RSL NSW President's Update: 14 November 2017

14-Nov-2017

Fellow members of the League,

This past weekend we paused to think of those who came before us and gave their lives so that Australia and her allies could be free. Remembrance Day is a time for us to remind the community of the importance of respecting, supporting, and remembering veterans and their families. I was honoured to read the ode at the service by the cenotaph in Sydney’s Martin Place, and to speak at the New Zealand veterans Remembrance Day church service in Redfern on Sunday. Our members were leading commemorative services across the state, handing out poppies and thanking the public for sticking with RSL NSW through this tough time.

Our path to fix the RSL has not been an easy one these past months, but it feels to me that we are starting to pull out of this mess. Last month, for the first time in as long as anyone can remember, we had more members join the League than leave it.

I know the fundraising ban is angering many of you and we are working hard to fix our systems and processes across the League, so we are ready to fundraise again next year. Thanks to the 90% of sub-Branches who have now returned the fundraising surveys issued in September. Those surveys were critically important in helping us to fully understand the type of fundraising we do across the League and were the first step towards fixing the finance systems at head office and sub-Branches so that they comply with the need to track each dollar raised from the public. Next, we will need to make some changes to the way you raise funds and utilise them at a sub-Branch level to ensure we are fully compliant. The final stage will be to ensure that new fundraising systems and processes across the League meet all legal and accounting requirements, and then finally we must ensure that we satisfy the Department of NSW Fair Trading and the Minister for Better Regulation of this.

The Charitable Fundraising Act Inquiry completed public hearings last week. I gave evidence to the inquiry on 24 October, in which I made mention of the good work our League members are doing in their communities and their disgust at what has happened in ANZAC House in recent years.

A summary of my evidence to the inquiry is attached and the full transcript can be read online here: https://www.finance.nsw.gov.au/sites/default/files/transcript_day30_20171024.pdf

Needless to say, State Branch has taken the Inquiry process extremely seriously and the process of responding has been extraordinarily time consuming for State Branch. We now await the publication of the Public Inquirer’s report on 1 February 2018 and the response to her recommendations by the Minister.


Communications

We have heard your feedback about the need for frequent communications. We are hiring a Communications Director to manage communications across the League. Our needs are complex – we must better utilise technology to communicate with and attract younger members to the League, but we are also mindful that many members (particularly those in remote rural areas) rely on post and meetings to stay up to date. The end of the Fundraising Inquiry hearings will make it easier for us to communicate with you without falling foul of legal and court processes. State President Updates will now be issued on a weekly basis.


District Council Presidents’ meeting

State Council met with District Council Presidents in Sydney on 20 October. We were privileged to meet with our patron His Excellency General The Honourable David Hurley AC DSC (Ret'd) who reminded us how much he, and the people of NSW, are relying on us to reform our league and return it to being a strong voice for veterans and their families. His Excellency spent time talking with District Council Presidents and the President of the Central Council of Women’s Auxiliaries. State Council heard three key messages from this meeting; ANZAC House must work hard to rebuild trust from the sub-Branches, communications are critical to building that trust, and fundraising must be restored as soon as possible. The District Council Presidents endorsed 18 principles that will guide the reform process we must take between now and State Congress in Albury next year. These will shortly be distributed to sub-Branches.


RSL NSW State Council and District Council Presidents/Representatives


Preserving unmarked Australian military graves at Bullecourt, France

Last week it was announced that a French company plans to build wind turbines atop of fields where Australian soldiers fought and died in Bullecourt, France. Bullecourt was the site of more than 10,000 Australian casualties during April and May 1917. In response to calls from a number of members concerned about this proposal, I spoke to Sky News, Channel 9, and Channel 10 News outlining the importance of the Bullecourt site. I spoke with the French Ambassador to Australia who agreed the importance of sensitively managing the site, and I have also written to the Veterans’ Affairs Minister Dan Tehan asking him to intervene to protect Australian military graves at Bullecourt.


Expulsion of Mr Don Rowe from RSL NSW

At its meeting on 19 October the State Council voted unanimously to revoke the life membership of Mr Don Rowe and to expel him from the League with immediate effect. We are seeking advice as to any further actions that may be necessary on behalf of RSL NSW regarding Mr Rowe. I understand the NSW Police investigation into Mr Rowe’s actions is nearing completion. It should be clear by now to League members that the statements made by State Branch at the time of Mr Rowe's resignation as State President in December 2014 did not convey the real reasons for the resignation. State Council will be able to fully discuss with members what they have learned about what happened during this period once the Bergin report is delivered in February 2018.


Resignations from State Council

State Councillors Darren McManus-Smith and Bob Metcalfe tendered their resignations from State Council on 17 October 2017. I acknowledge the thousands of hours of service both have contributed to the League and thank their families for supporting them over many years. Bob Metcalfe has done extensive work supporting RSL Day Clubs, and Darren McManus-Smith has supported younger veterans through his work in RSL Active, the Invictus Games, and other adaptive sports initiatives. I thank both men for their decision to resign and their commitment to the future interests of RSL NSW.


