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The RSL Dilemma: Advocacy or Abdication in Veteran Affairs?

Regular AVN correspondent Eamon Hale weighs in to our debate on the role of the RSL and need for a peak body for ESOs.

Dear Mark,

Unfortunately, I’m not able to agree with your positive view of these forums and have been deeply troubled by the RSLs role within them.

The strength of the RSL was historically that it was a membership-based service organisation. Yet these forums have been done without RSL membership interaction or engagement. Rather than being a good idea that has been driven by the members, this whole concept appears to be a case of latching onto any idea they can find and running with it without considering consequences.

By proposing a new peak Ex-Service Organisation body in Australia, I believe that RSL Australia, previously the peak veteran advocacy body in Australia, is now seeking to find a replacement for itself.

It is vital to acknowledge a complex reality. The peak body that they’re proposing used to exist. That peak body was RSL Australia, but its leadership has let it drift to become a shadow of its former self.

There was a time when the RSL was synonymous with veteran advocacy. When government couldn’t sneeze without asking the RSL permission first; when Prime Ministers came to speak to the RSL; and when veterans across Australia could open a newspaper or turn on a radio with confidence that the RSL would be there, fighting to ensure they were represented and looked after.

The following photograph of Sir Robert Menzies visiting RSL President Sir George Holland at his desk is a symbolic of the preeminent place held by the RSL. Notice who is standing and who is sitting.

I’ve written about the decline of the RSL for AVN before in Apathy and Absence, however, in calling for the formation of an ESO Peak Body, can the RSL now be perceived as not just absenting itself from the responsibility of advocacy but actively lobbying itself out of existence? If a new ESO peak body is founded, then what reason does the RSL have to exist?

The League was founded to advocate and represent the returned services community in 1916, and for the greater part of the 20th century it was the preeminent ex-service entity in Australia.

The RSL was the lobbying powerhouse that won a raft of entitlements in 1919 that were the envy of the world and defended them all through the depression and in post-Second World War Australia.

It is a sobering fact that in 2023 that for many veterans the RSL appears to be bereft of leadership, out of touch and out of ideas. From my point of view, the RSL is devoid of its prior authority and now selling out by delegating its advocacy duties elsewhere. Its apparent abandonment of its sacred mission means that a generation of veterans in the 21st century are being been left to fend for themselves or find advocacy from new and connected sources.

Despite these criticisms, why do I believe the ESO peak body should still be RSL Australia?

Because despite past failures, the RSLs infrastructure already exists. The ANZAC Houses in each state and in Canberra are already there; the facilities already available; the staff and CEOs are in place; the governance framework exist, and there is an ability for veterans to join and hold it accountable. Importantly, despite its recent decline the RSL is still a known and generally respected body in Australia. It has a powerful reputation in the community, which is something that any new Peak Body would have to build from scratch, along with infrastructure, staff, and its governance.

Questions over veteran advocacy

Having not been invited to be part of the discussion at the ESO Forums thus far, now is the time for veterans to contribute and make their voices heard. Whether it be through the RSL or other ESOs, we need to debate and discuss the establishment of a new ESO peak body. That discussion is crucial to the future of veteran advocacy. It is imperative that we reflect on the purpose and potential positive and negative impacts of such a body.

The aims expressed for the proposed ESO Peak Body is to address the evolving landscape of veteran support and advocacy, as well as the trust deficit from veterans in DVA and some older ESOs. It is expected to unify the voices of a myriad of ESOs, advocate for veterans' needs, and provide coordinated, effective representation. If it can address the broad range of functions required of it, from policy advocacy to crisis response, it has huge potential to significantly improve the lives of veterans and their families.

I contend that instead of creating a new entity, the RSL should uphold its historical role as the primary advocate for veterans by capitalising on its existing infrastructure, reputation, and governance mechanisms. It is worth noting that we've witnessed a significant generational shift in the leadership of RSL Tasmania, RSL South Australia/Northern Territory, and most recently RSL NSW. Two of those three State Presidents are aged in their 30s. This change could precipitate a return to dynamic and inspirational leadership of the RSL across the nation. This is in the hands of Australian veterans. Can we complain about poor outcomes when we stand on the sidelines? Or is it better to pick a team, pull on a guernsey and get involved?

If not the RSL, then who will ensure that the harmonisation of veteran entitlement acts is optimised? Who will hold the government accountable and fight for improved education, better mental health support, enhanced housing, and superior living conditions for those who once served Australia? There is no doubt that teachers' unions, nurses' unions, police unions/associations, and sports players' associations will advocate for their members. Why shouldn’t veterans expect and receive the same?

The pivotal question is whether RSL Australia has the desire or is capable of reclaiming its historical position as a robust and effective advocate for veterans. Despite its rich legacy and history, I believe leadership at the National level is lacking and the current National leadership's ability to fulfil this role is doubtful. Importantly, it appears to lack the trust and support of the veteran community to assume its role. If this is indeed the state of the RSL, then veterans must identify and vote for new leaders.

Who’s going to carry the can?

Veterans in Australia require dedicated and resolute leadership to safeguard their entitlements and well-being. The RSL, with its historical significance and established infrastructure, could play a formidable role in this regard. The ultimate decision rests not just with the RSL's leadership and its capacity to regain the trust and confidence of the veteran community, but the veteran community itself. Without inputting their opinions, veterans will find themselves saddled with something not of their choosing and potentially not accountable to them.

If a new Peak Body is formed from scratch, it will exist without a historical foundation, without authority, and without a mandate from those it represents. This will pose a significant challenge to it bringing about meaningful change. It would need to rapidly build its credentials, gain the trust and respect of the community, and effectively represent veterans' interests to the government by holding them accountable for providing the support and services veterans rightfully deserve.

The outcome of the third National ESO Forum and subsequent developments will undeniably shape the future of veterans' advocacy in Australia. Will it unleash a veteran champion but in doing so be the final nail in the RSL coffin?

Veterans need to be the ones who decide.

Yours sincerely,

Eamon Hale



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