RSL NSW State President Report: June 2017

15-Jun-2017

James Brown, RSL NSW State President

It has been several weeks since you elected a new council at State Congress. I am grateful and humbled by your decision to trust me with the leadership of this council as we move through what will be a critical period for RSL NSW. This message is the first in what I plan to be regular and frequent updates on activities at Anzac House and across the greater league. I welcome your feedback, either by email (president@rslnsw.org.au) or phone (02 9264 8188), or via Facebook (facebook.com/RSLPresident)

Let me give you the bottom line up front. We will have a fight on our hands over the next 12 months to make our organisation once again ready to be trusted by the public, government, and charity regulators. In the past fortnight I have been briefed by our staff at Anzac House, by multiple sets of lawyers, as well as forensic auditors and forensic investigators. I have also met with the management of RSL LifeCare and spoken with a range of RSL stakeholders. The situation we face is more concerning, and more complex than I thought when I spoke to you at the end of State Congress in Albury.

Our RSL is a complex organisation. We have 38,000 members, 21 District Councils, approximately 360 sub-Branches, interests in or ownership of several hundred properties (including multiple buildings in the Sydney CBD), financial assets of several hundred million dollars, and a substantial interest in the non-profit company RSL LifeCare which itself employs 3000 people and manages over $1bn of assets. State Council oversees or has direct responsibilities associated with more than 10 companies and trusts, including the Welfare and Benevolent Institution and RSL DefenceCare. Some of these trusts are particularly complex, with deeds dating back to the 1950s. It has taken considerable effort in the past weeks just to assemble a picture of the whole league, the work that it does, and the breadth of the issues we must deal with.

Two reports commissioned in the past twelve months (the Ernst and Young report and KordaMentha report) point to some of the problems State Councils have faced in governing our organisation. In many areas corporate governance and accountability may have fallen short of the modern standards expected of an organisation of our size and complexity. Financial controls have also failed to meet this standard. Policies and processes have been confusing and at times contradictory. Transparency into finances has been a particular problem. In some cases, large amounts of money have been spent without sufficient thought to efficiency, or indeed whether funds expended would deliver any significant impact for the RSL’s core mission. These problems appear to be systemic and date back for at least a decade, and likely longer.

Even the most skilled and capable State Councillors would have had a difficult time staying on top of our very complex finances and organisation. But it appears in some cases Councillors were not aware of the extent of the organisation’s failings, or not able to muster the support necessary to ensure that good governance was implemented and followed. That is not to say that Councillors haven’t tried to fix our problems; there are many examples of attempts to reform and improve our practices and governance. There also appear to be, sadly, cases in which individuals have taken advantage of this complex and non-transparent governance environment. We are now investigating several incidents of financial transactions that are at the very least, irregular. I also want to acknowledge here those staff, both former and current, as well as State Councillors who, at different times and in differing ways, attempted to sound the alarm.

In short, we have quite a mess to fix. And we are discovering new issues every day.

But the news is not all bad. I am very impressed with the staff we have at Anzac House. They have been through a difficult period and are now working enthusiastically to identify and address our organisational problems. As you can appreciate, the degree of uncertainty regarding our future is a source of some personal stress for them. Please be mindful of that and their workload in the coming weeks and months.

The NSW Crown Solicitor has already begun to request documents as they prepare for the charitable fundraising inquiry to be conducted by Justice Bergin. We are cooperating fully. You should be aware that this inquiry will place an intense burden on our organisation in the coming months – both in terms of workload, as well as by testing confidence in our ability to keep working for veterans and their families.

For the above reasons, in the next six months you will see Anzac House focused on essential business only. I know many of you have issues you are keen to progress and activities you would normally expect State Councillors and staff to be engaged in. Because our problems are so acute, I expect State Councillors will be less available for representational duties than is normal. We will instead be firmly focused on fixing our RSL so it is set for the future. We will need to look to District Councils to take on more responsibility within the league, and I am confident they will. I will speak with District Council Presidents regularly, and listen to them regularly as well.

In the spirit of renewal and greater transparency, I have asked our staff to investigate the establishment of an external, independent, RSL Whistleblower hotline so that any league member can confidentially report issues of concern. We have also appointed an Acting General Counsel for RSL NSW, an in-house legal expert who can assist us in managing legal, ethical, and conflict of interest questions. At State Congress I flagged my intention to provide you with further detail on the Ernst and Young and KordaMentha reports. That remains my intent, though given the sensitive nature of both reports that will take some time. This is your organisation, you deserve to know what is going on in as much detail as possible. Please be patient.

This week our people were dockside at Garden Island to support the send off of HMAS Newcastle as it deploys to the Middle East. RSL DefenceCare staff were manning phones and helping veterans and their families address urgent problems. Our Day Clubs were providing support and community to the elderly, our Youth Clubs helping to grow the next generation of Australians, and our Women’s Auxiliaries working to raise much needed funds for our charitable organisations.

Our sub-Branches are meeting and conducting business as normal, supporting our members and local communities. Our volunteers are helping people. All of this good work is a reminder of why we exist and why our mission remains important. We have some work to do to fix our organisational problems, that’s for sure. But I’m confident we will emerge next year as a stronger and better RSL, delivering more impact for our members and the wider service community. Let’s get started.