Once Australia’s premier veterans’ advocacy organisation, the Returned and Services League is in rapid if not terminal decline.
Its leadership is failing the broad membership, which continues to provide support at local sub-branch level.
The RSL national leadership has failed the challenge of the 21st century as sub-branches close, local leadership ages and resists change.
Young veterans shun the organisation.
Charlie Lynn’s Flat White article Leadership crisis dogs RSL is accurate, timely and significant.
However, Lynn does not address the broader issue of why the RSL has “not adapted to change and has vacated the field of public debate”.
The RSL’s problems are broader than NSW where the erstwhile National President Rod White and his former state board colleagues face serious misconduct allegations.
The malaise in the RSL is national.
In 1916 the RSL was established as an organisation for ‘returned men’ only.
This term referred to those who volunteered to join the 1st AIF, had served overseas, and ‘returned’.
The RSL is not a national organisation but rather a federation of state organisations established under separate state legislation.
These two terms, ‘AIF’ and ‘returned men’ (now veteran) resonated across the RSL until the 1980s as they meant that membership was restricted to those who met these criteria.
Those who enlisted but did not go overseas during the world wars (500,000 men and women) were denied membership of what became the core grouping in local communities across the country – the RSL sub-branch.
That included those who defended Darwin against the Japanese because they were not “returned”.
It is a hurt that resonates even today among their children and grandchildren.
Members of militia battalions who fought on the Kokoda Trail and at Milne Bay in the early days of the Japanese War were also excluded – because they were conscripts, not AIF.
Even though militia members were accepted in 1944 the damage was done creating a permanent rift among many who vowed never to join.
A more recent example is that of a father who served four years during WW2 in Australia whose only son, a conscript, was killed in Vietnam and commemorated by his local RSL.
An RSL the father could not join.
Even with the belated acceptance for reasons of organisational survival of those who served in the regular and reserve forces post-World War II, old prejudices remain.
The RSL structure, the financial dominance of some state branches, the penury of others and its blinkered attitude toward organisational change has enabled and encouraged the rise of more dynamic ex-service organisations outside the RSL.
The RSL has demonstrated the singular power of turning potential organisational highlights and opportunities into negatives.
This is emphasised by the organisation’s inability to embrace more recent veterans; its failure to plan strategically to meet the demand of the 21st century and its failure to advocate strongly for the issues so clearly enunciated in its constitution.
There is no enthusiasm to investigate governance models better suited to the present combative environment where professional lobbyists vie for the ear of the federal government on a daily basis.
The days of any government deferring to the wishes of its warriors who have defended the nation is no longer a given.
As its World War I founders and leaders faded away by the 1980s the RSL gradually became a Canberra-centric organisation.
With little background in the organisation until their appointment they have generally – no pun intended – proved unsuitable to the role.
They have proven unable or unwilling to enter the public debate on those core issues that are fundamental to the members of the RSL.
A caveat here, however, is necessary.
The national RSL president and by implication the national headquarters is starved of funds. It still relies on the annual subscriptions from a diminishing membership for the bulk of its funding.
Some state branches have accumulated great wealth through their historical business acumen, as for example Queensland with its art union prize homes and NSW through its clubs and poker machines.
There is certainly no broad enthusiasm to fund national HQ’s advocacy role for the broader membership.
The onus clearly rests with the national executive to resolve the decline in respect for the organisation among its existing and potential membership and the broader Australian defence community.
This same national leadership must steel itself for some difficult decisions to abandon the past and embrace the future.
They must also overcome the mistrust at sub-branch, state and federal levels to convince the membership they have not only a vision for the future but the will to introduce it.
They must certainly convey that view to those eligible ADF members who shun the organisation in droves.
Change for the RSL as a national organisation can either be embraced or denied.
The latter is not an option.
Kel Ryan is a Life Member of the RSL in Queensland. He has also held elective office in a number of other ex-service organisations. He is currently completing a PhD on Pathways for the advocacy of the issues of the Australian Defence Community in the 21st century.
