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# Theme music

Hello there, and welcome to Compass as we continue our new series delving into some of
the religious and social movements that have powerfully influenced
our cultural identity. This week we look into the RSL,
formed in Australia in 1916. It was born out of the concern
and mateship shown by diggers for the welfare of their comrades during and after World War I. Now, it claims to be one of
Australia's first welfare agencies, and welfare remains a prime function. Although some believe that its
pokie clubs and business interests have taken over
its original noble intent. (Bugle call)

Yes, I'm wearing my RSL badge now,
but I don't always wear it. There are times,
quite a lot of times, when I have had it in, younger people have said, 'What's that badge?' 'That's the RSL.'
'Oh, you belong to that?' (Marching band plays) GERALDINE DOOGUE: The RSL was once one of Australia's largest
and most influential organisations. In 1946 it had almost 380,000 members and almost every city, town
and suburb had an RSL club. I'll ask you to observe
a few moments silence.

But today its membership is aging and the role of the RSL
is under scrutiny. MAN: Lest we forget.
ALL: Lest we forget. Thank you, gentlemen. The RSL really has become
very preoccupied with commemoration, aged care and looking backwards, and not nearly focused enough or
motivated enough on looking forwards and looking at what the experience
has been of contemporary veterans. There's a lot more to do there besides just running
commemoration services and focusing on remembrance. (Marching band plays)

So what does the RSL stand for today,
and what should it be doing? Many Australians associate the RSL
with clubs and poker machines, but that's only part of its story and had nothing to do
with its beginnings 100 years ago. MEN: # Anzac, Anzac
Long live the glorious days... # The RSL was formed in 1916
during the First World War and within three years
it had 150,000 members.

Troops who'd volunteered to fight wanted to maintain the mateship
forged during war in civilian life. They also wanted to commemorate
fallen comrades and to look after
the sick and wounded.

From the very early days, there were so many
returned soldiers, what one might call critical mass and that was a big strength,
of course. Nearly every family
had someone who was affected by someone who had gone away
to World War I. And whilst not all returned
servicemen joined the RSL, most of them did. The RSL made sure returned soldiers
and their dependants were not forgotten.

It barracked
for repatriation schemes, war pensions, legacy, land settlements
and war service homes. PETER SEKULESS: It developed
as a very effective lobby group. It was a new force. And the funny thing was that they never developed
as a soldiers' party, which they were quite capable
of doing and there was a lot of discussion
about that. Whereas in the '20s, the farmers
formed the Country Party, first in New South Wales
and then nationally. But the RSL always stayed as a... took a conscious decision that they
would stay as a pressure group.

# Old soldiers never die,
never die, never die ... # Within a few years
the RSL was making an impact, even though at this time membership of the league was
restricted to volunteers who'd fought overseas. Regular serving soldiers
couldn't join. Eligibility has been a contested
issue throughout its history, but they were quite determined
that the eligibility would be - this is originally - would be
confined to returned men.

The League also used its influence to ensure returned soldiers
were given preference in employment.

From the very beginning they felt that having fought
for their country they had the right
to shape its development and to protect the values
that they were fighting for.

But during the Great Depression this caused resentment
with the trade union movement. Because of course the trade union
movement didn't like the idea that anyone should have preference
in employment over the trade unions.

Over half a million Australians
served overseas in World War II, and when they came home,
many joined the RSL. MAN: No joy can compare with this,
the little daughter he's never seen. Welcome, welcome, welcome, lads. By 1946 it had mushroomed
into a huge organisation, reaching its peak
with 377,000 members.

The League were moving into
activities such as retirement homes
for the World War I diggers who were starting to move
into that sort of age group. So it became quite a large welfare
organisation in its own right. By now RSL sub-branches had formed
in clubs around Australia, places where returned soldiers
could meet and relax. INTERVIEWER: Bill,
what does the RSL mean to you? First the comradeship of the First
War to which most of us here belong even though we may not have served
in the same units. It does bring you all together and you get something that you had
in the First War that was standing together. My opinion of the RSL
and the policy that I've always had is that the greatest justification
for our existence as an organisation is to combine together to...
in an effort to help those of our pals
who are less fortunate.

Although the RSL had eschewed
frontline politics, over the years the League has lobbied
at the highest levels of power. In the 1950s it tried to have
the Communist Party banned, it strongly supported
the White Australia Policy and had an enormous influence
on post-war immigration.

They were very strident
in endeavouring to make sure that no Nazis managed to infiltrate
that immigration program. On issues that they felt
had anything to do with how the country
was going to... develop, they were very political indeed.

