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President’s Report – RSL NSW State Congress 2021

RSL NSW President Ray James OAM delivered the President’s Report to the 2021 RSL NSW Annual State Congress and AGM on 6 December 2021.

He said the coming year will see the RSL and other ex-service organisations needing to explain how hundreds of millions of dollars of assets are being used while young veterans need support in housing, employment and wellbeing.

“This is where we can unite our collective resources as the Strategic Plan envisions, to be ready and relevant to address this,” James said. “Then, not only will our veterans know what the RSL stands for and does, so will the wider community. A positive experience will attract people to join the RSL movement.

“The community is watching us, and we should remind them that we do care about all veterans and their families, and not just ourselves.”

View the video of his speech or read the transcript directly below.

Distinguished guests, delegates, ladies, and gentlemen. Welcome to the 2021 RSL New South Wales State Congress.

I wish to also acknowledge all current Serving members of the Australian Defence Force and all veterans who have served our nation with pride and remember those who are no longer with us.

It was eighteen minutes past four in the morning of Sunday, 25th April when the first boat grounded. So far not a shot had been fired by the enemy. The men leapt into the water, and the first of them had just reached the beach when fire was opened on them from the trenches on the foothills. The men did not wait to be hit … they simply rushed up the steep slopes.” That was war-time correspondent Charles Bean describing the landing at Gallipoli by the ANZACs in 1915. The survivors and families of those lost in that campaign started the League less than a year later. The League has been the foundation of veteran welfare, support and advocacy since those Diggers returned from the shores of Gallipoli.

That is who we all must remember when we make decisions during this Congress and everyday as members of the RSL. First World War Australian Military Commander, General Sir John Monash said, “Equip yourself for life, not solely for your own benefit, but for the benefit of the whole community.” A quote which can easily be applied to all of us here. We are not members of the League for our own benefit, which is prohibited by the Law, but we are here for the benefit of all veterans and their families in our communities.

Our State and Nation have endured further lockdowns and travel restrictions in 2021 which has impacted our organisation on many different levels. Our members rely on coming together, sharing our stories, and helping each other. Many of our members are elderly and have been isolated in nursing homes, unable to see family and friends. The monthly sub-Branch meeting, which we have taken advantage of for so long, appears to be a distant memory. My own sub-Branch at Ingleburn has been unable to meet for a long time.

Some commemorative services had to be suspended which has been hard for our membership and the families of veterans who served in those battles, conflicts, and wars. However, we have adapted to remote commemorations and smaller services to keep these traditions alive.

During this Congress, delegates will be debating and voting on some internal reform to our Constitution. The major reform and modernisation of your League was commenced in 2019 with a new 21st Century Constitution. Its intent and purpose should not be dramatically changed. We all need to be sensible and put self-interest aside and focus on the greater good for veterans and their families. Our members, other Ex-Service Organisations and the broader veteran community are watching us. They are waiting to see if we can continue to be mature enough to accept the modern realities of the world today. This includes the need to ensure we are accountable at all levels of our organisation.

As the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide commenced on 27 November, the Commissioners began the listening phase of the Commission last week.

They are listening to veterans and their families about their experiences in the Australian Defence Force, with the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and, with the Ex-Service Organisation community.

We have heard about the tragic experiences of veterans and families who have experienced suicide. We will hear more stories next year as the hearings turn to an inquisitorial process. We will undoubtably hear about extreme sexual and physical abuse, of isolation, of abuse of administrative processes by the ADF, of cover ups and the ill treatment of veterans and families. We will hear the horror stories of DVA not doing enough, of turning their back; bureaucracy that has failed veterans and their families. We will also see the RSL and other Ex-Service Organisations needing to explain what we are doing with our hundreds of millions of dollars of assets. How do we use the proceeds of large investment funds? Do we do more than fund a monthly meeting with dinner and drinks? How do we assist not only our members who have served, but all veterans and their families?

