RSL Clubs shamed for neglecting diggers

In Australian Domestic Tourism, New South Wales

Listen to the interview here: Don Rowe with Deborah Cornwall on the ABC

From abc.net.au

Just two days away from the biggest event on its calendar, the largest Returned Services League (RSL) branch in the country has declared war on RSL clubs, calling for an end to their 60-year relationship.

The president of the New South Wales RSL branch Don Rowe has accused the iconic clubs of damaging the RSL brand.

Mr Rowe says it is a split that has been decades in the making.

He says the cosy relationship between clubs and branches first started to come unstuck in the early 70s when RSL clubs started opening their doors to the general public.

“A lot of the clubs have gone completely away from the ideals and the aims of what they were founded for 50 or 60 years ago by the RSL branches,” Mr Rowe said.

“Clubs have now become big business and that’s what they are concentrating on.

“They don’t really care if there is Anzac commemoration at the local memorial or not.”

RSL clubs were first created by RSL branches in the 1950s to offer cheap beer and entertainment for more than a million returned servicemen.

However, Mr Rowe says since then most RSL clubs had strayed so far from their original ideals they were little more than gambling palaces.

He says while the public still see RSL clubs as the custodians of the eternal flame, RSL branch members now make up less than 5 per cent of the RSL clubs’ membership.

“I’ve got to be quite honest. Some clubs are quite good to us but there are also clubs where they don’t have anything to do with the sub-branch,” he said.

“So in those sort of cases we certainly have been well and truly divorced.”

With 274 RSL clubs across the state, NSW is home to some 80 per cent of RSL clubs in the country.

While many people assume RSL clubs have been the cash cows for the RSL movement, Mr Rowe says most RSL branches rely – almost entirely – on annual badge sales and a small army of elderly volunteers.

“The RSL now receive no income from clubs and unfortunately they’ve still got the name of our organisation,” he said.

“As a matter of fact they’ve tarnished our name, regrettably… and in some cases they’ve trashed the brand.”

Mr Rowe says RSL branches are a welfare organisation for ex-servicemen – run separately from the clubs – but most people think that RSL clubs and branches are one and the same.

He says this misconception is so damaging to the brand that the RSL is contemplating a name change.

“The general perception of the public out there is that our organisation, the RSL, was just old guys sitting around a pub drinking beer and playing pokies,” he said.

“It’s up to us to look at how we can become relevant to the community once again – particularly the younger veterans – and if we need to go down the track to looking at changing our name then I think we have to do it.”

‘Inextricably linked’

The call for a split appears to have caught RSL clubs completely off-guard.

NSW Clubs declined to comment, but RSL and Services Clubs Association chief executive Graeme Carroll says it is hard to see how a split could work.

“I’d strongly dispute the fact that they don’t support the Anzac traditions and the veterans at the local club,” he said.

“While they might advocate a split, the fact remains the clubs and the risk are inextricably linked.”

Mr Carroll says it is up to the RSL branches if they feel the need to rebrand themselves, but severing all ties from the clubs is a step too far.

“We certainly don’t see that the point has been reached at all,” he said.

“There is plenty of room for us to sit down and work through these issues together.”

A recent spate of multi-million-dollar court actions launched by RSL clubs against their local RSL branches has laid bare just how toxic the relationship has become between the clubs and branches.

Mr Rowe says while many clubs still paid peppercorn rents for the RSL’s multi-million dollar properties – in return most clubs offered RSL branches little more than an office in the basement and a discount on the band for Anzac Day.

He said those same clubs had now turned on them, forcing the RSL to spend millions of dollars – which should be used to help veterans – defending itself in court.

Mr Rowe says it was the latest court action involving the Malabar RSL Club in Sydney’s eastern suburbs that proved the final straw.

The club sued the local RSL branch, claiming that the more than $7 million it had spent on club facilities in the past four decades entitled the club to continue to rent the premises for as long as it wanted.

The action in the NSW Supreme Court collapsed spectacularly last Friday.

After a week of hearings, the club’s lawyers were forced to admit they simply did not have a case.

TRANSCRIPT from the ABC

MARK BANNERMAN: Just two days away from the biggest event on the RSL (Returned and Services League) calendar, the largest branch in the country has declared war on RSL clubs, calling for an end to the 60-year relationship between the organisation and clubland.

