Patron's Address at RSL NSW Annual State Congress
Albury Entertainment Centre
Her Excellency the Honourable Margaret Beazley AO QC, Governor of New South Wales
I acknowledge the Wiradjuri people, the traditional owners of the land on which we gather and pay my respects to their Elders, past, present and emerging.
The Wiradjuri have been custodians of this land of the three rivers for more than 40,000 years, living in harmony with the environment, united by their common language, and guided by their shared beliefs. The kinship rules of the Wiradjuri meant that nobody would ever be alone without someone to care for them.
It is an honour for me this morning to deliver my first address to this Congress as your Patron. I want to acknowledge the commitment and loyalty that you have shown over a difficult couple of years. I appreciate that you are gathered here today because you truly care about the mission of RSL:
To respect, support and remember our veterans and their families.
This is your ‘raison d'être’ – your reason for being.
We live in interesting times. We are experiencing a world of constant change - and it feels as though the rate of that change is accelerating. New technologies appear at breakneck speed.
It’s hard to believe that a decade ago, smartphones, didn’t exist and three decades ago very few people even owned a computer. Since you arrived here at the venue, I’m sure many of you have been asking for details of the WiFi, an Australian invention only patented in 1992.
Businesses use the term ‘exponential change’ to describe the trajectory we are currently experiencing – it is not slow, linear or incremental. Basically - it’s off the charts.
The U.S. Military uses the acronym VUCA to describe today’s world, with its volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. Our own 2016 Defence White Paper, describes the coming decades as times of “greater uncertainty” and “unprecedented transformation.”
That is a macro world overview at the governmental level. At the personal level we all know and we experience the impact of this more uncertain world.
- The average Australian household has reduced from 4 to 2 people and the single person household is now our fastest growing household type, a trend which increases the risk of social isolation
- the rate of relationship breakdown has increased, disrupting friendship circles and neighbourhoods
- the social connections that once formed in neighbourhoods are reduced
- We have an increasing busyness
- Australians are now more mobile. On average we move house once every 6 years and
- We have an increasing reliance on information technology at the expense of personal interaction
In short, we live in a society that has become more socially fragmented, as social historian Hugh Mackay noted in last year’s Australia Day Address.
It is no wonder that The Australian Loneliness Report, has revealed that one in four Australians report feeling lonely for at least half of every week; that loneliness is a greater problem for young adults than for older people; and that lonely Australians have significantly worse physical and mental health than those who are more socially integrated.
Now, into this environment add the experience of our younger veterans who often experience amplified disconnection, loneliness and a sense of isolation.
Of the thousands of Australians that served in the army, navy and air force between 2001 and 2016, 56 died during deployment and another 373 died by suicide.
We know that men serving full-time or in the reserves are half as likely to die by suicide as other men. However, once discharged, it's a different story with veteran men under 30 suiciding at double the rate to other Australian men their age and veterans over 30, 18 per cent more likely to die by suicide than average.
When Returned Soldiers’ Associations began to spring up around Australia in 1915 the world was also experiencing change. As Charles Bean put it, “War fell upon the world” and Australians rushed forward “to prevent a dreadful thing from happening.”
The clubrooms provided by public subscription with the help of patriotic organisations, had become a gathering place for injured servicemen returning home.
These were men facing new challenges physically, and now we would recognise, psychologically and socially, after their experience of the horrific battlefields of Europe. Social connections that evolved through these clubs soon provided foundations for associations with practical aims. According to G.L. Kristianson’s account:
On 6 June 1916, representatives from the separate Returned Soldiers’ Associations of Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, and South Australia met in Melbourne to draw up a provisional constitution and statement of aims and objects for the formation of an Australia-wide body.
It was an historic moment which led to the first Federal Congress of what was then the Returned Sailor’s Soldier’s Airmen’s Imperial League, taking place in September that same year.
In the years since, other Constitutions have been adopted for the State and Federal bodies, with amendments made, and various pieces of Government legislation covering the activities of RSL have been passed into law.
Tomorrow, as you are gathered for this Congress, 103 years on, another historic moment will come to pass as you vote to adopt a new constitution for RSL NSW.
I would not presume to advise you on how to vote, except to say two things:
First, the RSL NSW Act 2018, was passed by the NSW Government late last year. The Act is the first significant change to RSL NSW legislation in 80 years and, as far as the Government was concerned, was a necessary response to the findings of the Bergin inquiry.
Importantly for you, the Act creates the RSL as a corporate body. That will pose new challenges for you in terms of compliance, corporate governance, director’s duties and audit requirements.
Secondly, you will need to synthesise the new constitution with this corporate structure so that the organisation meets the contemporary needs of your members. That will continue to be a challenge as society changes and as warfare changes.
Whether this Constitution is the constitution for 2119 is not the point of today’s deliberations. Indeed, one might doubt that that could be so. It is more important to have the flexibility of mind and will to change as and when necessary than to be nostalgic about or even ossified in the past.
Winston Churchill once said
“There is nothing wrong in change, if it is in the right direction. To improve is to change, so to be perfect is to have changed often.”
I have some reservations about the second part of that advice, but change in society has to be accommodated in our institutions and in our organisations.
Change in this organisation must occur within the framework of the RSL’s core mission: ‘To respect, support and remember veterans and their families’. There is nothing fossil like or stultifying or nostalgic or ossified in that mission. The question is how is it to be met? What is it that works? Where are the gaps? What is needed to connect with, support and assist those returning from combative deployments to civilian life? How can what is working be expanded to meet the needs of those who fall within your mission?
Those questions require thoughtfulness and initiative. They also call for recovery from organisational failure. This is a big task, given the past tough few years for the RSL and the scandals that have sadly become part of its history. Speaking of the increasing loss of trust in governments and institutions.
The UN Secretary-General said:
Our world is suffering from a bad case of “Trust Deficit Disorder”. People are feeling troubled and insecure. Trust is at a breaking point. Trust in national institutions. Trust among states. Trust in the rules-based global order.”
There is no doubt that the trust earned by the RSL NSW over the past 103 years has been eroded by recent actions. Frankly what has happened over the past few years within RSL NSW would have ended many organisations.
However, through your tenacity, loyalty and passion for this organisation you are bringing the boat out of the storm. I believe that lost trust will be regained through demonstrated sincerity, concern, competence and reliability.
Staying true to your core mission and embracing change as an opportunity to improve will guide RSL NSW into better days ahead, and indeed, into its finest days.
I am proud to be your Patron and wish each of you well in the important deliberations that are ahead of you.
 The Politics of Patroitism,G.L. Kristianson, Page 5 https://openresearch-repository.anu.edu.au/bitstream/1885/115080/2/b14246442.pdfThe