The monthly meeting is important, it can provide an opportunity for camaraderie which can be beneficial for many, but what about the veteran who is unemployed, divorced, lonely and has their children on a Sunday, which clashes with a sub-Branch meeting? Should they go to a meeting for camaraderie, or should they spend time with their young children who they only see once a fortnight?

Our Constitution is our contract with the members. It is also a contract with the veteran community and their families. As members of a charity, we are unable to obtain a benefit unless we are a veteran in need of support. Defining our charitable purpose enables us to register as a charity. It is our noble purpose. Our delegates agreed unanimously that we should remain a charity at the Congress in 2019 and remain a member-based organisation. Therefore, not only was the Strategic Plan prepared on this basis, but we also have a duty to ensure that every dollar our sub-Branches spend is going towards our charitable purpose.

What is our charitable purpose? It is written in clause 3 of our Constitution.

Our charitable purpose is:

  1. providing assistance, care, and relief for current and former members of the Australian Defence Force and their families who are suffering from physical or mental ill health, social disadvantage and isolation, distress, poverty, homelessness, or destitution including without limitation those who are elderly.
  2. providing support and assistance for current and former members of the Australian Defence Force and their families including without limitation to obtain compensation, benefits, and assistance to which they are entitled and in relation to all aspects of transitioning from military service to civilian life, particularly where the member has been detrimentally affected by their service.
  3. providing validation of service and sacrifice by commemorating those who have served and preserving the memory of those who have suffered and died.
  4. promoting and facilitating the prevention of social isolation as a cause of veteran ill health by fostering and enabling community engagement, social connection, and camaraderie by and between former and current members of the Australian Defence Force and their families.
  5. doing all other things necessary, ancillary, or incidental to pursuing and implementing its benevolent charitable purpose including without limitation:

– establishing, maintaining, and regulating the operation of RSL NSW sub-Branches in New South Wales.

– researching, promoting, and publicly advocating for the interests of former and current members of the Australian Defence Force and their families on matters of public policy.

– establishing and maintaining literary, social, educational, and benevolent activities for the benefit, promotion, and advancement of former and current members of the Australian Defence Force and their families particularly where the member has been detrimentally affected by their service; and

– promoting the defence of the Commonwealth of Australia and guarding the good name, interests and standing of serving members of the Australian Defence Force.

Every single member of the League should clearly understand our charitable purpose. Every decision made by your Executive should align with our charitable purpose. When we forget our charitable purpose, we are at risk of breaching the Constitution and our broader legislative requirements. We also start to undermine our ethical and moral obligations to veterans and their families. The asset pool, both cash and property of RSL NSW and its sub-Branches, is enormous. No other ESOs outside of the RSL movement across Australia can come close to what we have built up since Returned Soldiers and Sailors of the First World War began our League.

Our League made a tough decision to broaden membership in the post-Vietnam War period. Especially as we saw a reduction in members of the ADF who had participated in Active Service and War-like operations in the 1980s and 1990s.

Today many of our sub-Branches, Executives and District Council representatives did not see active service during their various military careers, but they served our Nation and were prepared to do their duty. This has created a broad church of members. This is great for our organisation. However, over the past 20 years the ADF has been heavily involved in war-like operations, which has resulted in many veterans with various levels of combat and related war fighting experience. Our sub-Branches may not understand the complexity of the younger veteran who has had war service in the last two decades. As the Case for Change in the Strategic Plan, written after extensive quantitative and qualitative research identifies, these younger veterans do not relate to a once-a-month gathering for a meeting, and in some cases a beer and a roast dinner. While a social gathering is important and can be beneficial, evidence shows that it is highly ineffective in attracting and retaining younger veterans.

Meanwhile we have young veterans being discharged from Defence, being unable to buy a home, being unable to find a job, being unable to get quality support and care. This is where we can unite our collective resources as the Strategic Plan envisions to be ready and relevant to address this. Then, not only will our veterans know what the RSL stands for and does, so will the wider community. A positive experience will attract people to join the RSL movement.

