Valley Veterans: Sweeping changes to the RSL following 2016 fraud scandal

It is sad that an organisation established in 1917 with the noble intent of supporting and remembering veterans and their families, has been marred by corruption an cronyism at the hands of the former NSW RSL State Branch leadership regime.

Discussing the draft constitution of the NSW RSL are (from left) Macksville RSL Sub Branch President Garry McKay, Stuarts Point RSL Sub Branch President Wayne Mason and Bowraville RSL Sub Branch President Jim Cameron OAM. Photo: Mick Birtles.

Discussing the draft constitution of the NSW RSL are (from left) Macksville RSL Sub Branch President Garry McKay, Stuarts Point RSL Sub Branch President Wayne Mason and Bowraville RSL Sub Branch President Jim Cameron OAM. Photo: Mick Birtles.

The miss-use of funds revealed in 2016 has not only caused a complete review of the way the RSL conducts itself but has also resulted in a bureaucratic microscope being cast over the whole charity sector in NSW in order to prevent similar in other organisations. The scandal has destroyed confidence in the organisation at a time when Australia has new generations of veterans in need of the type of support the RSL was established to provide. 

With the RSL struggling for its existence and trying to demonstrate relevance to younger veterans, drastic measures are needed.

Fresh leadership at the helm

The leadership of the NSW RSL has a fresh face at the helm in former Australian Army officer, veteran of the war in Afghanistan, Mr James Brown. Under his leadership and in the wake of the Bergen Enquiry, an unprecedented restructure of the RSL leadership and the way the organisation does business is underway.

James Brown visited Sawtell last week to answer questions from Mid North Coast RSL Sub Branches. His team has drafted a new constitution for the RSL that is intended to enhance the accountability of the RSL while modernising its processes.

New sub branch management model 

Perhaps the most contentious issue facing the states 420 RSL Sub Branches is that they will each have to make a decision on which one of two options of sub branch management they elect to follow. 

  1. One model will require the sub branch to become an incorporated body at their own expense. They will have to be run by a qualified board of directors and be responsible for all of the governance requirements that this entails while abiding by the constitution of the NSW RSL and conforming with the sweeping reforms to accountability being introduced.  
  2. The other model has most governance being managed by state branch, the sub branch not being incorporated however running under the administrative umbrella of the state branch. This model would also require that cash and assets are transferred to state branch. 

It is likely that around 75 percent of NSW RSL Sub Branches will opt for the second model as it comes with lower overheads and may free up sub branches to focus on their core business of commemoration and  the needs of veterans. As this model requires the management of cash and assets by the state branch the major hurdle to overcome is regaining the trust of the sub branches that was damaged by the previous regime. Mr Brown has spoken of fresh approaches to marketing the brand and the RSL sponsorship of the upcoming Invictus Games is one example of this.

What local sub branches are saying

I spoke to the the four sub branch presidents in the Nambucca Valley on their thoughts regarding the substantial changes facing the League. Macksville’s Garry McKay, considers that James Brown demonstrates great insight into the issues facing the organisation and thinks that he is heading in the right direction.

Mr Jim Cameron OAM, of the Bowraville Sub Branch, is pleased the RSL is getting their act together when it comes to governance and said Mr Brown’s team were working on a clear pathway. Stuart Point’s Mr Wayne Mason was impressed with Mr Browns preparedness to answer the tough questions.

Mr David Stephenson, of the Nambucca Heads Sub Branch, said Mr Brown’s visit was valuable and clarified the direction the State Branch was taking the League. The sub branch presidents will be consulting with their members in the months ahead regarding the new constitution and will take their thoughts to the state branch congress in December this year. 

For the sake of the veterans community in NSW let’s hope that the RSL is able to rapidly repair its reputation, fix up its governance and get on with being a voice for veterans and Defence policy, ensuring that the sacrifices of service personnel and their families are never forgotten and looking after those who have served.

About the author: Mick Birtles is a recently retired army officer now living in Nambucca Heads. During his 36-year career, Birtles served in Bougainville, East Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for command and leadership. Here he shares his interest in the issues effecting veterans on the Mid North Coast.

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