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With The RSL At War, Who Is Fighting For Our Veterans?

Politicians shouldn’t get away with this, but they can and they are.

15/08/2017 9:54 AM AEST | Updated 15/08/2017 9:54 AM AEST

The RSL is fighting a war on many fronts. It's fighting not only to remain financially solvent, but to remain relevant to the modern veteran at all.

Right now, every state and territory of the Returned and Services League of Australia is under some form of state or federal investigation.

Members have written to the federal charities regulator, the Australian Charities and Not-For-Profit Commission, specifically requesting the RSL's state directors be investigated.

The grassroots don't trust the leadership to act in the interests of the organisation's core objectives. And as a result, it's not out of the question for some of the RSL state branches to be delisted as a charity.

That's a serious step, and a rare one. But the fact it's being discussed at all shows the depth of the problem.

Whatever becomes of these investigations, the fact they're happening at all reflects the downward slide of an organisation whose management has lost its way.

The majority of politicians are happy to turn up to a wreath laying or a photo opportunity at the War Memorial, and there's always enough money for a submarine build in a marginal seat, but when it comes to actually giving veterans what they need, suddenly pockets only go so deep.

It was set up to fulfil a core role nobody else was fulfilling at the time: the well-being, care, compensation and commemoration of ex-defence personnel. Today, it's failing against that mission -- most dramatically in the areas of care and compensation.

Today's RSL is a pale version of its former self. Most RSL sub-branches and their 160,000 members no longer have any formal link to the local RSL Club. The 'RSL' brand is licensed out to other businesses keen to leverage its public goodwill, like RSL Taxis and RSL Gallipoli Tours.

Meanwhile, the needs of the modern veteran and the services offered by the modern RSL are increasingly disconnected.

We've seen an increase in veterans' suicides and a decline in the number of RSL advocates able to assist veterans and their families.

Perhaps the biggest tragedy of this is that RSL could be such a powerful voice for veterans' rights and entitlements at a time when it's so desperately needed.

Someone needs to be there to make sure the major parties are held accountable for what they've done -- or, more accurately, not done -- for the veterans' communities in the past 20 years.

Because taking proper care of veterans is expensive, and veterans aren't politically well-organised, both the major parties dodge the issue of veterans' support at election time. The way they see it, if you're a veteran, you're probably a Liberal voter anyway.

Let that sink in. The Libs don't want to throw more at veterans because veterans are already going to vote for them, and Labor doesn't want to throw more at veterans because veterans aren't ever going to vote for them.

This isn't a conspiracy theory. I've heard them say it.

That sort of thinking should be called out for what it is. It is shameful. It is a betrayal of the men and women who have put their bodies on the line for the rest of us. The ones who come home with busted ear drums and broken limbs. The ones who leave families behind.

The majority of politicians are happy to turn up to a wreath laying or a photo opportunity at the War Memorial, and there's always enough money for a submarine build in a marginal seat, but when it comes to actually giving veterans what they need, suddenly pockets only go so deep.

Politicians shouldn't get away with this, but they can, and they are. In part that's because there's no force pushing back on it. That's where veterans need the RSL to be.

And if the RSL won't do it, someone else will. The RSL is no longer the only player in town. It competes for fundraising and for relevance.

Encouragingly, some of the RSL's newly elected state directors are starting to talk the talk. Many of these new directors recognise the organisation hasn't done a good enough job of recognising that the needs of the modern veteran are different to those of past conflicts. That's important because if the needs are changing, so too must the services offered by the RSL.

But an organisation like the RSL isn't built to be nimble. There, things move slowly. Meanwhile, time moves fast.

Modern veterans come home to an overwhelming range of support services -- by some estimates, up to 3,000. The landscape looks very different to when the RSL was established more than 100 years ago. It's now populated by organisations without any of the baggage of the modern RSL.

As a result, my generation and the ones below aren't going to the RSLs for help or for support. I don't know if we're ever coming back. The damage it has inflicted on its own brand may be irreparable.

Beyond its strong record on commemoration, the RSL needs to be asking what it can offer the modern veteran that nobody else can offer.

Right now, I don't know what that is.

Jacqui Lambie served in the Australian army from 1989-2000 and is the Jacqui Lambie Network Senator for Tasmania.

Senator Lambie and others share their perspectives on whether our soldiers are equipped for the transition to everyday life on this week's Insight, Tuesday at 8.30pm on SBS.

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