The RSL – from a power lobby to a poker machine empire

The RSL was once one of the most influential, lobby groups in Australia. Today it is better known for the number of poker machines it operates.

Back in the day, as they say, they were knocking on doors in Canberra where the people they met to lobby often had returned service badges in their lapels. They had regular meetings with the relevant Minister and the comments of officials, particularly the late Bruce Ruxton, were widely reported in the media.

Some of their views back then – as on the White Australia policy – were also in line with general public and political opinion. But no longer. Their lobbying is also no longer as effectual as before – they might get promises of more commemorations, a good cup of tea in the Minister’s office, and thanks for all their sterling work but not much else – even from conservative governments.

How out of touch was demonstrated at the recent Victorian RSL State Conference when the State President, Rob Webster, said when describing an interaction with a public servant about compliance matters, “When I get a voice that is having trouble speaking English asking me for min-u-ets of the meeting. I was thinking about that.”

Three days later he admitted that ‘on reflection’ he had made a comment that had a xenophobic connotation while trying to make a point about compliance burdens on RSL committees when dealing with the ACNC and Consumer Affairs Victoria.

‘On reflection’ probably means he got badly beaten up by some advisors and was then handed a statement which was rather more contrite which he read out three days later.

Webster’s attitude was characteristic of the picture of the RSL in the late 1950s described by Carolyn Holbrook in her book ANZAC the Unauthorised Biography.

Then she said: “The RSL, a long-time and strident advocate of the needs of returned men, became an even more influential conservative voice in political and culture debate. The hostility expressed towards feminist, communist, homosexuals and non-white migrants also extended to young people with their modern ideas.” Bruce Ruxton’s time at the head of the RSL provides many vivid examples of such hostility.

Eamon Hale, a veteran, writing in Australian Veterans News (11/8) said the Webster comments “were made during a rambling speech regarding the proposed RSL Victoria strategic plan. The anecdote was not only irrelevant and unlikely to have actually happened, but offensive and xenophobic.”

Webster has been an RSL representative since 1989 and is in his third term as President so ought to have worked out now how an effective leader might behave and what they might say and not say.

Hale also highlighted that Webster, when asked about how the RSL could raise its voice, said the board was grappling with this but that “We have a voice. It’s called the Department of Veterans Affairs and to a lesser extent the Department of Defence.

Hale said this response was “equivalent to a Teachers Union saying the voice of its members is actually the Department of the Education or a nurses union saying the voice of its members is the Department of Health.”

Hale summed it all up by calling the conference the worst he had been part of. “The lack of vision, the lack of coherence, and the lack of leadership were plain to see. The entire thing lurched along, appearing embarrassingly obsolete and out of touch. Professionalism and awkward jokes filled the spaces where once strong speeches inspired the audiences.”

At the conference Webster presented the draft 2023-2028 RSL Victoria Strategic Plan and after the conference there were follow up regional meetings, forums and online information sessions which raised a number of questions.

The RSL prepared a set of Q&As to circulate after this process and the questions and answers are quite revealing in their sub-texts – the RSL is in trouble, trying to rationalise its operations and not only not getting enough new members from our perpetual wars but losing old ones as well.

The first key question is the pile of real estate and other assets the RSL is sitting on. The question asked was “how are we going to manage the portfolio of assets that exist across the network?”

The answer: “As part of the review of governance and the implementation of a model which clusters together Sub-Branches there will be opportunity to conduct a review of the existing portfolio of assets and how best to leverage their value for the use of veterans and their families. This may include sale of assets, but this will be considered on a case-by-case basis at a local level. The overall intention is to retain the footprint of delivering the objects of the RSL across the state.”

The second key question was: “How will the Cluster model support smaller Sub-Branches?

The answer: “There are a number of different models which exist across the other states, and these will all be considered. In simple terms the model will bring together a number of smaller Sub-Branches under the governance umbrella of a larger Sub-Branch. This will enable the smaller Sub-Branches to operate without the full requirements of a legal entity, charity, patriotic funds and potentially a committee. Instead, the group of members can focus on commemoration, fundraising and engaging with the looking community as well as providing mateship to fellow veterans. There will be an organic approach to this by assessing the needs and wants of individual Sub-Branches concerned.”

So, the RSL will become just another smash and burn corporate raider. Rationalise and close down operations, sell off anything that can be converted into ready cash and take away as much of the grassroots as possible. Pokies, the best source of cash flow, will remain while the RSL will express it’s deep concern about the issue while saying it only supports them because of their importance to the RSL’s good works.

Or, as a friend and former RSL sub-branch Secretary described the situation: “Let’s eat up the smaller sub-branches. Then, let’s restrict them to commemorations and leave veteran matters to Big Brother.”