RSL Victoria AGM Returned Services League

Crikey readers were first introduced to the governance issues at RSL Victoria in last July when we summed up the controversial 2019 AGM.

There was a further update a month ago, after it became apparent the league was intending to sell off its Vasey RSL Care aged care division, a sale which would help it meet a $68 million pokies licence obligation to the Victorian government.

RSL Victoria has been bleeding cash during the COVID-19 shutdown, particularly due to the forced closure of its 52 pokies venue which normally extract more than $200 million a year from gamblers. It’s the state’s third biggest pokies operator after Woolworths and Crown Melbourne.

Over the past 18 months, a group of younger veterans led by Hawthorn RSL president Lucas Moon, alongside Dan Cairnes and Dave Petersen, have been spearheading a campaign for RSL Victoria to reduce its reliance on gambling and instead focus on advocacy and veteran welfare, including retaining the Vasey RSL Care division which houses more than 500 elderly and vulnerable veterans.

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The reform leaders were profiled in The Age in April last year. Their campaign has now reached its final stage, with all three former soldiers having nominated to join the RSL Victoria board.

However, as you can see from these ballot papers snail-mailed to the 200-plus Victorian sub-branches last week, neither Moon or Petersen have been accepted as candidates.

The old guard in charge of RSL Victoria, led by a group of Vietnam conscripts, have been resisting reform from the outset. This has even included rejecting Moon’s nomination for treasurer, even though he was the only candidate.

Moon is a CPA and has held a range of senior roles in the construction industry. He is a veteran of Australian peace-keeping in East Timor and is also an impressive governance advocate.

Seeing that there were no other nominees for treasurer, the position will be vacant. The obvious solution would be for the board to appoint Moon through a casual vacancy process after the election. But no, the old guard are resisting change and renewal, instead preferring a fight.

RSL Victoria is one of Australia’s 20 largest not-for-profit charitable institutions with assets of around $1.5 billion and annual revenues exceeding $300 million. Yet it is running its own election, with the board’s hand-picked CEO Jamie Twidale being the returning officer for the board contest. He decides whether candidates can stand or not.

So how did Twidale treat the reform leaders when they nominated for the board?

Moon was rejected on the grounds that he hadn’t done the requisite two years of service on a committee. Moon rejects this, as he has been on the committee of Hawthorn RSL since late 2018, and president for over a year. He also served as acting treasurer of the Boronia RSL for eight months almost 20 years ago.

Twidale also rejected Petersen’s board nomination, despite his two years of service, including a stint as president of the Camberwell RSL, being even clearer than Moon’s.

Both of those rejections could well be challenged in the Victorian Supreme Court over the coming weeks, although everyone is waiting for the date of the AGM to actually be set. It’s a strange organisation that sends out ballot papers for an AGM which is yet to be called.

As for Cairnes, his three years of service as vice president of the Combined Tramways/East Melbourne sub-branch in Fitzroy was irrefutable, so his nomination was accepted — but then he was the only candidate whose colour photo was not included in ballot papers.

The incumbent board have just voted to sell off the Tramways sub-branch building in Fitzroy. This was the original pokies-free sub-branch where the younger veterans gathered. Cairnes, Moon and their colleagues then lost control to the old guard after a contentious EGM last year at the Fitzroy Town Hall, sparking a mass exodus of members to Hawthorn RSL.

The old guard played a hard game as they took control of the Tramways sub-branch, changing the locks, padlocking the front door and now deciding to sell the building, which is not suitable for poker machines.

In total, seven of the 11 RSL Victoria board positions are up for grabs over the coming weeks, including the presidency which has three candidates running. The only female director Michelle Campbell has had enough and won’t be recontesting so it will be an all-male board going forward.

The youngest incumbent director on the board, Glen Ferrarotto, has been nominated for the presidency by Hawthorn RSL on a partially-censored platform of bringing the warring parties together. Ferrarotto quit as a main board director earlier this month as he didn’t want to be associated with some of the contentious decisions being made.

He also encountered some interesting editing of his election materials, including removal of a reference to the fact he is currently doing an Australian Institute of Company Directors course on governance.

If there are any lessons from this saga, one of them is that major institutions should hire independent third parties to run their contested board elections.

If it is good enough for unions, it should be good enough for the likes of RSL Victoria.

Crikey contacted multiple representatives of RSL Victoria for comment, but they did not respond before deadline.