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RSL Sub-branches in NSW alone have as much as $500 million in cash languishing in bank accounts at a time when thousands of veterans, especially recent ones, desperately need their help.

The money is held by about 350 Sub-branches scattered around the State, the majority outside the Sydney Metropolitan Area. 

By consolidating a substantial portion of these funds, the RSL could develop and operate programs to make a dramatic impact on the urgent problems of homelessness and mental health being faced by thousands of veterans.

But too many of these Sub-branches operate like independent island-states in an archipelago of anarchy, controlled by well-meaning amateurs with a vision limited to their own areas and, sometimes, their own interests. 

And they’re disconnected with the modern veteran, as evidenced by the fact that, of around 80,000 returned veterans who qualify to be members, only a 1000 or so have joined their local Sub-branch.

I say this out of concern as a long-term and continuing supporter of the RSL movement. My father was one of the founding members of the Sub-branch where I grew up and I’ve admired the spirit and good works of the movement all my life. I’ve filmed and written about veterans and their problems and their contribution to our nation for more than 40 years. But I fear that unless there’s a major rethink, the movement will become obsolete.

NSW’s Sub-branches represent about 40,000 members and they theoretically report to RSL NSW which manages a vast and disparate portfolio of assets, including 150 properties, one of which is the 97-room Hyde Park Hotel, that it owns and operates.

RSL NSW has a substantial interest in RSL LifeCare, whichcares for 7000 individuals in independent living, community care, assisted living, dementia and nursing homes and additional extensive services. In 2016 RSL LifeCare recorded a $42m surplus from total revenue of $218m, had total assets of $1.3bn, net equity of $405m and no material external debt.

RSL NSW is currently struggling to set its house in order after a massive failure in its stewardship, highlighted in an Inquiry by the Hon Patricia Bergin SC, that she handed to the NSW Government in January last year.

Bergin found that “widespread ignorance in each of the entities of the Act, the Regulations and the terms of the respective fundraising authorities exposed during the inquiry is a deep cause for concern.” And that “… there was no transparency in respect of the use of funds raised from the public that the statutory regime was designed to achieve.”

This played out against the “chilling statistic of 41 suicides of veterans in the first six months of 2016” which Bergin pointed to as “the stark reality of the urgent need for support and expert assistance for those returning from combative deployments and/or transitioning out of the Defence Forces to civilian life.”

It’s hard to imagine a more devastating failure by the revered organisation at a time when young Diggers are crying out for its support. 

Indeed, Bergin referred former RSL NSW State President Don Rowe’s “reprehensible conduct” (expenses, his resignation and its aftermath) to the NSW Police. In January this year, Rowe was charged with fraud and he will face court next month.

Happily, RSL NSW is under new management and they are working hard to recover the trust of its members and the community. But that will take years and a massive restructure.

In the meantime, Diggers are dying in alarming numbers and a wildly disproportionate number are living on our streets. If the Sub-branches could shake themselves out of their lethargy and consolidate, say, half of the cash they’re sitting on into some form of safe (ideally, government guaranteed) impact investment, it would generate at the very least $10 million a year. 

Combine that with a dollar-for-dollar matching arrangement with government and you have a war chest capable of making inroads into our veterans’ most urgent problems … now, when it’s needed most!