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"The organisation is tainted": Calls for leadership overhaul amid renewed RSL crisis

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The troubled state branch of the Returned and Services League is in fresh turmoil, with a group of members declaring “all confidence has been lost” in the current leadership.

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A scathing letter from Macclesfield RSL president Dennis Oldenhove, seen by InDaily, details a motion passed by the sub-branch this month to convey a motion of no-confidence to the leadership of the state branch.

“Whilst the current leadership is in place the organisation is tainted,” the letter says.

“What we believe needs to occur is a complete dissolution of all positions and allow a fresh team to lead the League forward.

“Out with old and in with the new.”

The governance of RSL-SA had a major overhaul in 2017 after the veterans organisation was plunged into voluntary administration, eventually staving off closure after creditors voted for a property fire sale – despite the organisation’s National board spectacularly voting for liquidation.

Under a new management team after the resignation of president Tim Hanna, the RSL claimed late last year to have finalised its debts and returned almost $1.5 million to creditors and suppliers since the crisis began.

Chief executive Kim Henshaw told The Advertiser at the time that a Deed of Company Arrangement [DOCA] was coming to an end with “the final dividend paid to creditors [at] 100 cents in the dollar dividend… and there will be some left for us”.

“A lot of people said 12 months ago we wouldn’t survive 12 months [but] reports of our death are much exaggerated.”

However, only six months on, the state leadership is again gripped by turmoil, with the membership divided over the decision to ban former board member Colin Johns from contesting a ballot for state president at next month’s annual conference, citing a “conviction” for assaulting an officer during his military service four decades ago.

The RSL’s decision – which Johns is contesting in the Supreme Court as well as taking separate action for defamation – means long-time board member Cheryl Cates has been appointed as president without facing a ballot.

She is already acting in the role after Hanna’s replacement, Bronson Horan, took an extended leave of absence earlier this year, citing family commitments and a “new dynamic job within the federal government”.

Horan did not seek a second term and has resigned from “all other boards and committees that I currently preside on in the veteran space”.

The Macclesfield sub-branch letter cites unrest over the  state election standoff, among other concerns.

“It has been deemed by the members of our Sub-Branch that due to this and many other examples of poor performance, all confidence has been lost in the current leadership of the SA/NT State Branch,” the letter states.

It said the handling of the presidential transition “has all the appearances of incompetent methods of operation, a complete lack of transparency and the ever-increasing levels of secrecy”.

“This declaration is not targeted at any individual, but at the collective leadership, as a result of recent years of decline in the management and operation of the League, with so many examples of poor management that the administration and DOCA situations can even be left out,” it continued.

It details four specific concerns, arguing that the “current and recent financial status of the League has failed to be made available to the membership since 2017”, despite Henshaw’s public assertion that “we are now in control of our finances”.

“No communication to update the membership on financial matters has taken place,” the letter says.

“We were also advised last year by the State President [Horan] that the Memorial Trust under the control of the Solicitor-General had been illegally accessed and that the fund was deficient in its total which was being investigated, to which there has been no further mention.

“The complete lack of transparency in relation to financial matters should be alarming to all office bearers… If the leadership believe this is appropriate and professional, they are wrong.”

It says the RSL’s “inability… to communicate with its membership generates the perception of mistrust”.

“When the only way we can find out about the business of the League is from social media posts and newspaper articles and not through direct correspondence, Sub-Branches are unable to answer the questions of members as the state branch has failed to inform them of any happenings,” it continues.

It cites in particular the cancellation of an after-march event on the Torrens Parade Ground on Anzac Day with notification given via social media, an abandoned Anzac ball (“however that was done”) and media statements about the future management of the RSL-owned Avoca Hotel as “just some examples of poor and unprofessional methods of communication”.

“If the leadership think these are appropriate methods of correspondence with the membership, once again they are wrong,” it says.

The letter argues the conduct of the “non-election” to decide the state president “lacked transparency”.

It said the sub-branch had made “numerous requests” over many years “to see the documentation relating to the conduct of, and disbursement of funds raised for the Anzac Appeal and Poppy Day Trust”, including at last year’s state conference.

“We asked for a charter for each fund to be produced, which was promised and has not been done,” the letter says.

“Our concerns are that the failure to have any documentation relating to the disbursement of funds raised in good faith from the public for the welfare of veterans does not guarantee that the monies raised under our charitable status are used correctly.”

It says a check of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission website shows “a failure to submit recent reports, which again lead to questions of transparency”.

All these points, the letter concludes, are matters of “deep concern to our members that highlight the dysfunction with which the League appears to be in”.

“With so many issues plaguing the League it is hard to attract or encourage any young veterans to join an organisation that is embroiled in such controversy and continuously being highlighted in the press for all the wrong reasons,” it says.

“Without a clear distinction of change a shadow will hang over the State Branch for a long time to come… personalities need to put the reputation of the League ahead of themselves for the good of the League and the legacy of what was achieved in our first 100 years.”

The sub-branch says that “if a motion of no confidence is raised at the upcoming [July] conference our members have chosen to support such a motion for the good of the League and the future veterans it will need to support”.

The state RSL is currently searching for a new CEO after Henshaw was recently appointed to the equivalent national role, following predecessor Georgie Macris being stood down late last year days after calling in Australian Federal Police to investigate allegations of potential fraud and misconduct within the organisation.

Cates is on leave overseas, with chairman Trevor Whitelaw acting in her role in the meantime.

He told InDaily he had only just seen the correspondence and had no comment to make on it.

“It is what it is – I have no further comment,” he said.

Oldenhove said he was unable to make public comment under RSL rules.

Johns was previously appointed to the board after Cates stood aside amid a high-level exodus before the RSL state branch was plunged into voluntary administration in 2017.

He told InDaily he was appointed to allow the board to have a quorum to vote on the administration motion.

However he says now it should have never gone into administration in the first place.

“It was very cash-poor, but it was very asset-rich – and all they had to do is sell a couple of properties and it was all fixed anyway,” he said.

He said the RSL leadership was viewed as a “like a secret society” by many sub-branches.

“All I’ve ever asked for is a fair go… all I’ve ever wanted is an election,” he said.

“The board don’t want an election – most other members in the state do. I’m quite happy for Cheryl Cates to be president – as long as it’s through an election.

“We haven’t had an election for years – I think we need one.”

In an April email notifying members of his extended leave of absence and resignation, Horan wrote he was “proud of what we have been able to accomplish while I have been involved within the RSL”.

“We have brought the League back from the financial ruin it was facing in 2017, refocused the organisation on Advocacy and Welfare and brought the RSL back into compliance with the Australian Charities and Not for Profit Commission,” he said.

“We all understand that the RSL has come through some very rough times in the last two years. To a great degree this has been a result of a committed, functional and stable board working together for the good of the RSL.

“Although I will not be a part of that group into the future, I implore all members to ensure stability and continuity for the League in SA/NT by continuing to support the incumbent board.”

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