Requests for certain State Councillors to resign from State Council

Recognising the conflict of interest which some State Councillors had in relation to how State Council responded to the Inquiry and the pending Australian Charities and Not for profits Commission investigation into RSL NSW, State Council resolved on 31 August 2017 to establish an Inquiries sub-committee with delegated responsibility for managing legal decision-making regarding these matters. To manage these conflicts of interest, membership of this committee is restricted to councillors elected for the first time on 24 May 2017, given that the actions of former State Councils and councillors who were elected prior to May this year are a matter being considered by both investigations.

On 19 October 2017 the Inquiries sub-committee unanimously voted to instruct the RSL’s solicitors to write to State Councillors Bill Harrigan, Tony Toussaint, and Alan Hutchings outlining concerns arising from their evidence to the Bergin Inquiry, and requesting their resignation from State Council in the best interests of RSL NSW. On 27 October 2017 each of these councillors submitted their resignation from the RSL NSW State Council. I acknowledge each of these men’s lengthy service and thank their families for supporting them during this period. The Inquiries sub-committee resolved (with one member opposing) not to request the resignation of State Councillor Ray James.

In accordance with our constitution these positions will become vacant at the state congress in May 2018 and new elections will be held.


Auditor and Financial statements

The former RSL NSW State Council was unable to present audited financial statements to congress earlier this year. The conduct of our auditors has been closely examined during the Fundraising Inquiry. Because of difficulties associated with completing the audit process, RSL NSW State Council resolved to remove our previous auditors and has now engaged Ernst & Young to complete the 2016 audit process. We will update you as soon as this is completed, and financial statements are ready for you to examine.


ANZAC House staff restructure

We have closely reviewed the operations and structure of State Branch to ensure that it can deliver what members and the League need. State Council, and senior management, have made the difficult decision to make several staff positions redundant as part of an overall restructure. These staff changes are never easy nor taken lightly, but have been made to ensure that ANZAC House is most effectively and efficiently positioned to deliver for veterans and their families. Several individuals concerned have been longstanding employees at ANZAC House and we know you will share with us in thanking them for their valued service and offer best wishes for their future.

We have welcomed Andrew Horne as the RSL’s Chief Governance Officer and company secretary. Andrew also holds the honorary position of President of the Governance Institute of Australia and will be responsible for leading efforts to improve governance standards across the League. We have also appointed Leanne Meyer as the League’s first legal General Counsel. We are recruiting a new Chief Financial Officer and Communications Director. We are working to provide more staff to support sub-Branch operations, and to assist with sub-Branch and member queries.


RSL Custodian

There is a considerable backlog of RSL Custodian matters to be dealt with by both RSL Custodian directors (myself, Scott Seccombe, and Mick Bainbridge) and State Council. We needed to seek legal advice as to the appropriateness of the RSL Custodian arrangements and the League’s property and finance regulations, which are quite complex. We received that advice from Senior Counsel this month and can now proceed to complete outstanding RSL Custodian tasks. State Council has dedicated time at its 7 December meeting to clear the backlog of RSL Custodian matters. Thanks for your patience on this, and in the interim please contact Ivan Brisot at ANZAC House with any RSL Custodian queries.

As part of the work to clear the backlog, we are now reviewing documents to ensure that sufficient details, including appropriate external professional advice, have been provided to allow the State Council members to satisfy their legal duty to make proper enquiries and have sufficient information available before deciding if it is appropriate to grant consent.


RSL NSW Shop

A review of the RSL NSW shop was completed in early 2017 and identified that it was incurring significant losses and being used by very few members. We have decided to close the RSL NSW shop by the end of this year. We are making plans to ensure that sub-Branches can still get the items they need from external suppliers. Diaries and poppies will still be available from State Branch.


Whistleblower Hotline

A number of members have referred matters to the Whistleblower hotline and we are currently determining the appropriate course of action for each case. We will provide a high-level summary of the results on the RSL NSW website in the new year. In the meantime, we encourage members to continue to call or email the hotline to report improper conduct, unlawful or unethical behaviour.


Sub-Branch and District Council Email addresses

RSL NSW has developed standardised email addresses (e.g. northbondi@rslnsw.org.au) for all sub-Branches and District Councils in order to:

  • improve communication, especially between State Branch, District Councils and sub-Branches;
  • present a more professional image to the public and make it easier to make contact with a local sub-Branch; and
  • give sub-Branches access to historical email communication that isn’t possible when using personal email addresses.

As a first step to adopting these new addresses, we are asking sub-Branches and District Councils to review the proposed list of email addresses and provide feedback before 30 November. The plan is to change to the new addresses on 3 December 2017. The list of addresses will shortly be uploaded to the RSL NSW website and emailed to current email addresses. A paper copy will also be included in the November bulk mail. We will have a point of contact here in ANZAC House to help make this transition.


Sub-Branch budgets

We are working on a revised format for sub-Branch budgets to help with ongoing compliance with the legislation and regulations that govern our league and its activities. Normally sub-Branches are required to submit their budgets by 30 November, however, this year we are asking sub-Branches to defer completing budgets until a new format is sent to you shortly. The deadline for submission of budgets will also be extended.


Thank you again for your patience during this difficult period. We are making enormous progress to fix our many problems. All the while you are continuing to serve your defence communities, RSL DefenceCare is continuing to provide its critical support to veterans facing crisis, and we are growing our capabilities to work with the rest of the veterans and ex-service community to once again provide a strong voice to government. I remain humbled to be your President and proud to be, along with State Council, leading the League into the next century of service.

Yours sincerely,


James Brown
President