OPINION: The Australian Defence Community – Its time

16 Oct 2016

Kel Ryan

The ex-service organisations (ESOs) that currently endeavour to represent the interests of the serving and former serving members of the ADF are in turmoil over direction and leadership. While my previous research (2006) into the question of why there are so many ESOs in Australia highlighted the reasons for this, the number of individual ESOs, their overlapping membership and the extent of their reach and influence it did not seek to identify the future representation of this unique element of the community. The current  research question, “Pathways for the effective representation of the Australian Defence community (ADC)” seeks to address that question.

The role of the Returned and Service League (RSL) in the Australia ex-service community is central to this question as its influence on the history of veteran representation in Australia cannot be denied. The League, as it is often referred to, is readily recognised by government and the bureaucracy as an organisation of power and prominence. However as the RSL celebrates its century of formation in 1916 it is now seen by many both within its ranks and outside, as a tired organisation and a failing one. The RSL is suffering from what is termed organisational mortality’ (Meyer and Zucker. p. 4) which suggests that with the increase in the age of an organisation its performance does not improve. Defenders of the RSL may see this as incongruous however performance limits do exist for organisations that fail to adapt to changing environments, governance and bureaucratic structures. It is a trough that organisations appear unable to escape yet they, including the RSL, are not easily toppled from previously recognised positions.

The ‘RSL:’ is not a national organisation in the sense that the Australian Medical Association (AMA) is recognised as one nor is it well resourced for what is expected of it as a national representative organisation. The RSL is essentially a loose federation of state organisations that jealously guard their independence. This structure has its parentage in the early formative years of the organisation and it has not been able to, has been unwilling to and indeed has avoided the hard decisions necessary for it to become a 21st century organisation representing all the members of the ADC in the present dynamic political and
bureaucratic environment..

The Australian Defence Community
There are many references to just what constitutes that broadly unstructured yet unique element of the Australian nation i.e. those who are serving and have served in its Defence forces. References to ‘family’ as a descriptor or “those serving and ex-service members and their families” fail to fully identify the totality of the ‘who’ is the ADC. The research has identified a more inclusive definition of the ADC in the 21st century as “those individual men and women who have served in the Australian Defence Force (ADF): their families and those organisations and individuals that seek to represent their collective interests.” This has aided in presenting a clearer picture of the ADC, its historical development; the issues relevant to its past successes and failures; the organisations established to represent its interests; and the individuals who toiled within it during the past 100 years.

This paper will not, despite the acknowledged prominence of the RSL dwell on the future success or otherwise of the RSL per se. It will focus on the future representation of the issues of the broad ADC, the effective advocacy of these issues, the utilization of the political and intellectual shrewdness of those who are able to contribute, ignoring their ESO affiliation but to work as a united team for the broader benefit. Having said that though the future of the RSL and the broad ADC will be forever interconnected! That is what is missing from the present debate. Many former members of the ADF remain beholden to a service or
an ESO affiliation that often limits their ability to think outside their own experience. It is easier to discuss issues rationally or to develop cogent argument simply because it is easier and less stress inducing than reaching out to the experience and ideas of others because they belong to another service or ESO.

When the Federal parliament moved from Melbourne to the developing capital Canberra in 1927 there were only three recognised lobby organisations there, these being business, the AMA and the RSL. Now there are over 200 registered lobby organisations and over 600 registered lobbyists. It is in this environment that the ADC needs to operate and in with fewer former military personnel in both the parliament and the bureaucracy than in the past. This contrasts with the period between the major wars and certainly after WW2 when many AIF veterans sat in both houses of the Federal parliament and on both sides of the
political divide. It is interesting to note that there were no veterans of WW1 in the Scullin Labor government of 1929-32 and this is a point of some relevance which will be addressed later.

Over the years the AMA has morphed into a body of 27,000 members with the simple aim of “advocacy and influence”. Its current National President is a prominent neuro-surgeon from Sydney. Having listened to him being interviewed recently I would say that the AMA have got themselves a no nonsense leader, unafraid to promote the issues of the AMA membership in a very forceful and articulate manner. To support the President and the advocacy work of the AMA there is a well-resourced national office in Canberra complete with professional research and lobbyists on staff. I cannot identify a former national president of the AMA who has resided in Canberra.

Contrast this with the national office of the RSL! The staff of the national headquarters consists of seven or eight administrative personnel, PR officer, one part time research officer and a National Secretary or CEO who commutes from Adelaide weekly. Motions and proposals from sub-branches across the country wend their way through a laborious age-old bureaucratic process that due to the time taken mutes the effect of the concerns of the grass roots of the organisation. A recent national president prepared papers himself by hand for later typing. This is a practice that most of us ceased doing 20 or 30 years ago. Such is now the position of the national office of the largest ESO in the country, 100 years old and now operating from the industrial suburb of Fyshwick in a ‘rented’ office complex.

