In a significant victory for South Australian Veterans, RSL South Australia/Northern Territory has successfully advocated for the inclusion of “ANZAC Day” in the new Public Holidays Bill 2023. Alongside this achievement, the South Australian opposition has committed to increasing their contribution to the RSL SA Veteran Employment Program, with $400,000 over 4 years. The SA government has promised to at least match this commitment, securing the continuance of the program until 2028.
Let’s dig into some details.
Legislative Changes and Backlash
The South Australian government copped criticism for omitting the names of public holidays, such as ANZAC Day and Christmas Day from its Public Holidays Bill 2023.
The Public Holidays Act 2023 replaced the older Holidays Act 1910 and referred to fixed date holidays by their specific dates, without their names attached.
On the 30th of November, the South Australian government passed this new legislation, categorising fixed public holidays, such as Christmas Day and ANZAC Day, solely by their dates. Alongside this, public holidays without fixed dates, Labour Day, Kings Birthday, etc, were referred to by the day they fell, such as “The First Monday in October”. The exception to this is the Easter Weekend, where days are referred to as “Good Friday”, “Easter Saturday”, and so on.
The change triggered a backlash from the South Australian opposition, and public figures, including Nicolle Flint who, while writing for Sky News, labelled the changes as “Un-Australian”. There followed an explosion on social media.
SA Government Response
The South Australian Government, led by Premier Peter Malinauskas, clarified that the amendments aimed to address a loophole related to penalty rates, particularly for workers not receiving additional pay for working Christmas Day when it fell on a weekend.
Regarding ANZAC Day, the South Australian Industrial Relations and Public Sector Minister Kyam Maher emphasised that ANZAC Day was already protected by the ANZAC Day Commemoration Act 2005, and that this was a beat up.
The RSL Steps In
For many, there is very little expectation that the RSL will use its voice on veteran issues, let alone achieve results. Under South Australia’s new State President, this might be changing.
State President Dave Petersen is a 37-year-old former Artillery officer and Afghanistan Veteran who was elected State President in June 2023. He has made it clear that he intends to ensure the RSL is at the forefront of these issues. To that end, RSL South Australia/Northern Territory took the unprecedented step of issuing a statement within 24 hours. While the statement was to reassure veterans that ANZAC Day was protected, and that they could “put down their flaming torches”, Petersen actively lobbied the government and the opposition to ensure the concerns of veterans were heard.
The RSLs proactive approach, coupled with Petersen’s big “A” advocacy, resulted in a rapid, positive result. The South Australian government, with the RSLs voice joining others, not only agreed to amend the legislation to include titles like ANZAC Day, but also committed $400,000 over 4 years to the SA/NT Veterans Employment Program.
Regardless of differing views on the legislative changes, the RSLs active engagement with the government signals a positive shift for veterans in South Australia and the Northern Territory. The legislative amendment and financial commitment to the Veterans Employment Program is a great indication that the RSL, at least in Adelaide, is being viewed as a political force that must be reckoned with.
Signs of a Generational Shift
Across the RSL we’ve seen a generational shift in Tasmania, South Australia/Northern Territory, and now New South Wales.
Since taking the role of RSL Tasmania President in 2021, Barry Quinn has been outspoken in publicly representing veterans, and together with his excellent CEO John Hardy, have engaged strongly with their membership and ensured that on issues relevant to veterans, such as the proposed new football stadium in Hobart, their voices are heard in the public sphere.
This is similarly true in South Australia. Since his election in June, Dave Petersen has been an outspoken advocate for South Australian and Northern Territory veterans and has already had to make hard decisions.
Challenges in the Northern Territory
Chief amongst these is the decision to suspend the Charter of the Darwin RSL Sub-Branch for 90 days.
In 2018, the sub-branches building burned down, and 5 years later, RSL Service members in Darwin remain without a home while the site of the former building is a cleared, empty lot. With the membership split and no progress in 5 years, Petersen has said, “The bottom line is the committee in Darwin is dysfunctional and as a result they can’t govern themselves”.
Making the tough choice to intervene and force the sub-branch to hold “free and fair elections”, stems from Petersen’s ambition that Top End veterans should expect an RSL that works to support them and their families.
It’s not right that we have money and assets sitting idle when there are [veterans] in Darwin tonight who are homeless.
Despite being in office for only 6 months, Petersen’s proactive approach and tough decision-making signals a positive change for South Australian and Northern Territory veterans.
Petersen wants to show ANZAC House in Adelaide now stands as a reliable ally; ready to advocate for veterans when needed and go in to bat for them. That it will do so alongside other state branches could be a sign of a promising new era in veteran leadership in Australia.