RSL NSW President Update – 1 March 2019

Fellow members of the League,

Welcome back to 2019 and best wishes to you and your sub-Branches for the year ahead. Over the past two months the Board and I have reflected deeply and critically on the issues RSL NSW has faced in the past 18 months and the work yet to be done to get us back on track.

All of the Board members have listened to feedback from members across the League, all of whom want to see the necessary reforms made to get RSL NSW back on its feet and thriving. I’ve heard a lot of valuable perspectives – from the city and country, from large sub-Branches and small, as well as from members of the public.

The Constitution we presented at the Extraordinary Congress in December was a highly centralised model. You have told us, resoundingly, that it was the wrong model for the League for three main reasons. First, it got the power balance wrong between State Branch and sub-Branches.

You don’t want a centralised, top-down approach to our governance – in fact that would be a betrayal of the League’s grassroots origins and volunteer members. Second, you told us that you feel sub-Branches are being unfairly punished for mistakes made at head office. You don’t see why the governance model for sub-Branches needs to change and you don’t like the idea suggested by State Branch that changing the governance model of a sub-Branch should be compulsory.

Finally, and most importantly, you told us we were doing a lousy job in communicating the need for change and rushing the process through without sufficient consultation amongst the membership.

In the military these would be called lessons learned. Let’s just call them what they were – mistakes.

I want to acknowledge one other mistake we made. For the past 18 monthsthe Board has been focused on complying with the directions of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profit Commission in order to retain our charitable status. You have been trying to communicate that the RSL is not just another charity, that there is something unique to our organisation that no other charity has: camaraderie. It isn’t reflected in the tax and charities laws that we must comply with, and it needs to be.

Earlier this month I attended a reunion at the Australian War Memorial for the Special Operations Task Group that deployed to Afghanistan in 2008. Time has moved quickly since I deployed alongside these men. Much of the dinner was dedicated to sharing stories of a night ten years before when one of the SOTG’s number was killed in an IED blast, and several were seriously wounded.

One man in the group, his now seven-year-old son named after a colleague who saved his life after the blast, reflected on the tight bond that all who were there now share. The brother of fallen soldier Greg Sher reflected on the new family he now has as a result of the tragedy that claimed his brother’s life. The dinner provided a crucial opportunity to share stories, piece together different perspectives, reflect, and grow stronger in the company of former colleagues and lifelong comrades.

In January I received a letter from a member of our Karuah sub-branch who said this of sub-Branches:

“they are clearly not pure service clubs (such as Lions or Rotary etc.), neither are they purely social clubs (such as Probus etc). They are in essence partly a charitable organisation but are unique amongst such charitable groups in that every one of their members, by quite stringent membership criteria, has some need (and in many cases a significant need) for welfare support. I have read and accepted the RSL NSW definition of welfare but note that this is mainly outward in focus and action. In most cases it does not recognise the internal need for welfare and support at sub branch level for sub branch members. I accept that the inward welfare needs may be somewhat less public than the outward needs, but they are still important and significant. I would argue strongly that the socialisation and support between sub branch members (i.e. fellow travellers on the road to survival in the post military world) goes a long way to minimising the latent effects of PTSD and the threshold at which this is able to be managed by individuals.”

He makes a critical point and I think has helped to bridge the disconnect between State Branch and sub-Branches – a disconnect which has fuelled misperception, confusion, and–let’s be honest–mistrust.

Whether we call it internal welfare or camaraderie, this is an essential non-negotiable core part of the League. It is not yet recognised appropriately in either our RSL NSW policies or in charity regulations. The Board commits here and now to fixing this in our approach and will seek to lobby both the ACNC and Assistant Treasurer in the federal government to amend charities laws to recognise the unique nature of the RSL and the camaraderie that is at the core of everything we do. We can, and must, trust that our sub-Branches can determine what is and what is not excessive use of charitable funds on internal welfare and camaraderie. We will work to develop clear guidelines to support this.