We demand much from the national president of the League so surely it is time that the national executive and the various states provided the assets to establish a functioning professional organisation. Various attempts have been made over the years to move the national office operations into the 21st century however it has been the state branches that have been reluctant to accede to the need for a dynamic national organisation. There is a need to break from the past practices and for the RSL to become an effective representative body working in tandem with the broader defence community and not in competition. Historically the League was a very effective lobby organisation for the veterans of the major conflicts of the past century but has faltered in recent years.

Developing a Presence
In the post-WW1 period the RSL became the representative organisation for the ‘returned men’ or those who had served overseas. It gained official government recognition ahead of other embryonic organisations that sought to capture the ‘returned man’ vote. Some of hese had been formed by the various political parties of the time while others were carryovers from the various charity organisations established during the war. The RSL succeeded largely because of the work of the second national president, Mr. (later Sir) Gilbert Dyett, a wounded Gallipoli veteran who took on the role and made it his life’s work. His challenges were not only with the outside forces such as government but also the various egos and agendas among the state branches and their leaders.

Dyett had several things going against him. He was a practicing Catholic at a time when sectarianism was rife, a Victorian, a non-drinker, a non-gambler (despite being Secretary of the Victorian Trotting Control Board) and by all accounts fitted with an understated personality and demeanor. His skill however was his ability to negotiate, to lobby and to get to the nub of the issue. He used to travel by rail from Melbourne to Canberra (Goulburn) with the various politicians who had come in from the various southern and western states, stayed in the same boarding houses but would not allow himself to develop other than a professional relationship with them. He understood the difference between direct and indirect lobbying and, despite pressure and public criticism from some state presidents
knew when to make use of both.
The best example of this was when the Scullin government sought to make cuts in veteran’s pensions during the depression. Remember Scullin’s cabinet had no AIF veterans in it but was full of trade unionists, some of who had actively worked against the war effort. In this environment Dyett was able to, with some compromise, maintain the pensions. A story for another time but Dyett was a man of his era.

He worked with the other ESOs of the time though these were few and they were special cases i.e. ‘Blinded Servicemen’, ‘TB’ and ‘mothers and widows’. However he or the RSL took the lead and negotiated on their behalf, which in the circumstances was understandable.

The Changing Environment
However all of this changed in the post-Vietnam period when the RSL lost sight of whom it was representing, failed to understand the needs of a new generation of veterans and members of the recently formed (1948) professional military forces. It sought to broaden its declining membership by changing its name to ‘Returned and Services League but to no avail as numbers continued to fall. The shifting dynamics of Canberra and the changing nature of advocacy also confounded the leadership which had morphed into the hands of ‘parachuted’ professional ADF two star officers and away from the former volunteer AIF men who had worked their way through the League and understood the demands and issues of the members on the ground and across the state branches. It continued to believe that because of its previously held position in the nations psyche the relationship with government and the service and ex-service community would continue as before. The wagon train had moved on from a time when every family in the country had a military story simply because of the numbers that had served in both the major conflicts of the 20th century, the ADF was now a professional force not volunteers and politicians and bureaucrats with a military experience became thin of the ground.

So now history and time have created two separate issues:

a. The fundamental role of looking after, supporting and assisting the needs of the ADC, and
b. The equally central role of carrying on the traditions of the sacrifices, stories and lore of the past on behalf of a willing and interested community.

Individual ESOs can never wield the power of an effective community-based RSL with its background and geographical spread across the country. ESO’s can only agitate on issues from time to time and win the skirmish while in the shadow of the RSL. While the RSL has the universal public and political recognition it is now the Alliance of Defence Service Organisations (ADSO) with its more intellectually rigorous submissions, widening reach within the ADC and its use of both direct and indirect lobbying that is increasingly capturing the political mood. . These two competing representative bodies, while having the same ancestry in the ADF highlight the dilemma faced by the ADC. The frequency of conflicting messages to government and the bureaucracy simply highlight the absence of cohesion, the clash of agendas and the lack of clarity in the signal being sent, supposedly on behalf of the ADC. The ADC is becoming increasingly confused as to which ESO or organisation represents what and who.

Membership is falling in the RSL with the passing of the WW2 generation and there is no enthusiastic, natural spring or pool from which to renew it. This contrasts with various ADSO member ESOs that are increasingly drawing membership from serving members of the ADF e.g. the RARC from serving members of the RAR and RAAFA from that service. However all is not positive here either as organizational membership is not on the radar of many younger members and former members of the ADF. Gaining the full attention of government will always be a challenge but it is certainly not assisted by the evident conflict and  confused messages coming from the representative organisations of the ADC. Such are the challenges we face today.