This article is published in The Spectator here
I ceased membership of the RSL in Queensland during 1962. I re-joined in Victoria late in 1964, and again resigned, sometime in 1966.
Even then the older blokes would not accept "returned from active service" soldiers involvement for years in Malaya.
Now social members outnumber ordinary members because of gambling machines, and usually, cheaper drinks and entertainment.
Club premises are being refurbished to attract more and more social members.
Why would Returned Service Men and Women seeking peer acceptance/friendship/understanding gather in places like that?
I served in Malaya and Vietnam for a total of five and a half years ON ACTIVE SERVICE - sadly the RSL is the last place I choose to visit..
I am in total agreement with the author. The present NSW leaders behavior deserves prompt and severe punishment. I have noted several times when the RSL avoided vigorously supporting the actions of other veteran organizations. I should mention that so some of the activities of the RSL deserve praise. An example is the aged care facilities.
The RSL State Branches are good on services delivery because that is their
primary role. On national representation of veterans issues to Government they adopt a passive strategy which many members perceive as being compliant to the Government..
Basically there is no fire in the belly for change.
Those who deal with DVA know that the politics dictate DVA attitudes and responses, the RSL is seen as condoning those attitudes because it never takes sides in the public arena.
The why is that is it sees as itself as an advisor to Federal Government and that more can be done by the open hand of friendship and conciliation. What utter crap!
The States own the National Branch, the National body can only speak on matters that the States authorise. The States are pathetic in seeking reform, the National body reflects State apathy.
Public speaking on issues that affect service persons is not an RSL priority and never will be while OAM’s and public funding remain for the states their primary focus.
The RSL does not even represent the military at the Tribunal that recommends pay and entitlements for service personnel as it sees it as a “Conflict of interest”, when making recommendations to Government.
The RSL has lost the battle to win the new members that recent conflicts should have spawned, due to the old hands not being prepared to publicly stare down politicians. Perception is everything and the RSL is perceived as an Old Boys Club that mows lawns and joining it is like joining Rotary so why bother if you do not need your lawn mowed, and it is perceived as not going to change.
There are so many incorrect statements about the organisation in LLoyds contribution that I am surprised you did not take time to correct them
The last para very clearly exposes his lack of appreciation of its role and hence his ability to understand the problems its faces.
" why bother to join if you don't need your lawn mowed " probably sums up one of the significant issues. It was and is and should be a welfare organisation; there to care for ex-serving, serving and the families of both of these groups, who are in need of help.
We dont need ppl who want their lawn mowed.....we need ppl who WILL MOW the lawns of those who cant; to support families who have a member away and sometimes the widows of those who did not return.
There are still many vets and widows from earlier conflicts . Our commitment was never to forget so these are as equally deserving of our attention as the younger vets.
There are plenty with loud voices with so called solutions.... very few ready to get their hands dirty mowing the lawns
In my old Sub Branch, the same prayers, speeches, wreath laying, etc were applied on every ANZAC day, trying to change the prayers and hymns, and other local customs which no one understood was nigh impossible. Those of us who wanted change didn't want it for the sake of change, we wanted it so it made the ceremony more inclusive, and with a bit of work also made the ceremony one that the people of the town would join in and be a part of rather than being an audience. No luck, it seems change and advancement are the devils work.
Patrick , I am certain if you recall your service time you will admit that your unit , whatever it was, very much reflected its history in its banners, its colours and in many cases its uniform.
These things are part of military and are not changed easily; for good reason
Not at all clear as to how significant changes to the prayers etc makes the service more "inclusive". By this standard the Dawn Service Gallipoli - 2016 would be equally "not understandable". Google it and check it out.
The understanding is less in the the prayers and hymns it is in accepting that the day marked a very significant event in our history . I would have thought every Australian " soldier" would have a very clear understanding of the ANZAC Spirit and be well able to explain to those new to the commemoration.
Quiet contemplation is the point ... not theatre.