Greater Shepparton veterans defend RSL Victoria from recent criticism

By Daneka Hill

RSL Victoria has been slammed recently over an alleged a lack of leadership during COVID-19, and insinuations it is withholding money from struggling clubs.

However, all four RSL clubs in Greater Shepparton have dismissed the criticism, blaming a “breakout group” populated for the recent bad press.

The accusations are being made by a vocal group of eight RSL sub-branches: Bendigo, Ararat, Bentleigh, Box Hill, Cheltenham-Moorabbin, Dandenong, Phillip Island and Watsonia.

Calling themselves the Foundation RSL Group, the eight RSLs joined forces after experiencing financial distress under COVID-19 restrictions.

Their condemnation of — and calls for immediate financial assistance from — RSL Victoria featured in the Herald Sun on Monday, August 8, and have been repeated by Australian Veteran News.

Tatura RSL president Rod Schubert defended Anzac House’s actions during the pandemic, saying the state body had been helpful when restrictions came into force.

“I’ve got every confidence they [RSL Victoria] are working in the best interest of us veterans,” Mr Schubert said.

He described the Foundation RSL Group as a “breakaway movement”, which he “didn’t pay any attention to”.

“It is soul-destroying that you’ve got an absolutely magnificent organisation and people refuse to get along,” Mr Schubert said.

Tatura RSL is a pure welfare branch — meaning no pokies or bistro — and operates monthly meetings for its 70 members.

Dookie RSL secretary Ron Mason said his sub-branch received a “few phone calls” from Anzac House to discuss supporting the small 12-member group, which doesn’t have a building to gather in.

“They’ve offered us what assistance we needed. I won’t say exactly how much, but it was in the four figures,” Mr Mason said.

“All that is to help service members and military families who are going a bit tough at the moment. Welfare funds, you’d call them.”

Murchison RSL president Justin Appleton said he had no complaints.

“In the early days [of COVID-19] there were several phone calls between us and the state branch … I’m quite happy with the support we’ve received from Anzac House,” Mr Appleton said.

Murchison RSL is also a pure welfare branch, relying on donations and its own fundraising at Anzac and Remembrance Day events to finance its veteran support.

“You need to remember that every single RSL sub-branch is its own individual unit,” Mr Appleton said, warning against local clubs relying too much on RSL Victoria.

“Earlier in the year we raised less than two per cent of what we’d usually raise. That definitely affects us, but it also effects Anzac House.

“But our needs and wants are different from branches like Shepparton RSL, who have the bistro and gaming.”

Shepparton RSL is the only sub-branch in Greater Shepparton with pokies and a restaurant.

Shepparton RSL president Bob Wilkie declined to comment on the details of the recent criticism.

It is understood commercial RSLs such as Shepparton view themselves as entirely separate from small sub-branches like Tatura, Dookie and Murchison, who don't have any commercial interests and do not pay the same levys and fees to RSL Victoria.

The News spoke to RSL Victoria chief executive Jamie Twidale about the vocal criticism.

Mr Twidale said people were under a lot of stress at the moment and as a predominantly volunteer-led, member-elected organisation, there was bound to be disagreement.

“You learn to expect, shall we say, ‘robust conversation’,” Mr Twidale said.

“I have lots of sympathy and empathy for the sub-branches … everybody is under pressure at the moment. My advice is that we will get through this together.”

Mr Twidale said the current anger stemmed from the Future Assistance Fund, which was created in 2012.

Financed by a small levy on pokies profits, the fund successfully collected $4 million for the purpose of covering future gaming transition costs (pokies licensing fees, for example) and “unforeseen financial circumstances”.

In a letter the Foundation RSL Group distributed in June, it demanded RSL clubs that contributed money to the FAF were handed back at least half of what they gave over the past eight years.

“Obviously, larger clubs would prefer up to 80 per cent returned,” the letter stated.

Such a request is not being entertained by RSL Victoria, as it says it will result in large RSLs absorbing all the financial support and leaving smaller sub-branches with the scraps.

All eight members of the Foundation RSL Group operate large bistro and gaming areas.

“Rather than returning fees, we’ve asked sub-branches in need to apply for funds directly,” Mr Twidale said.

RSL Victoria itself is also under financial distress, recently offering redundancies and reducing work hours to cut $500,000 from its budget.

Mr Twidale emphasised only the corporate side of Anzac House, which is almost entirely funded by pokies revenue, was “on a possible path to insolvency”.

The welfare side of the pokies-dependent state body, which covers veteran support and accumulates all donations, remains in a good position.

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