Returned and Services League of Australia
The Returned and Services League, Australia (RSL) is a support organisation for men and women who have served or are serving in the Defence Force.
The RSL’s mission is to ensure that programs are in place for the well-being, care, compensation and commemoration of serving and ex-service Defence Force members and their dependents; and promote Government and community awareness of the need for a secure, stable and progressive Australia. However, even as late as the 1970s it had been an “inherently conservative” organisation, according to Professor John Blaxland.
The League evolved out of concern for the welfare of returned servicemen from the First World War. In 1916, a conference recommended the formation of The Returned Sailors and Soldiers Imperial League of Australia (RSSILA), which included representation from Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania and Victoria. New South Wales was admitted to the League the following year, Western Australia in 1918. In 1927, the Australian Capital Territory formed a branch and was admitted. During the inter-war period (i.e., 1919 to 1939), the RSSILA was recognized as the appropriate body to represent the interests of returned Australian servicemen, in exchange for extending political co-operation to the Nationalist Party of Prime Minister Stanley Bruce. Beyond this co-operation, the RSSILA was noted for its right-wing politics, in 1919 drawing upon its membership to form a 2,000-strong paramilitary force called the “Army to fight Bolshevism”, and permitting various right-wing Australian militia groups access to its membership lists to convince returned servicemen to join them.
In 1940, the name of the League changed to the Returned Sailors’ Soldiers’ and Airmens Imperial League of Australia (RSSAILA), and a subsequent change of name took effect in 1965, as the Returned Services League of Australia (RSL). Two more name changes occurred: in 1983, to Returned Services League of Australia Limited (RSL), and in 1990, to Returned & Services League of Australia Limited (RSL). The objects of the League remain relatively unchanged from its first incorporation.
RSL badge symbolism
At the top of the badge is the Crown signifying allegiance to Queen and country. Below the crown are the national flowers of Australia, Wales, England, Scotland and Ireland: the wattle, the leek, the rose, the thistle, and the shamrock. In the centre of the badge are a sailor, a soldier, an airman and service woman marching with their arms linked, symbolising friendship and the unity of services and all ranks in comradeship. The red of the badge symbolises the blood tie of war. The white background stands for the purity of motive and the rendering of service without personal gain. The blue is a symbol of willingness to render service to a comrade anywhere under the sky.
The badge may only be worn by members of the League; and, moreover, it is an offence under the laws of most Australian States/Territories for an individual to wear an RSL badge (a) that has not been issued specifically to them by the RSL, and (b) unless they are entitled to wear the badge, at that time, under the rules of the League (e.g., a non-financial member is not permitted to wear the badge until their fees are paid).
The influence of the League comes from its founding days organising rituals for ANZAC Day dawn services and march, and Remembrance Day commemorations. However, even as early as the 1920s, the role of the League became controversial as it banned women from attending the dawn service because of their wailing. As well as arguing for veterans’ benefits, it has entered other areas of political debate. It was politically conservative, Anglophilic, and monarchist.
Many veterans from the Vietnam War found the RSL, dominated by the ranks of World War II veterans, an unwelcoming, alien environment, and chose not to participate, but have over the past 20 years become actively involved. This may have been reflective of the changing status of Vietnam veterans in the 1970s and 80s. (See also Social attitudes and treatment of Vietnam veterans). Fewer World War 2 veterans is another factor as the youngest survivors are in their 90’s, as at 2018. Even the youngest Vietnam veterans are approaching 70 years old.
Nevertheless, the focus of the RSL is above all on the welfare of Australian men and women serving in the armed forces. It has advocated for veterans entitlements, the protection of former battlefields and the rights of serving soldiers, sailors and airmen. The RSL also ensures that those who have served the country are commemorated for their service by providing funeral information to those who have served with the deceased and handing out individual red poppy flowers at the funeral to ensure that the deceased service to their country is acknowledged (see In Flanders Fields). In 2003 Peter Phillips, the National President, endorsed a statement criticising the decision of the Howard government to send forces to Iraq without a mandate from a United Nations Security Council resolution.
The League is overseen by a National Executive that consists of the National President; the Deputy National President; State Branch Presidents for New South Wales, Victoria, the Australian Capital Territory, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, and Western Australia; and the National Chief Executive Officer (CEO), the National Treasurer, the National Legal Adviser, the National Defence Adviser, and Veterans’ Affairs Adviser.
