RSL NSW President Update: 28 February 2018
Fellow League Members,
I want to start this update with an apology.
It’s clear that in the last decade State Branch hasn’t given members or sub-Branches the support they’ve needed to work for veterans and their families. Worse, sometimes State Branch has given the wrong advice. Let me apologise to you on behalf of the State Council and the staff at ANZAC House for what has happened in the past.
We are working to build up our capacity to deal with the many administrative issues our sub-Branches currently face. State Council now has a sub-Branch services committee, chaired by Greg Makutu, with a mandate to focus on the needs of the League at a sub-Branch level and to ensure that any league initiatives are workable for sub-Branches. We are also building up our capacity to help sub-Branches with property, legal, finance, and general compliance issues. More on this in a subsequent update.
This next phase for the League is going to be hard work and entail a lot of grind to ensure the necessary reforms are put in place. This will be hard for everyone in the League. Progress is difficult and at times messy. I want to let you know our priorities for the period between now and congress:
- Maintaining delivery of our welfare, pension, advocacy, and commemoration services
- Repairing governance arrangements at head office and across the League to ensure we are compliant with all regulation and legislation
- Writing a new draft constitution, to be proposed to members, that is consistent with modern governance and charity regulation standards and is easier to understand
- Completing the necessary arrangements to allow us to fundraise again, including the one-off arrangements to fundraise for the Australian Invictus Games on ANZAC Day this year
- Implementing a new sub-Branch support fund scheme to ensure we do not lose any smaller sub-Branches during this period in which the League cannot fundraise in the normal way
- Preparing to host Annual State Congress in Albury
I know there are many other issues which need progressing, particularly at the sub-Branch level. I would like to thank you for your service and your continued patience while we continue to rebuild the League.
State Council Changes – Mr Ray James and Mr Brad Copelin
State Council met on 21st February to consider matters arising from the Charitable Fundraising Inquiry Report. One of the issues we considered at that meeting was the position of Ray James. As you are aware, State Council previously considered Ray James’s position regarding events prior to 2017 and determined that he was a fit and proper person to continue serving on RSL’s governing body. We made that decision according to the facts known to us at the time, based on legal advice, and by applying a consistent and impartial process to consider the position of all councillors who had held office on State Council prior to 24th May 2017.
The Inquiry report notes that Ray James “tried valiantly but sadly unsuccessfully” regarding matters related to the cover-up of former President Don Rowe’s 2014 resignation. The Inquirer also concluded that the individuals who are now in leadership of RSL NSW (having noted that Ray James remains on State Council) are fit and proper persons. However, the Inquirer also made recommendations to the NSW Minister for Better Regulation that he consider referring Ray James for investigation by corporate and charities regulators along with 18 other individuals related to RSL NSW and RSL Lifecare.
State Council has not changed its position regarding Ray James’s previous actions and does not seek to pre-judge the outcomes any investigation which ASIC and ACNC might choose to pursue. However, given he has now been referred for investigation, State Council resolved to request that Ray James take a leave of absence until these investigations arising from the Bergin inquiry are resolved. Ray James agreed to this course of action and took a leave of absence with effect 21st February.
Brad Copelin did not support this outcome and made the decision to resign from State Council on 21st February. His resignation was accepted by State Council with regret. Brad’s decision that he cannot continue in good and professional conscience is respected and understood by the State Council. During his time as a State Councillor, Brad championed care, support and respect for all veterans and their families. This included his time as a Director of RSL LifeCare. He will continue to be an active member of the League as an Ambassador for RSL DefenceCare and his work with the Engadine sub-Branch. The State Council would also like to thank Brad’s family for their support during his time on State Council.
In accordance with our constitution and by-laws, this resignation will create a casual vacancy effective upon the rising of the next State Congress.
State Council Accountability
At the last State Congress, you directed State Council to publish State Councillor expenses so that they could be regularly reviewed by members. This is an important measure of accountability. We have established a process for this to be done which will be reviewed by the Finance Committee this week and we anticipate beginning publications of expenses under this process in early March.
State Councillors have also attended District Council meetings across the state this month. I’ve been fortunate enough to attend meetings with district delegates in Concord, Windsor, Mortdale, Holbrook, Ballina, Redfern, and Cootamundra. These meetings are an important opportunity for members to hear updates, ask questions of State Councillors, and give feedback. For me, they have given a valuable picture of how diverse the needs and activities of our sub-Branches are. They’ve also reinforced the commitment of our members to progressing the organisation beyond our recent troubles and shown a range of good ideas for how we can better help veterans and their families.
I continue to speak with District Council Presidents monthly, which provides another opportunity to be accountable to members for how we are governing the league. Those teleconferences provide a valuable forum to answer questions and address league-wide issues. The calls are now recorded and posted to the secure zone of our website, along with a written summary of the issues discussed. I encourage you to listen and stay informed.