In an unprecedented move, the president of the New South Wales RSL branch Don Rowe says that while the clubs were originally established to offer entertainment and respite for returned servicemen, most clubs have since strayed a long way from their original ideals.

He suggested they were little more than gambling palaces which did nothing to help the war veterans.

In fact, he said, the RSL brand had been so damaged by the clubs it may need to change its name.

Deborah Cornwall with this exclusive report.

(‘The Last Post’)

DEBORAH CORNWALL: It’s a split between the RSL branch and clubland that’s been decades in the making, but with servicemen’s organisations across the country in fevered preparation for ANZAC day, the New South Wales president of the RSL branch, Don Rowe, has tonight lobbed a hand grenade right into the heart of clubland.

DON ROWE: Let’s divorce ourselves, if you like, of the family tree. Let’s call it quits and we’ll get on with our business.

(Exceprt from the Ode)

READER: They shall not grow old as we that are left grow old.

DEBORAH CORNWALL: RSL clubs were first created by the RSL branches in the ’50s to serve cheap beer to World War II veterans.

But according to Don Rowe, the cosy relationship between clubs and branches has been unravelling ever since the early ’70s, when RSL clubs started opening their doors to the general public.

DON ROWE: A lot of clubs have gone completely away from the ideals and aims of what they were founded there 50 or 60 years ago by the RSL sub-branch guys, and they’ve now become big business.

DEBORAH CORNWALL: Don Rowe says while most people see RSL clubs as the custodians as the eternal flame, they were now little more than gambling palaces with ex-servicemen making up less than five per cent of club members.

DON ROWE: I’ve got to be quite honest: some of the sub-clubs are quite good to us, but there are also clubs there that don’t have anything to do with the sub-branch.

In those sort of cases, we’re certainly being well and truly divorced.

DEBORAH CORNWALL: With 274 RSL clubs across the state, New South Wales is home to some 80 per cent of RSL clubs in the country.

Don Rowe says the public assume quite wrongly that clubs have been the cash cows of the RSL movement. In fact, he says RSL branches rely almost entirely on annual badge sales and a small army of elderly volunteers.

DON ROWE: The RSL receive no income from clubs. Unfortunately, they’ve still got the name of our organisation – as a matter of fact, they’ve tarnished our name, regrettably.

DEBORAH CORNWALL: You’re saying they’ve trashed the brand?

DON ROWE: They certainly haven’t helped the brand, that’s for sure. In some cases, they have trashed the brand.

DEBORAH CORNWALL: It’s a call which certainly appears to have caught RSL clubs completely off guard.

NSW Clubs declined to comment for PM, but the CEO of the RSL and Services Clubs, Graeme Carroll, says it’s hard to see how it could work.

GRAEME CARROLL: I’d strongly dispute the fact that they don’t support the ANZAC traditions and the veterans in their local club.

While they might advocate a split, the fact remains that the clubs and the RSL are inextricably linked.

DEBORAH CORNWALL: But that, says Don Rowe, is precisely the problem. The RSL branches are a welfare organisation for ex-servicemen run entirely separately from the clubs, yet clubs and branches are seen by the public as one and the same.

DON ROWE: The general perception of the public out there is that our organisation, the RSL, is just old guys sitting around in pubs playing poker machines and drinking beer.

So it’s up to us, I believe, to look at how we can become relevant to the community once again and particularly the younger veterans.

And if we need to go down the track of looking at changing our name, and I think we have to do it.

GRAEME CARROLL: Look, renaming or rebranding is up to them. I mean, certainly, we don’t see that that point has been reached at all.

I think there’s plenty of room for us to sit down and work through these issues together.

DEBORAH CORNWALL: But a recent spate of multi-million dollar court actions launched by RSL clubs against their local RSL branches has laid bare just how toxic the relationship has become between the clubs and branches.

Don Rowe says while many clubs still enjoy peppercorn rents for the RSL’s multi-million dollar properties, in return most clubs offer the RSL branches little more than an office in the basement and a discount on the band for ANZAC day.

Yet those same clubs have now turned on them.

So the love is definitely gone?

DON ROWE: The love is out of the game in a lot cases, sadly.

MARK BANNERMAN: President of the New South Wales RSL branch, Don Rowe.

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