The National CEO has operational control of the National Office. In 2015 the redevelopment of the site of the Office on Constitution Avenue, Campbell, in Canberra commenced. A new building should be completed in 2019. In the interim, the National Office is in temporary accommodation at 7–9 Geelong Street, Fyshwick.
Each State and Territory is a Branch of the National League and has a similar hierarchical structure that brings together the interests of the state members. Within each Branch, there are a series of Districts and Sub-branches that bring together the interests of members in a particular geographic area.
Order Rank Name Postnominals Period in office Term of office 1 Brigadier General William Kinsey Bolton CBE, VD 1916–1919 3 years 2 Captain Sir Gilbert Dyett CMG 1919–1946 27 years 3 Colonel Sir Eric Millhouse KC 1946–1950 4 years 4 Sergeant Sir CBE, MM 1950–1960 10 years 5 Lieutenant Colonel Sir KBE, MC & Bar 1960–1974 14 years 6 Brigadier Sir KBE, DSO, ED 1974–1978 4 years 7 Captain Sir William Keys AC, OBE, MC 1978–1988 10 years 8 Brigadier Alf Garland AM 1988–1993 5 years 9 Major General Digger James AC, MBE, MC 1993–1997 4 years 10 Major General AO, MC 1997–2003 6 years 11 Major General AO 2003–2009 6 years 12 Rear Admiral Ken Doolan AO, RAN 2009–2016 7 years 13 Major Rod White AM, RFD 2016–2017 8 months 14 Warrant Officer Robert Dick 2017–present Incumbent
Controversy involving National President
On 4 October 2016, the Sydney Morning Herald and ABC News reported that RSL national president Rod White, a retired Major of the Australian Army Reserve, received a share in nearly $1 million in consulting fees paid by an arm of the veterans’ organisation called RSL LifeCare and failed to disclose conflicts of interest.
Mr White denied any wrongdoing and is quoted as saying “I believe I have personally fulfilled my obligations legally and ethically and I’m just absolutely surprised at your questioning of my integrity in that regard,” when responding to questions from an ABC News reporter.
On 22 October 2016, legal advice provided by the law firm Henry Davis York which was commissioned by the RSL’s New South Wales Branch indicated Mr White may have broken the law by receiving shares in $1 million in consulting fees while holding a voluntary position in the veteran’s group.
This led to many calls for White to step aside to rebuild public trust.
On 7 November 2016, ABC News reported that Mr White agreed to stand down pending an investigation into the consultancy fee payments and that new documents obtained by ABC reveal that the amount of consultancy fees paid were far greater than originally thought – totalling more than $2 million since 2007.
On Remembrance Day 2016, ABC News (Australia) announced that the New South Wales Branch of the RSL was at risk of losing its charity status as a result of the payment scandal. That the Australian Charities and Not-For-Profits Commission had concerns that the RSL may have not been meeting its obligations as a charity and warned that the ACNC may use its powers to revoke its charity status if it finds evidence that the ACNC rules have been broken.
“If we decide to take compliance action, which could potentially include revocation of charity status, we will publish this on the Charity Register and on our website,” said ACNC Assistant Commissioner David Locke.
On 25 November 2016, the RSL National Board was to brief the Government of New South Wales on the investigation into consultancy payments.
The National Board was reported to be working with “regulatory bodies to deliver an appropriate corporate governance structure to ensure there is no maladministration in the NSW Branch. We are determined to expose any wrongdoing” said RSL acting national president Robert Dick.
On 9 March 2017, Rod White resigned as President of the RSL after being in the position for eight months.
The Returned and Services League of Australia (Queensland Branch) is a branch of the RSL in Queensland. RSL Queensland assists all current and former members of the ADF, veterans, and their dependents, and also established the Eternal Flame Foundation for financial relief and to provide care for ex-service men and women, and their dependents, in necessitous circumstances.
In 2016, a number of ex and current members of staff and volunteers publicly questioned the viability of the organisation with financial troubles and cultural problems.
Licensed clubs were formed as commercial activities to initially provide services by sub-branches to its members, including providing an environment for the protection and promotion of the ideals of the ANZAC spirit and heritage. The venues were established to provide hospitality for war veterans and a place for war veterans to build on their comradeship. The venues were often located on land granted by the State government. Over time these commercial entities, known generally as RSL Clubs (but also called Ex-Services, Memorial, Legion or other similar names) generated profits and also often made regular donations to local community services.
