From its venerated status in pokie-filled clubs to its place on biscuit tins, the Anzac legend has become a politicised and commercialised brand. By J.J. Rose.

Who profits from the Anzac brand?

Victoria Cross recipient Mark Donaldson and RSL NSW president Don Rowe march in the 2010 Anzac Day parade in Sydney.
At local supermarkets and post offices across the country, silver metal tins are piled high, their lids embossed with a black and white photograph from Gallipoli and the words “Anzac Biscuits” stamped in World War I era font. It’s April again.

The Anzac legend is being further elevated as the nation gathers itself for the start of a year-long commemoration to mark 100 years since the doomed Gallipoli landing in 1915. While many Australians consider the anniversary next year, a vast machine rolls on. It’s a machine fuelled by power and money. Those biscuit tins are just a tiny part of it, but they do tell a tale.

“Anzac” ranks with “Royal” and “Commonwealth” as a word that can only be used in a public capacity on licence from the government. In Anzac’s case, its use requires permission from the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs. Anyone seeking to gain revenue via use of the term – even for fundraising purposes – needs to refer to the Protection of Word “Anzac” Regulations made in 1921 and seek the approval of the minister. 

The RSL movement has been given rights to the term “Anzac” ostensibly to raise money to assist returned service men and women, and to conduct Anzac Day commemorations. Commercially, the national RSL association runs successful aged care facilities, a taxi company and an art union. The RSL movement benefits from the allowance given to the Modern Baking Company of Broadmeadows, in outer Melbourne, to market Anzac biscuits: 4 per cent of sales go to state and New Zealand RSL branches, generating more than $3 million in the past 16 years, according to the company.

This longstanding arrangement between the government and the RSL worked pretty well and without much dispute until the 1970s. Then, legislation regarding how clubs and associations were administered changed and with the RSL decentralised model – the national executive deferring to state-based structures, which in turn devolved to various town and suburban sub-branches – sub-branches were obliged to separate and incorporate their fundraising operations. While keeping the name, the commercially licensed (pokies and bars) RSL clubs became removed from the sub-branch (bowls and tea) RSL clubs, often with different boards, management and culture. In many cases, they have tended to move further apart.

The result is the RSL club behemoths, full of pokies and the ka-ching of massive profits, which loom over many communities – often on land granted freely by state governments. These clubs display authorised Anzac references and reverences everywhere, including the poignant minute’s silence at 6pm. Punters and patrons here are being made to feel they are a part of the Anzac narrative, even though, effectively, they are not.

Somehow Anzac, with the blessing of many governments, has become a brand to elicit profits from gambling and alcohol interests and to line the pockets of big private business operations. Owning Anzac comes with rich rewards.

1 . Two RSLs

Don Rowe, president of the NSW RSL, cites confusion among potential donors who don’t open their wallets or purses because they think the RSL must be rolling in funds spewing out of the ubiquitous and obviously profitable clubs.

James Brown, in his book Anzac’s Long Shadow, writes that in NSW, service clubs account for 40 per cent of the state’s $3.2 billion in yearly gaming profits. He notes the case of the giant Rooty Hill RSL Club in Sydney’s west, which generated some $71.5 million in revenue in 2012 but donated less than $1 million of this revenue to charity – some of it in kind through venue space and hospitality – and did not reveal whether any ex-service charities benefited at all.

The fact the “two RSLs” are functionally separate and that the money the big clubs make is in no way guaranteed to end up helping ex-service men and women is lost on most.

“Many people won’t buy our badges but say they’ll put $10 on the pokies to help vets,” Rowe says. “It’s our biggest problem as a not-for-profit charity. We have nothing to do with [licensed] RSL clubs.”

But Rowe is reluctant to criticise the government. Since the 1990s, and particularly under the prime ministership of John Howard, the Anzac narrative has been massaged more deeply into the body politic of the nation. Waning interest in Anzac Day and in Australia’s military history has been reversed. Gallipoli, not so long ago a windswept wasteland, is now a major tourist attraction for young Australians.

