How will we remember them?

In the 1950s and 1960s the RSL was a formidable political force – stridently anti-communist, omnipresent in the media, sole custodian of the Anzac legend and sometimes a force for the welfare of veterans.

Today it is reeling from financial scandals, declining membership and in “rapid if not terminal decline” according to Kel Ryan an RSL Life Member, senior Army officer and currently a scholar completing a PhD on the RSL and its advocacy.

The blog came into contact with Kel through a book the blog was helping its fellow veteran, Nick Jans, write on military leadership. The blog had a long conversation with Kel about lobbying best practices and how the RSL advocacy worked. While it is a bit of  an oversimplification it is fair to say that the RSL lobbying is firmly fixed in the past when top officials met from time to time with Ministers and the Prime Minister. These days the meetings are probably politically impossible for Ministers to avoid but they are no substitute for the hard slog of working at policy though the public service, backbenchers, advisors and other influencers. The RSL’s capacity to set media agendas on military and veteran matters has also declined partly as a result of declining influence; partly the growth of a range of alternative voices on the issues; and partly because of the decline of newsroom deference to the RSL.

In an article in The Spectator Kel also points to another factor – the lack of resources at RSL national level compared with the abundant riches of State branches which raise huge amounts through art union lotteries and poker machines. Kel doesn’t mention another source – millions of dollars from the sale of land and property originally gifted to the organisation by governments. Churches, given land in colonial times and exempted from rates, sell off ecclesiastical property for apartments, night clubs, restaurants and other purposes without the need to return the funds to the source. The RSL is the same. In the Melbourne inner suburb of Carlton, for instance, the RSL sold a property it had been given for more than a million dollars.

Kel Ryan says of the RSL: “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 resist change.”

“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 better 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 result – governments are less likely to defer to the wishes and needs of veterans – and the RSL is increasingly unrepresentative of veterans, particularly recent ones.

The blog is not aware of any its Vietnam contemporaries who are members of the RSL. The blog’s father, a New Guinea veteran, never joined the RSL although he did march from time to time to catch up with comrades. The blog watched its father march a few times but has never participated in an Anzac Day ceremony, although the organisers of both the annual Whittaker commemoration for a Gallipoli veteran shot by police during the 1928 dock strike and the Port Melbourne Anzac commemoration prevailed on the blog to speak at the 2017 event, despite the knowledge that the blog would probably say something a bit outside the norm.

The RSL’s problems have also been compounded by their complicity in new forms of commemoration and the systematic attempt by governments to exploit military history for political purposes. The blog concedes that its firm worked (voluntarily) on the Australia Remember campaigns and seconded staff to help the campaigns. But that campaign was very much a grass-roots community operation with one of the outcomes, additional to a new emphasis on WWII veterans, the growth of locally–based events rather than most of the emphasis being on the Anzac Day capital city marches.

But when the Australian government plans to spend more on WWI commemoration than the UK Government people are entitled to wonder whether that could have been better spent on services for veterans. Equally the magazine sent to veterans by the DVA seems to contain as much information on commemorative events as it does on veterans’ entitlements. We need to remember and commemorate – as long as it is based on reality and not some mystical vision of a nation defined by its military history – but when commemoration becomes an end in itself it is easy to see how the interests of veterans get forgotten. As one of the characters in Alan Bennett’s play The History Boys, says: “the best way to forget something is to commemorate it.”

This commemorative airbrushing of reality and its replacement by legend was exemplified by the farcical effort of then Education Minister, Brendan Nelson, to teach young Australians a set of value with posters about John Simpson Kilpatrick of Simpson’s donkey fame while ignoring Kirkpatrick’s background and beliefs. And similarly Alec Campbell – the last Australian alive to have served at Gallipoli as well as being a strong trade unionist, socialist and republican – asked near the end of his life: “I wonder if John Howard would give me a State funeral if he really knew what I stood for.”

It may, however, be hard to airbrush the recent history of the lottery- running poker machine empire the RSL has become.