The membership base of the licensed clubs differs significantly from membership of the League. Membership of the League does not automatically confer rights of entry or membership to a licensed club. In recent years, in some jurisdictions, serving members of the ADF are granted honorary membership to a licensed RSL (or similar) club.
Licensed clubs operating under the RSL ‘banner’ usually have bar and dining facilities for their members and guests, and sometimes have extensive gambling areas. In licensed (RSL) clubs, each evening at 6 pm “The Ode” is read, followed by one minute’s silence to honour those who died serving their country.
Other commercial activities
RSL Care is one of Australia’s largest providers of retirement living and aged care services with more than 28 retirement communities throughout Queensland and New South Wales and several others in development. Its history originated from an aged care hostel provided to accommodate 64 ex-servicemen that opened in Taringa, Queensland in 1938. A second facility for 80 residents was opened in Caboolture in 1947, and two more facilities in 1968 and 1975, respectively, including a 30-bed nursing home. Over the subsequent 35 years, the number and type of facilities expanded, as well as their geographic spread, throughout Queensland and into the Lake Macquarie area of NSW.
Operating under a co-operative structure, in 1946 a group of returned servicemen established RSL Ex-Servicemen’s Cabs & Co-Operative Members Limited providing taxi services to Sydney. By the 1950s, the co-operative had expanded to over 60 drivers, and now operates on a commercial basis, with drivers not required to be members of the League.
RSL Art Union
Commenced in Queensland in 1956, the RSL Art Union is a lottery that raises funds to provide welfare services to ex-service men and women, their dependents and to other members of the community. A major prize of a luxury waterfront home on Queensland’s Gold Coast is usually offered, together with a range of bonus prizes. Since its inception, the RSL Art Union has given away A$80 million in prizes and has also raised over A$70 million for the development and maintenance of RSL nursing homes, hospitals and centres, as well as retirement complexes for elderly people.
Despite the Art Union winners being able to be from any state in Australia, only Queensland-based veterans and programs benefit from any funds raised.
- Similar veterans’ organisations
- American Legion
- Australian Legion
- Royal British Legion
- Royal New Zealand Returned and Services Association
- Royal Canadian Legion
- South African Legion
- John Blaxland, The Protest Years (2016), 115.
- Moore, Andrew (1995). The Right Road? A History of Right-wing Politics in Australia. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, Australia. p. 25. ISBN 0 19 553512 X.
- “RSL Badge Symbolism”. History. Returned and Services League of Australia (Victorian Branch). Archived from the original on 31 December 2012. Retrieved 2 June 2011.
- See, for example, the Returned Servicemen’s Badges Act 1952 (S.A.), the Returned Servicemen’s Badges Act 1953 (W.A.), the Returned Servicemen’s Badges Act 1955 (TAS), the Returned Servicemen’s Badges Act 1956 (QLD), the Returned Servicemen’s Badges Act 1956 (VIC), the Returned Servicemen’s Badges Act 1960 (ACT), the Discharged Servicemen’s Badges Act 1964 (N.S.W.).
- King, Malcolm (14 April 2015). “Is it too late to save the RSL? – InDaily”. InDaily. Archived from the original on 13 January 2018. Retrieved 13 January 2018.
- “2009 RSL Annual Report” (PDF). About the RSL – Annual Reports. Returned and Services League of Australia. 2009. pp. 70–71. Archived from the original (PDF) on 16 March 2012. Retrieved 30 May 2011.
- “Returned & Services League of Australia (Victorian Branch) Inc”. Productivity Commission Issues Paper. Productivity Commission. March 2009. p. 4. Archived from the original on 2 April 2015. Retrieved 30 May 2011.
- “What is the RSL?”. About us. Returned and Services League of Australia (Queensland Branch). 2010. Archived from the original on 3 September 2011. Retrieved 30 May 2011.
- Death of Sir Eric Millhouse, The Age, (Monday, 27 February 1950), p.2; Archived 21 October 2017 at the Wayback Machine Many Tributes to Sir Eric Millhouse, The (Adelaide) Advertiser, Monday, 27 February 1950, p.3. Archived 21 October 2017 at the Wayback Machine
- “RSL volunteers share in hundreds of thousands of dollars as consulting fees”. David Wroe. Sydney Morning Herald. Archived from the original on 11 November 2016. Retrieved 10 November 2016.