The 1960s marked a turning point
for the RSL as its position in Australian society
was questioned for the first time. PETER SEKULESS: By the '60s the League was facing
a whole new set of challenges. There was...
the baby boomer generation was challenging all traditional
institutions, including the League, which was very much
a part of the establishment. But I never feel more ashamed
of being an Australian than I do on Anzac Day. Alan Seymour's play, The One Day
Of the Year, written in 1958 and performed ever since, looked at Anzac Day
through the eyes of the young. We're sick of all the muck
that's talked about this day. The great national day of honour,
day of memory, day of salute to the fallen,
day of grief.

It's just one long grog-up! For the RSL it touched a raw nerve. You know what they say
on the wireless? If you're driving, don't drink.
If you're driving... The play sparked huge controversy. Alan Seymour was called a traitor
and a communist. There was a bomb scare at one theatre and the Adelaide Festival imposed
an unofficial black ban on the opening performance. # 1963 Four Corners Theme And there was more to come. In 1963, the ABC's Four Corners broadcast a story
which poked fun at the League. # God's in his heaven # Called the RS hell. #

It did paint a picture
of absolute ridicule of out-of-step,
out-of-touch old fogies, had too much power, didn't know
what they were doing, were past it. The report also questioned
the RSL's influence in politics. REPORTER: I've often heard
the Minister for Repatriation described as the Minister
for the RSL. Do you think
that's a fair description? Well, I should say
a reasonable description because there is
a very, very close association between the RSL
and the Repatriation Department. That caused an enormous backlash among... a lot of the RSL leaders. They got their political
gamesmanship going. They lobbied parliamentarians,
they caused an enormous public fuss. As a result the chairman of the ABC
had to come and see them. They didn't go see him,
the chairman came and saw them. The organisation had become
very, very strong. Today, above all days, we remember
all who served our nation... So does the RSL have much influence
in politics today? It's one of the great privileges of
the national president of the RSL that because
of our apolitical stance and because of our large number and our spread across
the Commonwealth that the leaders
of the major political parties are prepared to listen
to what we have to say. We put in a budget submission every
year to the government of the day saying what we believe
should be done with respect to the ex-service
community and their dependants. But we also lobby
both government and Opposition on various pieces of legislation
that are before the parliament, and we appear before various
committees of the parliament. We'll seek advice from other
organisations like the RSL... So wherever we see a need
to put our point of view to back that up, we have no hesitation in doing so.

But, by the early 1970s,
politically the RSL was out of step as public protests
against the war in Vietnam eventually saw Australian troops
brought home. PETER SEKULESS: The RSL really had,
I think, a great deal of difficulty understanding those sort of changes. For them
it was absolutely unthinkable that you didn't support
your troops fighting overseas. So the moratorium movement, the students demonstrating in the
streets against their own soldiers was something entirely
beyond their comprehension.

On top of this, the RSL did not
support many Vietnam veterans who argued that the defoliants
used in Vietnam caused ongoing medical problems. The League did not believe that
Agent Orange was the culprit that some Vietnam veterans
felt it was. And in particular
there had been a huge push among some Vietnam veterans for a
Royal Commission into Agent Orange. Now, the League was opposed
to a Royal Commission. As a result a lot of Vietnam vets
felt very unsupported by the RSL and the Vietnam veterans went off and formed their own organisations
as a result.

(Marching band plays) In the 1980s, interest in Anzac Day
reached a low point and the demise of the RSL
was being openly discussed. To combat this,
the League opened up its membership, allowing regular
serving men and women of the Australian Defence Forces
to join.

James Brown represents
the new face of the RSL. He's a former captain
in the Australian Army who served in Afghanistan and Iraq. At 34, he's one of the RSL's
youngest members. JAMES BROWN: I'm no longer
in the regular army. I wanted to have some sort of tie to the military community
and colleagues. I was interested in veterans' issues and so I wanted to be able
to contribute to that in some way, be aware of what is happening
in the veterans' community. And lastly for me, personally, it plugs me into the local community
here as well.