We need to consider if we are actually addressing each of the charitable purpose parts of our Constitution.

Yes, we do a great commemorative service, but our custodianship of our national events is threatened if we cannot renew our membership.

Yes, we do a great monthly meeting but what do we actually do to support members in need, or veterans in our community?

Can we honestly sleep at night knowing that our sub-Branch has millions of dollars sitting in a fund, gaining little interest, and yet a veteran is homeless on the street?

Can we be happy with ourselves knowing that a veteran is unable to pay their mortgage or get a deposit for a home loan?

Can we be happy with ourselves knowing that a veteran cannot get a job because they have PTSD, and the employer believes they are a risk?

Can we be happy with ourselves that if the ADF or DVA have caused significant harm to veterans for decades and have to have a Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide?

Many of you have been critical of the League. This has included spreading a narrative that the Board and State Branch just want sub-Branch’s money. We all know that this is not true. The Board is working transparently to ensure the future of the League is strong and relevant by mobilising our collective resources. It is by working as one League the RSL will be renowned and respected by all serving ADF personnel and they will want to be involved when they leave. They will want to be involved to help their fellow veteran and stand for all our veterans by being united and proudly wearing our iconic pin.

The funds held in trust across the League is for all, not a few. I thank those who have seen this and share this vision for the future.

Given some of the submissions, the Royal Commission may see our League and other ESOs as being inept and ineffectual. I want every member of the League to engage with the Royal Commission and put yourself in the shoes of a veteran who was wounded or injured in Iraq, Vietnam, or Afghanistan. I want you to put yourself in the shoes of a widow of a veteran who killed themself. I want you to put yourself in the shoes of parents of a veteran who committed suicide on an Army base after being subjected to bullying. I want you to put yourselves in the shoes of the children whose mother or father are dead because of their service to our Nation.

We cannot continue to sit back and do nothing. Why have so many new ESOs been set up? I am told by younger veterans that the RSL is outdated and not relevant, so a void has been filled. This is a reminder of why we proudly wear our membership pin and what it stands for and can and must change with the times to be relevant to all generations. We must renew, unite, and work together. We cannot achieve what we need to by being just focussed on our own sub-Branch, we need to proudly work as one in todays’ cyber driven world.

I would like every member to reflect on the scourge of veteran suicide. We should ask ourselves what else could we have done to prevent it? Have we been to inwards focussed? Should we have done more to fight for better veteran support services. Our forefathers got off their backside, with significant combat injuries from the trenches of Gallipoli and the Western Front to influence legislation and support for veterans.

I think too many of us are focussed on what is in it for me, what do I get by being a member of the RSL? We are a charity benefitting from what our forefathers did to build wealth and influence. It is up to us to protect this legacy and rally together for this century. We live in an interconnected world, and we can build strength together in every community in this State. We must mobilise our collective resources to honour those who have gone before and do what is right for all veterans and their families. We cannot, as members, just live high on the hog ourselves locally, we must support each other as members through the benefits of social connection and reach out proactively to all veterans.

Many of you will not like what I am saying and that is because this is the truth. We have important motions for debate at this congress. Many are required to rectify some issues with the Constitution. But where are the brave policy reforms or ideas that are needed to help veterans. Do our motions ensure we meet our charitable purpose? Will your motion stop veterans killing themselves? Ask yourself these questions. Should we have so many motions about how we govern ourselves, or about what can we do together to ensure a better future for all our veterans?

We are volunteers, and I respect every single person who steps up to volunteer, but we need to ask ourselves why am I doing this? What am I doing to ensure the RSL is achieving what our forefathers wanted, and what veterans living in today’s society need? Are we doing everything to achieve our charitable purpose?

Your Board is focused on our charitable purpose and ensuring that we maintain a high level of accountability and governance. The Board is doing that, while discharging our obligations under the ACNC’s Enforceable Undertaking, we remain focussed on ensuring we continue to meet our regulatory requirements, which includes performance of all sub-Branches. Through our Act and Constitution, your Board is accountable for all actions taken across the entire League in NSW. Tough decisions must be made, but in the end that is why we must continue to have strong leaders at all levels.

