By Delia Price at Business News
MORE than a century after it was founded amidst the political and social upheaval of WWI, the Returned and Services League is planning an image makeover, according to the organisation’s
WA chief executive.
While remembering fallen friends, family members and comrades is an important part of the RSL’s role, as celebrated in Anzac Day marches across Australia and Remembrance Day
ceremonies, John McCourt believes more needs to be done to bring the not-for-profit’s core business of advocacy, welfare and mental health support back to the front line.
“The RSL has been around for more than 100 years, it was set up by men in their mid to late-20s after WWI,” Mr McCourt told Business News.
“After World War II there were men and women in their 20s and 30s, then after Korea and Vietnam the clubs were added to by veterans of those wars.
“But over the years of the long peace between Vietnam and what transpired 15 to 18 years ago – Afghanistan, Iraq and Timor – the organisation was seen as a much older organisation.
“It was seen to be an older person’s club that did lots of things in terms of commemoration, marches and medals … but that’s not all we do.”
Trying to change RSL WA’s public image after a century is not a simple task, with Mr McCourt likening it to turning around a cruise ship – a delicate and slow process.
“We’ve had criticism that we’ve been inactive looking after veterans in the period from Vietnam to now, and that’s true,” Mr McCourt said.
“We didn’t do much because there wasn’t much to do, and now we are an older organisation that needs to turn around.
“Moving forward, we need to highlight what we do apart from the ceremonial stuff.”
According to a 2018 report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, more than one in five recently transitioned Australian Defence Force members reported suicidal thoughts,
plans or attempts.
For ex-services personnel, the rate of suicide was around 18 per cent higher than the general population, the report found, with men under the age of 30 at particular risk.
“Our suicide, unemployment and homelessness rate among veterans (in WA) is way above of the national average,” Mr McCourt said.
The new generation of service people faced many unique challenges, he said, and with more than 7,000 members leaving the Australian Defence Force each year, it was critical that support
could be easily accessed upon their return to civilian life.
“We’ve had significant recruiting increases over the last 20 to 25 years because of the advent of conflict,” Mr McCourt said.
“As an ex-services organisation, we need to help them get jobs, support them and their families.
“When you’re still in defence it’s very supportive and regimented, and you know where to go.
“But when you’re out, it’s almost like another world.”
Unlike veterans of the two world wars and Vietnam, current defence force members had to deal with a type of fly-in, fly-out work routine, Mr McCourt said, being deployed for weeks or
months at a time, rather than years.
Despite presenting an opportunity to spend more time at home, this brought a slew of mental health issues and created dysfunctional family situations.
RSLWA has two major plans to make the transition to civilian life easier for veterans, starting with the establishment of new headquarters at the old ANZAC House on St Georges Terrace.
Scheduled for completion in April 2020, the $23 million development will become RSLWA’s Veteran Central, co-locating a range of ex-services support organisations.
This will allow veterans to easily access all services in one location.
Mr McCourt  said the second major stage would be to roll out ‘veteran hubs’ to the greater metro and regional areas.
“We’ve got two things that lots of other ex-services organisations don’t have,” he said.
“We’ve got bricks and mortar, and we’ve got reach.”
Despite a strong capital base and $3.5 million revenue last financial year, Mr McCourt said RSLWA must improve its fundraising strategies in order to cover basic operational costs.
“We’re a not-for-profit organisation, but we’re certainly not for loss,” he said.
“I think some of our veterans don’t have a forensic understanding of not for profit – it doesn’t mean we can’t make a profit, but you have to pour those funds back into veterans’ services.
“We have a fairly strong capital base, we’re investing some of that money so the returns allow us to keep the lights on.
“We need to do things better in terms of getting that enduring income, like Telethon does, like the Parkerville charity does.
“We have an annual street appeal, but we need to do much more than that.”