The federal government has committed more than $145 million over 10 years to commemorate next year’s Gallipoli landing centenary. This funding is run through the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and includes an allowance of $125,000 for every federal electorate in the country to conduct or build its own form of centenary commemoration.

This does not include various state initiatives, which add up to as much as $150 million more, says James Brown. He told The Saturday Paper he estimates the total Anzac Centenary spend across combined government and private  sectors to be in the order of $325 million.

At a time when budget cuts are being aired and “fiscal discipline” is the phrase of the moment, there has been no shying away from this expenditure. No significant political objections have been raised over the Anzac spend.

The federal government’s yearly budget of $14.5 million for the centenary celebrations vastly overshadows the Department of Veterans’ Affairs spend this year on RSL and veteran projects, such as the pilot program to assist in providing housing for ex-military seniors, at an average of $2.4 million a year over four years, or the expansion of mental health services for ex-service men and women, at $425,000 a year over four years.

The latest round of federal grants to ex-service organisations in March notes that $974,255 was provided for 32 organisations at an average of just over $30,000 each. Most of these grants were for fairly mundane, but nevertheless welcome, improvements: “Bowling green upgrades, kitchen refurbishments and bus trips,” in the words of the minister. Most went direct to RSL sub-branches.

A Department of Veterans’ Affairs spokesperson told The Saturday Paper that “as a society we owe it to veterans to recognise their services and to provide validation that their sacrifice was worthwhile and is respected”.

The spokesperson noted the 2013-14 budget delivers $12.5 billion in overall funding for the veteran community. It is not made clear, however, how much of this is non-discretionary funding and thus immune from policy shifts, as opposed to costs emerging from the centenary that are clearly discretionary and politically shaped.

2 . Centenary sponsorship

Part of the government’s Gallipoli push is the opening up of sponsorship for tax-deductible donations via the Anzac Centenary fund. While many smaller donations are expected, the department says a total of $80 million has already been pledged from major corporations such as Commonwealth Bank, Telstra, Crown Resorts and the AFL.

A selection of these companies was contacted by The Saturday Paper to respond to queries about amounts pledged and gains sought. None responded before this article went to print.

A centenary logo has been specially designed and the government’s stipulations on its use state: “The Logo is for non-commercial purposes only and any use of the Logo for commercial gain or enterprise is strictly prohibited.” But, the statement goes on to say concessions can be made by the Commonwealth.

There is some confusion inside the Department of Veterans’ Affairs about the commercial gain from the marketing and branding opportunities open to donor corporations simply by using the Anzac Centenary logo, say, in association with theirs. The commercial gains of co-branding are clear to some bureaucrats and seem to undermine the government’s own attempts to ensure the Anzac name is not to be used to generate private profits. One departmental spokesperson told The Saturday Paper, this appears to be “a grey area” that has already prompted some debate within the department.

The money and power trail leading to and from Anzac and the Anzac Centenary suggests ownership of the national legend is controlled by governments, private corporations and sprawling entertainment complexes trading on the Anzac name.

Experts such as James Brown agree that Anzac has already become “politicised and commercially exploited”.

The legend of Anzac, 99 years after it was born, has become a vast, complex, money-making and politically significant brand. It’s a priceless commodity for businesses and governments alike.

As the money spent on and gained from Anzac continues to pile up in the coming year and beyond, will the government and the private sector further entrench that concentrated ownership structure?

Don Rowe sees the dangers. “It’s a concern for us,” he says. “RSL clubs, businesses and people out there are all thinking about using the Anzac Centenary as a means of commercial gain. We’ve got to be careful with that.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 19, 2014 as "Who owns Anzac?".

A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.

J.J. Rose is a journalist and author who has also worked as a policy and media adviser. His novel Game will be released in June.

Sharing credit ×

Share this article, without restrictions.

You’ve shared all of your credits for this month. They will refresh on July 1. If you would like to share more, you can buy a gift subscription for a friend.