RSL NSW President Update – 25 March 2019
Fellow members of the League,
Last week I spent time talking to the Board and staff of RSL Queensland to understand how they are set up to both administer their members and sub-Branches and deliver services to veterans who need help. We also discussed issues to do with the RSL Art Union as well as veterans’ policy developments at the federal level. It was a very useful conversation and I’m grateful to the President Tony Ferris, Deputy President John Strachan OAM, CEO Luke Traini, State Secretary Scott Denner, and the staff at ANZAC House Brisbane.
RSL Queensland has 245 sub-Branches organised into 10 districts. Most sub-Branches are traditional sub-Branches and do not have licenced club operations associated with them, some lease to licenced RSL clubs, and some RSL sub-Branches have integrated operations with a club. The vast majority of sub-Branches are incorporated in their own right and responsible for their own governance functions.
State Branch in Queensland manages its head office investments and properties, governance of the RSL Queensland Board and conduct of general meetings, and a strong marketing and communications team. They also manage teams providing frontline veterans’ services, both directly and through their subsidiary Mates4Mates. Sub-Branches are responsible for their own governance, property management, charitable fundraising compliance and administrative functions.
The main difference I can see in the structure of RSL Queensland compared with our own (apart from their enviable revenue from their large RSL Art Union operations and the fact that most sub-Branches are incorporated) is that much more of the League’s administrative functions in Queensland are conducted at the District Level.
Queensland has 10 districts, each of which is an incorporated association and has a paid District Secretary able to assist with administration and member issues in their district. Under the proposed new RSL Queensland Constitution, the District Council Presidents make up a State Council which is then overseen by a professional Board of members with key skills.
Each RSL State Branch in Australia operates quite differently. Of course, each operates in its own state-based legal environment and geography. But it is worth considering how others might be doing things better as we look to the future of RSL NSW. To this end, I have learnt a lot from talking to other State Presidents about their structure, operations, and how they are dealing with challenges the League faces.
Frontline Services for Veterans
One of the things we all have in common is the dramatic increase we are seeing in the demand for services to veterans who need help. RSL Queensland saw an increase in the need for advocacy and claims services of 37% last year, and 25% the year before. These numbers echo similar demand increases being recorded by our RSL DefenceCare staff at ANZAC House Sydney. And many of you have painted a similar picture of demand at the sub-Branch level.
In RSL NSW we provide frontline services to veterans and their families who need help in a few ways. Our network of sub-Branches, Auxiliaries, and members are our first responders – detecting issues amongst the veteran community and making contact with veterans and their families who might be struggling.
Much of the critical welfare work that might be needed is handled by our sub-Branches, this might be as simple as a cup of tea, a beer, or a visit to a veteran in hospital or aged care. Or it might just be checking in with someone you know can do it tough sometimes when you see them at a sub-Branch meeting, or commemorative event.
Our Nelson Bay sub-Branch for example was alerted last year to a veteran and their family living in their car and arranged to provide immediate food and housing assistance to them. A number of our sub-Branches have been providing ongoing support to veterans with mental and physical health issues, or those struggling financially. And of course all of our sub-Branches make sure we give veterans the funeral service they deserve and support families when our veterans pass.
A critical part of our system of frontline support to veterans and their families is our advocates, who help veterans navigate the complex system of entitlements and pensions. For decades we have relied on our members to provide peer-to-peer support in this regard, and have had a network of hundreds of RSL NSW volunteers with the experience and training to navigate the DVA bureaucracy, which can often be bewildering for veterans who don’t understand it.
Last week the DVA’s Cornall report into the future of veterans’ advocacy and support services was released. I encourage you to read it (click here) – it points to the decline in numbers of volunteer advocates and the urgent needs of veterans attempting to resolve disagreements with DVA and legal matters. It recommends the creation of a national system of community legal aid for veterans, as well as a new national body comprised of major ex-service organisations to ensure that advocates receive the training and support they need, and are performing at the appropriate standard to provide advice to veterans and their families.
RSL DefenceCare was set up six years ago to handle the increasing number of veteran welfare issues, and their increased complexity. In the first two months of this year, the community support team has worked with 90 new veterans in urgent need. Since July 2018 they have helped 65 homeless veterans, provided financial assistance to 412 veterans or veteran families, provided 141 counselling sessions, and given disaster assistance to 54 veterans.
In the same period, the Claims & Advocacy team have lodged 1574 claims to DVA, initiated 98 new appeals to the Veterans’ Review Board, and completed 54 hearings and 260 Alternative Dispute Resolution processes at the VRB.
There is an incredible amount of service being delivered by RSL NSW to veterans who need it. Our challenge is to make sure that everything we do is measured so we know how much demand there is, but also how much good work we are doing – and to make sure that all our welfare systems are integrated so that no veteran or their family falls through the cracks in NSW, or across Australia. We have work to do here.
The perfect system would connect volunteer welfare efforts with reachback support to professional welfare services and a consistent case management system at the regional and state levels for critical and complex cases, including our most vulnerable veterans.
Circular C01/19 called for member nominations to fill a casual vacancy on the Board (and a second casual vacancy that has opened since). I’m pleased to report that we received 18 nominations from members which are currently being assessed. The Board also asked the Australian Institute of Company Directors to recommend an independent expert in board governance who could assist with the selection process.
Mr David Mortimer AO has agreed to join the Board’s nominations committee as an independent member and is assisting the Board with his considerable expertise in governance issues. Due to illness and unavailability of committee members the selection process has been delayed by approximately one week and the Board will therefore not be able to meet its original date of announcement. We now anticipate interviewing shortlisted candidates in the coming fortnight.
The RSL NSW Board will meet on Thursday this week, and will also meet with the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, Darren Chester, and the Secretary of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, Liz Cosson. On Friday I will attend a ceremony at the Cenotaph to mark the 98th anniversary of the Royal Australian Air Force, and on Saturday I will visit the Cumberland RSL sub-Branch to participate in the opening of their new sub-Branch office.
For those who are interested, I will start to update the RSL NSW Facebook page on occasions to give you a more detailed sense of what I and the Board do on a daily and weekly basis – please check it here. And finally, as I mentioned in my first update of the year (P01/19), we will be convening a meeting of District Council Presidents and Secretaries at ANZAC House on 1 & 2 April to consult with them on the best way forward on our Constitution and Strategic Plan.