- “Federal RSL president Rod White defends receiving tens of thousands of dollars from within organisation”. Angela Lavoipierre. ABC News. Archived from the original on 9 November 2016. Retrieved 10 November 2016.
- “Legal advice thinks RSL bosses may have broken the law”. David Wroe. Sydney Morning Herald. Archived from the original on 26 October 2016. Retrieved 10 November 2016.
- Angela Lavoipierre (8 October 2016). “RSL president Rod White faces internal anger over payments received”. ABC News. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Archived from the original on 7 October 2017. Retrieved 10 November 2016.
- “RSL president must step aside to rebuild public trust”. Sydney Morning Herald. Archived from the original on 7 October 2017. Retrieved 10 November 2016.
- “Only strong leadership can save the RSL”. Sydney Morning Herald. 19 January 2017. Archived from the original on 7 October 2017. Retrieved 8 October 2017.
- “RSL president Rod White agrees to stand down amid claims of receiving and failing to disclose payments”. Angela Lavoipierre. ABC News. Archived from the original on 10 November 2016. Retrieved 10 November 2016.
- “RSL NSW risks losing charity status in wake of payments scandal”. Angela Lavoipierre. ABC News. Archived from the original on 11 November 2016. Retrieved 11 November 2016.
- “RSL NSW ‘ruined’ if charity status revoked”. Gemma Najem and Rebecca Chirichiello of the Australian Associated Press. The Weekend Australian. Retrieved 12 November 2016.
- “NSW govt to be briefed on RSL misconduct”. Australian Associated Press. The Australian. Retrieved 30 November 2016.
- “NSW govt to be briefed on RSL misconduct”. Australian Associated Press. NT News. Retrieved 30 November 2016.
- “RSL national president Rod White resigns amid investigation into alleged financial scandal”. Angela Lavoipierre. ABC News. Archived from the original on 10 March 2017. Retrieved 10 March 2017.
- “A message from the State President regarding the Queensland Flood Disaster”. RSL Appeals. Returned and Services League of Australia (Victorian Branch). Archived from the original on 1 October 2011. Retrieved 30 May 2011.
- “2015 Queensland Greats recipients”. Queensland Government. Archived from the original on 31 May 2017. Retrieved 31 May 2017.
- “RSL insider ‘vilified’ for blowing whistle on cash payments”. ABC News. 21 April 2017. Archived from the original on 29 August 2017. Retrieved 18 December 2017.
- “Letter from the RSL & Services Clubs Association Limited responding to the Discussion Paper re a New Framework for Consultation with the Ex-Service and Defence Communities” (PDF). Prime Ministerial Advisory Council on Ex-Service Matters. Department of Veterans’ Affairs. 24 April 2008. p. 2. Archived from the original (PDF) on 1 June 2011. Retrieved 31 May 2011.
- Christiansen, Melanie (1 February 2008). “RSL clubs fight for future”. The Courier-Mail. News Limited. Archived from the original on 15 September 2012. Retrieved 31 May 2011.
- “Words of Remembrance”. ANZAC Day. ANZAC Day Commemoration Committee (Qld) Incorporated. 1998. Archived from the original on 3 June 2011. Retrieved 31 May 2011.
- “History”. RSL Care. RSL (Qld) War Veterans’ Homes Limited. 2010. Archived from the original on 6 May 2011. Retrieved 30 May 2011.
- “Home”. RSL Cabs. RSL Ex-Servicemen’s Cabs & Co-Operative Members Limited. Archived from the original on 18 February 2011. Retrieved 30 May 2011.
- “Who is the RSL”. RSL Art Union. RSL Art Union. 2010. Archived from the original on 4 July 2011. Retrieved 30 May 2011.
- RSL Australian Capital Territory website
- RSL New South Wales website
- RSL Queensland website
- RSL South Australia website
- RSL Tasmania website
- RSL Victoria website
- RSL Western Australia website
- Among Mates – Culture Victoria video on the role and history of the RSL in Victoria and the foundation of the Caulfield branch.
- RSL Art Union
- RSL Angeles City Sub Branch Philippines
- In Flanders Field