 

Reforming Our Governance – At All Levels

The Board’s firm view remains that we have considerable work to do to fix governance issues at all levels of the League, but we will not do so at the expense of camaraderie. We need to be upfront with members about the problems we are trying to fix too. Some have suggested State Branch has a hidden agenda. It’s true. We have held back in publicly airing our dirty laundry – we didn’t want to list all the structural problems and governance deficiencies in the League because we thought the League’s reputation had suffered enough. But the Board now needs to be transparent with members about the problems we are seeing, that threaten the ongoing viability of RSL NSW. We will outline the big picture issues to you, warts and all, and seek your views on the best way to fix them.

We will not be ready for another extraordinary congress in May. You have told us very clearly that you need to be consulted more thoroughly, that you want to see the full detail, and you need several months to discuss any further recommended changes within your sub-Branches ahead of a vote at congress.

We will convene a meeting of the District Council Presidents and Secretaries in March to resolve with them the process and timeline towards an ordinary congress in the third quarter of the year. Between now and early May, we will work to lay out for members the issues RSL NSW must address in considering the next stage of reform. We will also develop videos and documents that assist sub-Branches to understand how things are operating right now – we have heard clearly that you want and need more training in the League’s current administration and governance.

After ANZAC Day, working closely with the District Councils, we will convene regional workshops to hear from you the best way to address the big picture issues the League faces. At the same time, we will progress measures to give those sub-Branches who want it a path back to normal fundraising (that is, fundraising beyond the ANZAC Day and Remembrance Day appeals).

We will also give sub-Branches and Districts individual data-based feedback on specific issues they may have with fundraising and charities compliance. And finally, we will recommence work on the strategic plan for the League’s operations between 2020 and 2023, which will draw from the Strategic Directions Paper released in February 2018.

Our aim is to present an amended Constitution, strategic plan, future budgets (including a model to support struggling, smaller sub-Branches), and annual financial statements at the next congress. It will be your funded plan for the future of the League. The Constitution is a key part of that. The next draft will shift focus in the following ways, based on your feedback:

  • A more decentralised model, which empowers existing District Councils and sub-Branches rather than centralising functions in ANZAC House.
  • A peer-based, rather than top-down model of supporting smaller sub-Branches which ANZAC House coordinates rather than controls.
  • No forced changes to sub-Branch governance models. The Board will clearly outline the risks in continuing with the current trustee-based sub-Branch governance model, but the choice to change will be left entirely to sub-Branches to make.
  • An optional pathway for sub-Branches who want to either incorporate themselves, or amalgamate with State Branch.
  • No increase in powers held by the Board, and greater accountability across the League.
  • The restoration of the Tribunal and swift disciplinary processes for those individuals who may be guilty of misconduct, rather than casting aspersions across all hardworking members who manage sub-Branch finances frugally.

The next draft must of course also address the many shortcomings of the current Constitution, that is: internal inconsistencies and errors, inconsistencies with RSL Australia and other states, the need to recognise RSL Lifecare in our aims and objects, lack of compliance with the RSL NSW Act and the ACNC Act, and enshrined procedures that conflict with the Charitable Fundraising Act.

The amended Constitution will also be accompanied by a full suite of policies and procedures, so that members can see what they are signing up to.

Of course, the normal business of RSL NSW will continue. On Tuesday I gave evidence to the Productivity Commission on the future of the veterans’ compensation and rehabilitation system – you can read that evidence here. The Board continues its work across several different initiatives.

Veteran Sport Australia is growing, and this month announced an exciting initiative with the NRL (outlined here). All of us continue to help veterans and their families in extreme need, and we want to be positioned to help more. We await the release of the Cornall review into veterans’ advocacy.

The work to get RSL National working effectively continues. And finally, we are celebrating many centenaries in our sub-Branches and preparing for ANZAC Day. I look forward to seeing you in the weeks and months ahead and staying in touch.

We can get this done and will get this done together.

James Brown

President

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