But James is critical of the League, saying it should do more
for today's veterans instead of spending millions commemorating the landings
at Gallipoli. He says Anzac Day has become
a lavish festival of the dead and argues the money would be better
spent supporting returning soldiers who are struggling to deal with the physical
and psychological legacy of war. # It's a long way to Tipperary... # JAMES BROWN: A country
that's trying to cut back spending in almost every other area
of government policy is spending money
on an Anzac arms race, looking for bigger and better ways to commemorate the service
of our war dead. I see that all this commemoration
and reflection of stories about Gallipoli doesn't actually help Australians to understand
what war might be like today. The stories of Gallipoli tell us
that heroism and victory in war is about landing on a beach,
charging the hill, killing an enemy
and taking a position. Today that is not what victory
would look like for Australia. And Australians seem to think
that war is all about stopping an invasion
of our country from happening. But in reality it's about
maintaining international systems that have provided security for us
for a long time. (Bugle call) By the early 1990s,
the Anzac legend was on the rise, after the RSL
had successfully lobbied for the site of the Gallipoli
landings to be renamed Anzac Cove. Successive prime ministers
paid homage to the Anzac tradition, joined by waves
of Australians pilgrims.

Because these hills rang with their
voices and ran with their blood. Australia, a lasting sense
of national identity. But here, in 1915,
its spirit and ethos were sealed. I think it's fascinating that you look to
the 50th anniversary of Gallipoli and who organised
the pilgrimage to Gallipoli, chartered the wooden boats
for them to row ashore. That was the RSL. Now, of course, those activities
are carried out by government. But it would seem that
there is this spiritual element, for which the RSL carries the flame,
will continue.

WOMAN: 42. 4-2. 60. 31. 3-1. But to many Australians the RSL is
synonymous with clubs like this one - rows of poker machines,
cheap meals, bingo and beer.

The Rooty Hill RSL Club
in Sydney's west is one of the biggest
and wealthiest in NSW. It has a four-star hotel,
a state-of-the-art gymnasium, swimming pool complex,
ten-pin bowling facility and over 700 poker machines. It's very different from the club's
humble beginnings in 1964. The first building was a tin shed,
it virtually was a tin shed. The guys got together,
they bandied around chook raffles, all that sort of thing of the days. Got some money together, purchased
a very small block of ground and they really struggled
to get the numbers. But after a while, when the club
started getting formed, I think it was only open weekends
in those days. I think our first taking was about
£5 profit, something like that, and it just grew from there.

Today, the Rooty Hill RSL Club
rakes in over $70 million a year and, like the 270 other licensed
RSL clubs in New South Wales, it's run as a separate entity. It has little to do with
the actual Returned Services League due to changes in the State's
licensing laws in the 1970s. The major problem we have of course,
the perception of the public is that we own
all those poker machines, we're involved in gambling,
we're involved in the drinking, the selling of alcohol, and of course we're not. And the public perception is that
we own all these clubs out there and thousands and thousands
of poker machines, which we don't. In 2013 Don Rowe struck out
at so-called 'fake' RSL Clubs. He claimed the clubs were
little more than gambling palaces, did little to help veterans
and were damaging the League's brand. I want to see the people
clearly understand that there is an organisation
called the RSL Clubs and there is an organisation called the New South Wales Branch
of the RSL or as we prefer to call them,
at times, the League. So that we are two
different identities and that's what I want people
to understand is that we're not the same,
even though we have the same name. It's a bit like those cabs
that drive around Sydney called the RSL cabs,
well, they're not us either. We have something like
350 sub-branches throughout New South Wales. A great many of them
have very little money at all and they receive nothing from
many of those big clubs like that. That's Don Rowe's opinion, it's not necessarily
the opinion of this sub-branch. This club, Rooty Hill RSL Club
itself, is very, very supportive of the sub-branch movement. I know there are some other clubs that have dropped
the values of the RSL, but I can only talk in glowing terms of how Rooty Hill RSL
has supported the sub-branch.

Alf Davey holds a unique dual role. As well as being the junior Vice
Chair of the Rooty Hill RSL CLUB, he is also the honorary secretary of the Rooty Hill Returned Services
League sub-branch.

The club is very supportive of
anything that the sub-branch needs. They... allocate X amount of dollars
for us to have our reunions, our Remembrance Days. The club like this
contributes greatly. We have our mortality fund,
we have welfare, and that all comes out of the club, to the sub-branch,
which is very fair. My veterans in the area around here, they are very well looked after
from the club itself.

