Speech by Ray James – Congress 2019

Distinguished guests, delegates, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to Albury for our 2019 RSL NSW State Congress.

I wish to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we now meet, the Wiradjuri, Waveroo and Duduroa people. I pay my respect to their elders past, present and emerging.

During this congress delegates will be debating and voting on some significant reform. This is perhaps one of the most important congresses in the history of the League. Our members, other ex-service organisations and the broader community are watching us. They are waiting to see if we can be mature enough to accept the modern realities of the world we now live in. This includes the need to ensure we are accountable at all levels of our organisation.

The proposed constitution is your constitution. It was put together with the DC7 with submissions from members, sub-Branches and districts across our State. It is the only constitution that will address the modern realities of a charity in 2019.

It is the only constitution which has been assessed as legally complainant with the law. It is the only constitution that will ensure our organisation adheres to the requirements of the ACNC and the NSW Government. I would remind all delegates that there has been no legal advice, no support from the ACNC, and no support from the government for the ‘no’ voters. The ‘no’ voters have their own agendas and have decided that their own personal agendas, their own fiefdoms are more important than the greater good. By voting ‘Yes’ for this constitution you are saying that you care about veterans and their families. You are saying that you care about helping veterans and their families. You are saying that you want the League to support veterans and their families. Delegates, I hope for the future of this League you stand as one and vote ‘Yes’. The ‘no’ supporters have no plan, they have no solution, and they offer nothing that will help veterans and their families.

I, like many of you, served my nation with pride. At the age of 16 years I first went up to Vietnam on HMAS Sydney, taking troops to Vung Tau. I spent 20 years in the permanent Navy, and then another 26 years in the Navy reserve. I also spent 20 years in the NSW Police Force serving the people of New South Wales, retiring in 2005.

When I joined the League you had to be someone who had returned from active service. Many of you in this room would not be members or delegates today if those in the League had not broadened our membership and opened up membership to all those who pulled on a uniform. Our League has faced many challenges, but we have endured and continued on. Our core mission is to help and support veterans and their families. That should be our focus.

The board is more diverse than any time in its history. We were forced to make changes after a very public and bruising inquiry. Today we have a very diverse and very skilled board.

The League is still the peak ESO and we need to start pulling our weight. For far too long we have been inward looking. Meanwhile the broader veteran community has been facing various challenges. We submitted a report to the Productivity Commission into Veterans. The Productivity Commission made numerous recommendations that will ultimately change the way government responds to the veteran community and their needs. We are still waiting on the government response and we are committed to ensuring that our members and the broader veteran community are protected and given the respect and services they need. RSL NSW needs to be focused on our veterans and their families. We need to be advocates for them all, and to ensure that government and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs provide the services they need.

When I travel around the state visiting members I am constantly told of the issues with the new advocacy training and system. We need to work together, we need to improve how we handle veterans’ compensation claims. We need to harness the experience and knowledge of our hardworking volunteer advocates and support them better. We need to coordinate our advocacy capability to ensure we are maximising advocacy services for all our members. We need to improve processes and systems to better serve our advocates and advocacy in general. I am excited by some recent developments that will see the rapid expansion of digital technology systems in advocacy—a game changer for these services, especially for those veterans living far from major cities. Hopefully RSL NSW can be involved in these new areas that will ultimately provide better outcomes and support to veterans and advocates.

Every year about 5000 people transition from the Australian Defence Force. Many of whom will reside within New South Wales. These younger veterans are facing the challenge of finding jobs and support networks. Unlike previous generations these younger veterans will not find well-paying government jobs with decent pension schemes. The reality is that our economy is not growing and the only sectors that have decent paying jobs are in the mining and banking sectors. Even those sectors have seen volatility and will continue to do so. Even a mining job has problems. Does a veteran, who has spent most of their career away from their family, want to spend more time away when they get a fly in and fly out job in the mines? They would prefer to work closer to home. The casualisation of the workforce has also created issues for veterans and have increased instability in the job sector. This then creates issues within the family of a veteran.

