Plagued by scandal, the RSL has become increasingly about commemoration and less about advocating for veterans. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

RSL in the wars

Former NSW RSL president Don Rowe.
Former NSW RSL president Don Rowe.

On February 19, veterans and their families marked the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Darwin. At 9.58am, sirens marked the precise moment World War II came to Australia. The prime minister spoke: “You won the war. You saved the nation. You preserved and defended our freedom. And then, with forgiveness, you built the peace. We salute you.”

It should have been a proud moment for the Returned and Services League (RSL), for which military commemoration remains a core responsibility. Instead, the organisation was engulfed by allegations of fraud and malfeasance. It was also suffering, as it had been for years, declining membership and the indifference of younger veterans.

In December last year, KordaMentha – a financial advisory group that specialises in forensic auditing – released its report into the New South Wales branch of the RSL. The allegations it contained were extraordinary. To begin, its president, Don Rowe, was alleged to have grossly misused RSL funds. “From January 2009 to December 2014 Mr Rowe incurred expenditure of approximately $475,000 on his corporate credit card,” the report stated. “Of the total expenditure during this period, approximately $213,000 was made in cash withdrawals and approximately $38,000 was for Mr Rowe’s Optus bills.”

The report also alleged that Rowe’s predecessor, Rod White, who in June last year was voted to the national RSL presidency, had not co-operated with the investigation, while financial documents seen by the ABC suggested White had shared in “millions” of suspect consultancy fees. In January, the entire NSW council resigned. Last week, White officially resigned as national president – having “stepped aside” late last year when the allegations surfaced. The claims of fraud have been referred to police. The Saturday Paper has heard allegations that national disciplinary action against the NSW branch was corruptly thwarted, and occurred only after a series of damning reports in the media. 

It gets worse. The Saturday Paper understands no RSL representatives attended senate estimates hearings on veterans’ affairs this month – hearings that included discussion of the digital readiness bill, controversial among veteran advocates, and which would empower the government to reveal veterans’ personal details if deemed in the public interest to do so. Veterans I spoke to were outraged. “It’s a complete abdication of responsibility,” said one. 

A spokesperson for the RSL National told me: “The RSL met one on one with delegates from Minister [Dan] Tehan’s office and [Department of Veterans’ Affairs] to discuss the areas that we felt were of a concern to our members as part of the proposed bill. We compiled a detailed series of concerns raised by our members on a national level and presented these issues to the delegates in attendance for consideration. We also held counsel with the shadow opposition minister for veterans’ affairs and raised the same issues to create bipartisan support for issues raised. We are expecting a formal response from the minister’s office on the issues we raised so this information can be communicated directly to our members.”


Generally, there is a sense of disgust and alienation among veterans concerned by the contemporary state of the organisation. “The RSL is on the brink of collapse,” Charlie Lynn told me. Lynn was a Liberal member of the NSW legislative council for 20 years, until his retirement in 2015. A veteran of the Vietnam War, Lynn served some of his time in the NSW government as parliamentary secretary for veterans’ affairs. “The situation we’ve arrived at is the result of an antiquated system. It’s difficult to impossible for outsiders to be elected to council. The RSL’s constitution was written up in the era of the .303 rifle. It needs to be reviewed and brought up to date. And it requires professionally qualified people in law, finance, governance and marketing. We say Lest We Forget, but the RSL has forgotten what it stands for.” 

Another veteran, who did not wish to be named but has extensive knowledge of the organisation, was even blunter. “The RSL today has been trading off the reputations of past leaders,” he told me. “Legends. The individuals we have today aren’t of the same calibre… 

“This is a disaster of scandal after scandal after scandal. Probably since Vietnam, the RSL has not battled for veterans as they used to. There has not been robust advocacy. Financial transparency is woefully lacking. I’ve been saying this for a long time. To simply write a blank cheque to the RSL is wrong. The scandals today result from no real oversight. A few bad apples have effectively stolen money to the tune of millions. There is a void of real leadership there, and a warped sense of procedural fairness and natural justice.”

The same concerns were raised by all the veterans I spoke with, old and young – administrative incompetence was noted, as was complacency, an “obsession” with commemoration at the expense of other veteran services, antiquated regulations, and a dysfunctional system that renders the RSL effectively a loose federation with very weak national leadership. “People should be embarrassed,” Kel Ryan tells me. Ryan is also a Vietnam veteran and an RSL life member who is writing a PhD dissertation on the organisation. “The general public should be quizzical. This is not the organisation that represented their grandfathers. It upsets me. The governance system is archaic; there are too many personal fiefdoms. It needs to be properly nationalised.” 

Ryan mentioned that younger veterans are increasingly turning to online support groups, while Charlie Lynn spoke of the “demographic time bomb” on which the RSL was sitting – the average members’ age is approaching 70, and showing no sign of being replenished. 


Ten weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbour, the Japanese commander responsible for the attack directed another surprise raid in the Pacific. Just before 10am, on February 19, 1942, the ordnance of high-altitude bombers began falling on Darwin’s harbour and town site. The city was hopelessly unprepared. With no radar, and muddled communications, its air-raid sirens could not sound pre-emptively. They began wailing when the bombs did. 

Anti-aircraft guns were manned. The first formation of Japanese bombers completed their circuit; dive bombers, escorted by Zero fighters, replaced them, targeting ships and the military’s air bases from much lower altitudes. This first raid lasted about half-an-hour – by 11.45 there was another session of high-altitude bombing. The MV Neptuna, which was holding explosives, fatally caught fire. Eight other ships were destroyed in the harbour. Infrastructure was warped. Fatalities are still disputed – a common figure is 235. By afternoon, Darwin began evacuating. They moved south by car, bike and foot. Justice Charles Lowe, engaged by the government to investigate Darwin’s military preparedness, found an empty hotel with half-finished beer. 

For the following year-and-a-half, Japan would conduct between 80 and 200 more bombing raids of the Top End. Despite initial unpreparedness, looting and accusations of desertion, the northern defence would become more organised and rigorous. But later, when the war ended, the RSL officiously emphasised the “returned” in its title and denied membership to those who had served to protect the mainland. “This all came back to bite them,” Kel Ryan says. “It caused a lot of hurt. Today, the veteran is now more broadly defined – as peacekeepers, for instance. Our professional soldiers are used differently. But today, I still speak with the children of those who were excluded and who carry their parents’ pain.”

Conceived in 1916 – the first year we marked Anzac Day – the RSL was originally called the Returned Sailors and Soldiers Imperial League of Australia, before changing its name to the Returned Services League. It wasn’t until the 1980s, Ryan says, during “acrimonious” debate at its national conference, that it agreed to change its name to the Returned and Services League. The addition of that small “and” made all the difference – but it had taken more than half a century to abandon what some saw as a bizarrely exclusionary constitution. 


Last week, while speaking on the Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment, the Liberal National Party member for Forde, Bert van Manen, spoke glowingly of the organisation. “RSLs around Australia play an important role in providing a voice for our service men and women,” he said. “They maintain the lasting ties of mateship and perpetuate the spirit of the Anzac…” He continued to speak in this hagiographic fashion, without reference to the scandals.

Van Manen is correct in saying that RSLs continue to perform great community services. But his words recall the “gratuitous” political praise that retired commander James Brown warned of in his book Anzac’s Long Shadow. Brown said this praise would feed empty gestures at the expense of substantive reform and understanding. The RSL is not wholly bad, but many wonder if it’s wholly relevant. 

“There’s a hard road ahead for whoever takes over at national,” Kel Ryan tells me. “It won’t be pretty, but there needs to be major reform.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 18, 2017 as "In the wars".

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