Some RSL sub-branches don't have
a large club to support them. In the New South Wales town
of Morisset, RSL members operate
from an old house. There's no bistro or poker machines, but they believe that enables them to
more effectively serve their members. DANIEL SLOAN:
We don't need clubs to finance us. We're independent and we're not
being dictated to by anyone. So we can sort of pick and choose
and it gives us a bit more freedom and a bit more clout
in the community. So we're not actually being branded
as 'pokies and beer'. A lot of people have
that misunderstanding. There are two different factions - the RSL club and the sub-branch. The sub-branch
is there to look after the wellbeing and welfare
of those who served and the needy ones. And until you realise
that there are two factions, you're in the wrong street. G'day, Vicky.
Hi. We always get phone calls asking what time the bistro opens
and stuff like that. That's fine and then we give them
a quick little history lesson, saying we're not actually the club, we're the sub-branch -
we look after the veterans. Look at Daddy.
Daddy!Daddy. One of the people they've helped
is Victoria Hopkins. Her husband Mathew was
a member here before he was killed in Afghanistan
in 2009. The Defence Force has released
the name of the Australian soldier killed in Afghanistan this week. He was Corporal Mathew Hopkins. The 21-year-old was shot... VICTORIA: Since Matt's passing, Daniel and the other members of the
South Lake Macquarie RSL sub-branch have been absolutely fantastic help
for Alex and I. Over the years they've formally
invited us to attend functions such as Anzac Day and
Remembrance Day in honour of Matt. I'm the youngest widow in the area, so I attend those services for Matt and for the other young widows
as well.

Our main aim
is that personal contact which, I think,
when you go back to the clubs that personal contact has gone. And it's nothing for us to get
a phone call to drive an old lady to a hospital to see her husband. And we'll do that,
and we'll do it any day or night, take phone calls,
whatever needs to be done. We're starting to get a good name in
the area for looking after our own. It's this kind of grassroots
help and support that continues to win public respect
for the RSL.

But James Brown is agitating
for more to be done. JAMES BROWN:
There's a lot of things that the RSL could be doing here in
New South Wales with some
of the money that's been saved up. And the example has been set
by some of the newer charities who are doing things like adventure
races or recreational activities. Some of that detailed crisis
intervention that you need to do when veterans
really fall on hard times. And research, that's one big thing that's not happening
to a satisfactory standard - research into what
the particular experience of the Australian
veterans' community has been with physical injuries,
with mental health. All these are things that RSLs
could be doing but aren't. I respect James' view
but I disagree with it. The basic point is that we are
spending and will continue to spend and the RSL will continue to spend
a lot of money looking after those
who have been sent in harm's way.

Among them is Curtis McGrath. He's one of around a thousand
veterans fronting up each year in need of some kind of psychological
or physical support.

Curtis lost both his legs
after stepping on an explosive device in Afghanistan in 2012.

CURTIS MCGRATH: I just remember
it being quite dark. I opened my eyes, there was still
dust and everything falling and I was on my back
and I questioned what's happened. I got up on my elbows and I looked
down and my legs were gone and that's when the pain hit me.

Curtis' injuries
were horrific and life-changing.

He's benefited from a unique program
called Mates 4 Mates launched by the RSL in Queensland
in 2013.

It's a great initiative
that really focuses just not on the injury itself, it's focusing on the rehabilitation
of the member of the family and everyone around them, especially the friends
of that injured person because PTSD doesn't just affect
that person, it affects everyone around them. Within a few months he won
the canoe sprint national titles, and Curtis is now training full-time to make the Australian team
in the 2016 Paralympics. We hadn't really talked about
joining the RSL as a group of friends as such
because of the big gap between the Vietnam veterans
and the guys of today. And we sort of thought that
it wasn't really relevant to us. So when I got word that
Mates 4 Mates was a part of the RSL and it was doing things
that I was interested in, that's when we were all happy
to jump on board and give it a go.

(Bugle call) MAN: Ladies and gentlemen,
it's quite fitting following the recognition
of our members' passing that in a moment I'll recite
The Ode To The Fallen. Today, the RSL has 170,000 members
in Australia. But it will need many more
younger members if it is to survive, and adapt to changing times. JACQUI REES: It hasa future
but it will be different because it is now an organisation
for regular professional soldiers, and we will always have a regular
profession or defence force. So I should think
that into the foreseeable future the RSL will certainly be there
for them. (Marching band plays
Waltzing Matilda) JAMES BROWN: It's still
a big organisation and even once the World War II
members pass on, it will still be a big organisation
with tens of thousands of members spread across the country, and with an enormous
organisational heft to it. So I don't think it'll decline
quite as fast as we expect.

KEN DOOLAN: I'm extremely confident
about the future of the RSL. We are an extraordinarily important
part of the fabric of this nation. We stand up to be counted,
to look after and care for those who the nation sends in harm's way
and their dependants. We've done it for 100 years
and I'm quite confident that come a 100 years from now,
we'll still be doing it.

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