RSL National Accountability
In November last year, I resigned from the RSL National board as I did not believe that the direction and approach being taken by the board on some matters allowed me to fulfil my obligations as a director. This decision was endorsed by State Council.
Last week the charities regulator ACNC published the results of an investigation it has been conducting into RSL National regarding breaches of its financial responsibilities and duties regarding charity funds. The ACNC Commissioner has now publicly identified the failures of governance in RSL National that led me to make the decision to resign from the national board.
The ACNC Commissioner has confirmed that he reasonably believes RSL National failed to comply with its legislative and regulatory obligations. The Commissioner concluded that, in making gifts to individuals worth thousands of dollars from charitable funds, RSL National has not complied with its obligations under Governance Standards 1 and 5 of the ACNC Regulations. In the Commissioner’s view, RSL National failed to take reasonable steps to ensure its responsible persons exercised their duties with the level of care and diligence expected of persons charged with running a charity. These failures extended, in the Commissioner’s view, to:
- financial decision-making processes;
- not having an adequate understanding of their responsibility’s and the expectations placed upon them; and
- not ensuring that financial affairs of RSL National were managed in a responsible manner.
Because of the findings, the ACNC has issued a legally enforceable direction to RSL National to take specific action to address the issues of non-compliance. In so doing, the ACNC (although noting that RSL National had taken ‘some steps towards addressing the ACNC’s concerns’), considered the direction he issued was nonetheless necessary due to:
- RSL National’s inadequate response to date to act to ensure compliance with its obligations under ACNC legislation; and
- the ongoing risk of further non-compliance.
Failure to comply with the Commissioner’s direction is an offence punishable by way of penalty of up to $42,000.
RSL NSW maintains its role as a corporate member of RSL Australia Ltd and will reappoint a director to the board of RSL National when that board can demonstrate it is operating in accordance with the principles of good governance and is adding value for veterans and their families. We continue to remain engaged with other State HQs on a regular and practical basis and continue to cooperate and coordinate with other states. RSL NSW remains directly engaged with veterans’ affairs decision-makers at the national level, including the Veterans’ Affairs Minister and DVA leadership.
Member and Sub-Branch Accountability – Whistleblower Hotline
The whistleblower hotline was set up last year as a way for members to safely raise matters they are concerned about within the League. To date 30 different matters have been reported. Each incident reported to the hotline is assessed and investigated. 10 of these have been resolved. Another 12 are currently being investigated and there are 8 investigations yet to be commenced. The hotline has received several complaints relating to RSL Clubs and we have advised the complainants to refer their concerns to other regulatory bodies.
While the closure of the Charitable Fundraising Inquiry ends a period of difficulty for the League, we still have a number of issues to work through and are still discovering incidents that need investigation and resolution. Some of these are potentially serious issues with the potential to give rise to negative media coverage.
We are working towards publication of the types of reporting being received through the hotline and will continue its operation for the foreseeable future. You can also report any behaviour that causes concern in the League through normal reporting lines, or to ANZAC House directly.
ANZAC Day and Invictus Games Fundraising
The decision to fundraise this ANZAC Day for the Australian Invictus Games for wounded veterans is an important one and lays the groundwork for us to once again lead veterans’ charities and ex-service organisations. I know some of you are concerned that we will not be able to fundraise to support your local work this ANZAC Day – but that is simply not a legal option for us this year. Before talking about how fundraising for Invictus will work, I want to assure you that we are committed to supporting smaller sub-Branches who are reliant on fundraising and we will shortly announce interim measures to ensure all sub-Branches can meet their 2018 expenses. This means that sub-Branches will not need fundraising to keep your work going during 2018.
The Invictus Games celebrate wounded, injured and illness affected veterans and will be held October 20-27th in Sydney. The event harnesses the power of sport to inspire recovery and support the rehabilitation of veteran competitors, who in turn inspire countless others with their demonstration of determination and resilience. Critically there is no hierarchy of injuries; participants working to overcome everything from combat wounds to sickness and mental health injuries. This is a strong strategic fit with our mission.
The Sydney location means RSL NSW will be in the thick of this vibrant and celebratory event and the opportunities it will offer for RSL NSW to showcase our people and the work we do will be unprecedented. Veterans from local communities from all around Australia will be competing for a place on teams. We will endeavour to identify where those participating are from, so you can get behind veterans in your community who are selected. We also anticipate there will be Invictus Games related opportunities outside of Sydney.
Fundraising arrangements for ANZAC Day will be a little different to normal. Instructions will be issued on this in early March.
A number of sub-Branches have also expressed an interest in contributing a donation from individual sub-Branch funds to the Invictus Games or to the Australian Invictus Games team. If you have done this already, please let the State Secretary know so we can have visibility on the total contribution being made to the games from RSL NSW. If you would like to do this in the future, please coordinate through ANZAC House and we can advise on the best way to approach this.
Again, thank you for your service and support.