Whither the RSL

The influence of the RSL in Victoria – and in Australia as a whole – is declining in inverse proportion to its poker machine revenue.

Back in the immediate post WWII period the RSL was a powerful political body and a strong voice for veterans. While it got pre-occupied with Reds under the Beds it did advocate for a wide range of veterans needs and rights.

RSL President Bruce Ruxton was a reliable source of quotes on anything from foreign policy to the attire of ‘hippies’ which kept the RSL in the news.

But today things have changed and there are many reasons for the decline. First, there is now a proliferation of ex-service organisations competing for government and media attention. Second, governments successfully duchessed RSL leaders with regular meetings between Ministers and Prime Ministers which made those leaders feel significant while the hard graft of policy development and lobbying at all levels of government was neglected. Third, while governments were successful in relentlessly promoting Anzackery this was for their own benefit rather than the benefit of the RSL or veterans.

One of the rare recent time times the RSL ended up in the news was a Guardian piece (6 January 2023) which drew on leaked documents about an internal fight over poker machine revenue. According to The Guardian the President had said the fight represented an ‘ominous’ threat to the organisation’s future.

The RSL CEO Sue Cattermole, promptly said: “It is extremely unfortunate that this unbalanced content is potentially damaging to the reputation of the RSL network as a whole and distracts from our ongoing work in supporting veterans.”

Shed also claimed that there had been no real chance of reply because The Guardian had merely emailed the office reception. While this might be valid it confirms that journalists no longer have the RSL on speed dial.

The statement also said that the RSL “is a charity that supports it objects by running both fundraising and commercial operations, we would seek greater recognition of the many issues surrounding veteran wellbeing, often neglected in media coverage, that are not given the profile that they deserve and are at the heart of the RSL’s work.”

All well and good in an era when companies and institutions specialise in PR-speak but not quite what Bruce Ruxton would have said.

What the statement didn’t address were some specific details in The Guardian story.

Specifically, that the RSLs in Victoria had made more than $163 million from gambling last financial year but provided just $8.4 million in donations, gifts and sponsorship according to their statements to the Victorian Control Commission overseeing gambling.

It also quoted an RSL sub-branch questioning why the RSL was spending 65% of its expenditure on wages and salaries.

The RSL, like many organisations with entertainment venues, suffered revenue declines during lockdowns with income generated by gambling machines falling by 58% in 2020.

A former RSL Club official from a branch which didn’t have poker machines and who served in Vietnam at the same time as the author told the author the whole affair raised some important questions about the RSL, its priorities and performance. The questions are:

And how much money from individual gaming clubs goes into local sub-branches and/or welfare?

How much is retained for local gaming club building expansion purposes?

What are the advantages for veteran members of gaming clubs compared with benefits from non-gaming sub-branches?

How much do RSL gaming clubs generate each year – individually or as a total?

What did licences cost gaming clubs/RSLVIC this past year?

Would sub-branches survive if they did NOT have gaming machines? If not, how do other sub-branches survive and assist veterans?

Do gaming clubs have prominent sub-branch accommodation?

What are the overall costs of administration at RSLVIC incl veterans’ services, and other RSLVIC businesses??

Why did the RSL introduce paid advocates? (These are advocates who, among other things deal with the Department of Veterans Affairs on behalf of veterans seeking entitlements)

What has happened to the numbers of volunteer advocates? In general, volunteer compensation advocates have a tenacity fighting for their clients that goes over years in some cases. (These tenacious advocates who, at no cost to the RSL or the veterans, dealt with the DVA very, very effectively – as the author can testify)

Are paid advocates qualified to go through the Appeals Process?

Does RSLVIC or their paid advocates refer veterans’ compensation cases to legal firms’ lawyers?

How are funds raised by sub-branches through ANZAC badges and Poppy Appeals distributed?

It appears all monies raised must be sent to RSLVIC and then 50% is returned to the sub-branch. If this is correct what does RSLVIC do with their 50%?

Is the Appeals money taken by RSLVIC distributed solely for welfare cases, or is some of the Appeals money used to pay welfare and compensation for personnel at RSLVIC, eg salaries of staff paid to manage wellbeing and compensation?

…and he suggests there are probably even more such questions which need answering.

So, if The Guardian decides to do a follow up, these might be very helpful. They might even prompt some other media to get involved – which would be good for the RSL (even if they don’t realise it) and veterans.