So, many of those leaving the ADF today need our support. RSL NSW is interested in supporting veterans and veteran-owned businesses. We are in a position where we can provide support to these veterans and support their businesses to get off the ground. We need to look at how we can do this. Whilst we welcome veteran employment programs run by the New South Wales and Federal governments, the largest employer in Australia is small business. We should be doing what we can to support veteran businesses. Veterans attain unique skills during their military training which are transferable to the private sector. Companies such as Qantas and John Holland Construction were started by veterans. There are now thousands of veteran-owned businesses that are doing great things locally, regionally, nationally and internationally. We need to look into ways we can better support veterans and how they work today. We should be doing more to help them.

Our membership is getting older. Many sub-Branches have stated they are struggling to meet because they have no new members and no one wanting to step up and help. We need to accept the modern realities of how people engage with the League. Some may say let’s just wait for the younger veterans to become our age and then they will join, just like we did. Well most of us could retire in our 50s. Today veterans need to work till they are almost 70, and many are looking at working beyond that. Is the monthly meeting on a weekday or weeknight or weekend the best way to have a meeting? Does it need to be so formal? Should it be a BBQ or a coffee catch up? Perhaps we can give everyone leaving the ADF automatic membership and then encourage them to reach out to their local sub-Branch. We need to have a look at what being a member means, and what it should look like in 2020 and beyond.

Our organisation was started in 1916 by veterans who wanted to give, not take. They got together, put a hat around and raised money for those veterans that needed it most. They joined the League to help others who were veterans. We have a large number of volunteers who enjoy helping others in the League. For many communities the League has become an important institution, a pillar, a symbol of mateship and guardians of the eternal flame. RSL NSW should be one League, not 300-odd individual leagues. We are all members of the League and should work as one.

We want to strengthen sub-Branch committees and trustees in the same way as the board. Your board has worked hard to ensure we are compliant with the legislation and regulations set out by the government and regulators. Not only are we legally responsible, but you are as well. Seemingly harmless conflicts of interest in many sub-Branches expose our members and trustees to shocking risks, and we need to protect them. At the same time, we have legal obligations to ensure all charitable money is spent for our charitable purpose. Sadly we are investigating sub-Branches and individuals who have allegedly done the wrong thing. We need to ensure that our organisation is operating legally and morally to help veterans and their families.

We have many sub-Branches that due to the rapid increases in Sydney property prices have ended up with multi-million dollar assets. We need to ensure that these Sub Branches are assisted in complying with the law and doing the right thing. I generally believe many of them are. We are all volunteers and trying to do the right thing. But being a volunteer does not under the law entitle us to fall asleep and take our hands off the wheel. The courts will come down hard on anyone who is a trustee or an executive on a sub-Branch if an illegal act is done. Lack of skill or education or training, or the fact that you are a veteran, is no excuse. You are all liable.

We need to all come together as one. We need to focus on our core mission–that is to support veterans and their families. Together as one League we can support more veterans and families. Most of you do the right thing, and for that we are grateful. People understandably don’t love change, but we need change when it’s for the right reasons. And fortunately, this time members are shaping our changes.

My father, a WWII army veteran, was a Life Member of the League. My brother was a member of the League. My son and son-in-law are members of the League. My wife, daughter and granddaughter and mother are part of the League. The League is part of my DNA. I am passionate about the League and I want it to last well beyond my lifetime. When I was first elected to State Council in 2014 I advocated for greater transparency, greater accountability, and higher integrity. I stand here today and say we have come a long way in those five years, but we still have a way to go yet.

Delegates, it is your opportunity to be on the right side of history. It is your choice to be part of this reform. It is you who can make sure that the League continues to be the voice of veterans and their families across this great State of ours.

Tomorrow you’ll have the opportunity to progress the League and ensure our organisation is here to support future generations of veterans in your local communities. I trust you will make the right choice.

Thank you for coming.

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