The dilemma faced by members of the ADC is highlighted in the often asked questions, ‘Why is the leadership of the RSL in open competition with the other ESO’s?’ Why does the leadership of the RSL ignore the expertise and intellectual capacity of other ESOs that have a proven record of developing cogent submissions to government? Why does the RSL leadership ignore the 150,000 members of the ADSO ESOs? Why is the RSL not open to eveloping positive working relationships with the broad service and ex-service community and therefore reinforcing the voice of the ADC and not dividing it?

The answer to this last question may lie in the notion that the leadership of the RSL does not see itself as dividing the ADC but in reality it is maintaining a defensive position against an “enemy” that has by-passed it. One suspects that the leadership does see itself as a bulwark against all sorts of ‘strange’ ideas that spring from the various individuals and ESOs that inhabit the ADC. A kind of ADC Senate maybe but one that does not have the capacity to think and act strategically when such may be a more appropriate role for it in the 21st century.

If that has some genus of truth then the ADC and its constituent ESO’s need to work harder to find better, acceptable ways of cooperation. Sadly diplomacy and compromise have not been evident in the history of the ADC in recent years and this has been to its detriment.

The Iceberg is Melting

The analogy posed by the book Our Iceberg is Melting (1) is a fitting picture of the ADC today. The book is a fable about change and succeeding in an ever-changing world. It tells the story of a colony of penguins in Antarctica. One bird, a “curious and observant” member of the colony alert to his surroundings notices changes that have the potential to devastate their home iceberg but no one listens. Not being a member of the Leadership Council this inquisitive bird is at a loss as to what to do or who to speak to. Eventually one other penguin, a female member of the Council and a “tough, practical bird with a reputation for getting things done” does listen and understands the evidence that is presented to her. The leadership of the colony however denies the evidence placed before it. The story develops as the Leadership Council is slowly drawn to confront the evidence – but is it too late?

Read the book and it will be clear that change is not easy to confront. Change is avoided, committees are formed, strategic reviews are undertaken and the results denied as not conforming to the views of the leadership, the membership is sent questionnaires and again the considered views of the colony (sub-branches) are ignored as confronting the possibility of a new way of life is considered a step too far for a leadership that is change averse.

The leadership of the RSL continually fails to heed the messages coming from the grassroots. The ADC waits in anticipation of the future. RSL sub-branches in the rural and more remote areas of the country in particular are handing in their Charters because of declining and ageing membership and the ability of sub-branches to provide effective pension and advocacy support is disappearing. This loss of the RSL sub-branch in the less opulated areas of the country mean that there will be no point of contact for former members of the ADC, no like minded group to share, no peer support group to confide when invariably the need arises. History tells us that the need will surely arise. There is no real evidence of a considered strategy being developed by the leadership at all levels of the
League and the other ESOs to confront the tragedy that is coming. The evidence continues to be denied.

It would be easy to leave the discussion here as many have done because the challenge confronting the RSL and the ADC is just that, a challenge for change. Do we work around it? Do we form a committee? Do we form several committees? Do we watch the iceberg melt? Or do we grasp the challenge and seek a future for the ADC?

What is the Future?
The leadership of the RSL has crippled the League by failing to provide a cogent narrative for the future representation of its membership and the broad ADC. It has failed to articulate a persuasive vision and argument that would give clear direction. By definition it has made possible the continuing fracture of the ADC and the presentation of conflicting messages to government and the bureaucracy. Clearly it maintains the view that its past is its future.

The future viability and effective representation of the ADC is inexorably tied to the ability and the willingness of the RSL to become a team player on behalf of the broad defence community. The Leadership of the RSL needs to heed the warning signs that have been evident to members at the grassroots level of the organisation for many years now. Unfortunately they have been ignored while the iceberg has continued to melt.

The Leadership of the RSL must:
a. Develop a narrative that places the League into perspective, into the 21st century, and one that inspires and creates a sense of enthusiasm and change.
b. Build effective and collegial relations across the ADC and in particular with those ESOs that are effective contributors’ on behalf of their membership.
c. Create a cultural narrative that acknowledges that all ESO are equal members of the ADC team as they bring different skills and mindsets to the table, and
d. Avoid the symbolism of the past and provide a narrative of substance that will lead the organisation and then the broad ADC into a future that acknowledges that effective representation come from exploiting the skills and enthusiasm of all its member organisations and members.

Of course a narrative must have causality, it must have effect and it must have action.
Kotter, J. & Rathgeber, H. (2005). The Iceberg is Melting. Macmillan London.

Meyer, M.W. and Zucker. L. (1989). Permanently Failing Organizations. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

Biography – Kel Ryan
As a Life Member of the RSL and with nearly 30 years of membership Kel Ryan has gained a breath of experience in the organisation that has schooled him in both its strengths and weaknesses. His extensive experience across all levels of the RSL is reinforced by holding elected office across a number of other ESOs. His deep understanding of the challenges being faced by the broad ADC has caused him a great deal of anguish as to the future representation of future members of the ADC.
Contact: Kel Ryan: [email protected], Ph: 0418 759 120