Our Strategic Plan recognises that our volunteer leaders are passionate about what the RSL stands for and does, and this is why we are looking at ways to support sub-Branches through providing services like the Aggregated Investment Manager and streamline the onerous regulatory and reporting requirements we have. The Strategic Plan enables our volunteer leaders to do what we want the League to be renowned for, standing for and supporting our veterans and their families.

Through prudent decision-making and despite the pandemic, as the Annual Report reflects, we have also built a strong and sustainable foundation for the League, and I thank you all for supporting this work to strengthen our future.

The Strategic Plan implementation is underway, and the CEO has been tasked with its delivery. Tomorrow we will receive a report on its progress and an outline of the difficulties, due to COVID and because some members have not understood what we are striving to achieve. Essentially, it is about future proofing the League and modernisation. It is about re-newing our membership, establishing systems, processes and procedures that will ensure we achieve our charitable purpose while ensuring our long-term presence in all our communities. The Plan is something that should be embraced by all members who care about what we stand for, and what we do.

Some self-interested members may not like the Strategic Plan, but they cannot articulate what is wrong with it, nor can they provide an alternative. The time to fight or reject the Strategic Plan is over. It has already landed on the beach and is moving inland. It is time to get onboard and help the Board and State Branch to implement it all.

The Board has the power under the Constitution to implement the Strategic Plan. It is what most members want us to do, and that is what we are doing. We were elected to lead based on this Plan which we see as the Members’ plan. It was widely consulted, and all sub-Branches and members need to bond together and do all within their powers to implement it together. I hope that we do work together on its implementation because it will ensure that your League survives the next 5, 10, 20 and 100 years. Remember there is an annual review process of the Plan, and members will be consulted on this too, as we need to evaluate progress, and continually test our strategic direction

Our RSL Auxiliaries continue to work hard, even with Covid. I encourage our Affiliate members to join the RSL Auxiliaries and ensure that our fundraising arm of the League continues to support veterans and their families.

We are called to the vocation of being a volunteer. Being a volunteer enables us to fulfil our common good to each other. We are members of our communities, and volunteerism is one way we can contribute and give back. It is healthy for our soul and minds. When we sanctify ourselves in our ordinary life, we build better communities and a better society. We are an organisation that gives, and therefore volunteers are the backbone and life blood of the League. We belong to the RSL because we all care about veterans and their families. Other Ex-Service Organisations do not have the membership or the number of volunteers that we have. We should be proud of all those who volunteer to make this League what it is. Without our volunteers we would not exist. We wear one of Australia’s most recognised symbols, and we are justifiably proud to do so.

I want to thank the ANZAC House team for their great commitment and work over the past 12 months. It has been incredibly challenging for all of them. They work long hours to ensure our sub-Branches and members are supported. The Board challenges the Executive regularly to rise to the occasion and they continue to perform at a high level. As the Strategic Plan continues to roll out its phases it will be the staff at ANZAC House on the frontlines ensuring the work is done.

I want to thank all the members, the sub-Branch Executives, District Councils and District President Council for all the hard work you have done during the past 12 months. It has been difficult with no face-to-face contact and ensuring that veterans in the community are supported. Whilst some of us differ on what the League should be doing, and I value debate, I appreciate everyone’s commitment to the League and what it stands for and look forward to a return to a super active sub-Branch network in 2022.

We have lost many of our members over the past 12 months. We should all take time to remember them and pay our respects. We are custodians of the eternal flame, and we should continue to remember what that means.

I look forward to the debate and discussion in this 2021 RSL NSW Congress. I encourage all delegates to be involved and remind you all that we are here to ensure we achieve our charitable purpose. The community is watching us, and we should remind them that we do care about all veterans and their families, and not just ourselves.

View the recordings of proceedings and outcomes from 2021 State Congress and AGM here

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