RSL?
Leo D'Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne-based journalist and commentator. Twitter: @DAngeloFisher