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Returned and Services League of Australia

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Returned and Services League
of Australia
Formation16 June 1916; 107 years ago (1916-06-16)
TypeEx-service organisation
Registration no.ACN 008 488 097
Legal statusCharity
Membership (2022)
National President
Major General Greg Melick, AO, RFD, SC
Phil Winter
AffiliationsRoyal Commonwealth Ex-Services League (RCEL)
Formerly called
  • 1916: Returned Sailors and Soldiers Imperial League of Australia
  • 1940: Returned Sailors', Soldiers' and Airmen's Imperial League of Australia
  • 1965: Returned Services League of Australia (to 1990).

The Returned and Services League of Australia, known as RSL, RSL Australia and RSLA, is an independent support organisation for people who have served or are serving in the Australian Defence Force.


The RSL's national headquarters from 1963 to 2011 at 81 Constitution Avenue, Canberra near Russell Offices, the headquarters of the Australian Defence Force and Department of Defence

The League was formed in 1916 in response to the lack of a unified approach with Australian repatriation facilities and medical services for those returning from World War I. On 6 June 1916, a meeting of representatives from New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia and Victoria resolved to form The Returned Sailors and Soldiers Imperial League of Australia (RSSILA).[note 1] Their intention was to lobby for better benefits, treatment and welfare of veterans and serving members of the Defence Force and to preserve the health, wellbeing and security of Australia and the Australian way of life. Before then, state Returned Service Associations had lobbied for better conditions for returned service people in their respective states. The League soon became, and remains, the nation’s largest ex-service organisation.[2]

During the inter-war period 1919 to 1939, the RSSILA was recognised as the appropriate body to represent the interests of returned Australian service personnel in exchange for extending political cooperation to the Nationalist Party of Prime Minister Stanley Bruce.[citation needed] The RSSILA was noted for its right-wing politics, in 1919 drawing on its membership to form a 2,000-strong paramilitary force called the "Army to fight Bolshevism", and permitting various right-wing Australian militia groups access to its membership lists to convince returned servicemen to join them.[3] In 1923, the League adopted the motto, "The price of liberty is eternal vigilance".[4] After the Second World War, amidst widespread antisemitism in Australia, the League published antisemitic political cartoons encouraging the Australian government and Minister for Immigration Arthur Calwell to stem the flow of Jewish immigrants fleeing postwar violence.[5] In 1948, World War I veteran and politician Fred Paterson was expelled from the organisation for being a communist.[6]

In 1940, the name of the League changed to the Returned Sailors', Soldiers' and Airmen's Imperial League of Australia (RSSAILA). It changed in 1965 to the Returned Services League of Australia (RSL) and in 1990 to the Returned & Services League of Australia.[citation needed] Before that time, those who defended Darwin from Japanese bombing in World War II were not eligible to join, as they had never left Australia and thus could not be "returned."

National presidents since the league's inception are as follows:[1]: 19 

National presidents
Order Rank Name Postnominals Held office
1 Lieutenant Colonel William Kinsey Bolton CBE, VD 1916–1919
2 Captain Sir Gilbert Dyett CMG 1919–1946
3 Colonel Sir Eric Millhouse KC 1946–1950
4 Sergeant Sir George Holland CBE, MM 1950–1960
5 Lieutenant Colonel Sir Arthur Lee KBE, MC & Bar 1960–1974
6 Brigadier Sir William Hall KBE, DSO, ED 1974–1978
7 Captain Sir William Keys AC, OBE, MC 1978–1988
8 Brigadier (Retd) Alf Garland AM 1988–1993
9 Major General (Retd) William Brian "Digger" James AC, MBE, MC 1993–1997
10 Major General (Retd) Peter Phillips AO, MC 1997–2003
11 Major General (Retd) Bill Crews AO 2003–2009
12 Rear Admiral (Retd) Ken Doolan AO 2009–2016
13 Major Rod White AM, RFD 2016–2017
14 Warrant Officer Robert Dick 2017–2018
15 Major General (Retd) Aziz Gregory "Greg" Melick AO, RFD, SC[note 2] 2019–present


The objects of the League remain relatively unchanged from its first incorporation.[citation needed] The League expresses its vision as:

Together, our vision is to help Australia’s veterans and Defence families enjoy better opportunities in all aspects of their lives.[1]: 1 

The League's mission is:

To provide on behalf of Australia’s Veterans and Defence families national advocacy, supportive and coordinated national programs and activities, more funding and optimised management of the RSL brand.[1]: 1 

RSL Australia is organised as a federation of its independent state branches, which in turn consist of 1107 sub-branches (as of 2022) delivering diverse services tailored to the priorities and needs of local veterans. The national office, in Canberra, shapes the national agenda on veterans' affairs on behalf of the state branches, provides national advocacy, and supports and coordinates national programs and activities.[1]: 1, 12 

The corporate entity underpinning RSL Australia is The Returned & Services League of Australia Limited – a public company limited by guarantee registered with the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission and endorsed to access GST and income tax concessions.[7] The company is governed by a board comprising the national president and deputy national president, chairman, a director from each of the seven state/territory branches, and three independent non-member directors.[1]: 16 

Many RSL sub-branches display redundant military hardware, such as this Leopard 1 tank outside the Kilcoy sub-branch in Queensland


The League conducts a diverse range of programs and initiatives to serve its current membership and the next generation of veterans and their families. In 2022, it reported:[1]

  • deep involvement with the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide: attending hearings around the country and making extensive, detailed submissions and comments on behalf of the veteran community, and implementing projects to address some of the known issues
  • initiation of an inaugural national Ex-service Organisation (ESO) Forum aimed at driving better coordination within the ESO sector and bringing together the collective thinking of Australia's leading ESOs
  • pro-active advocacy for veterans, including commentary on many current issues such as calls for government assistance for Afghan interpreters, demand-driven funding, mental health support, and proactive medical treatment for veterans
  • major observances of ANZAC Day and Remembrance Day, and support of many other anniversaries and commemorations, including the 80th anniversary of the Kokoda Campaign
  • advocacy in helping to shape the national discussion of security, veterans, services and defence preparedness
  • cooperation with the Department of Veterans' Affairs and the Department of Defence, particularly around the subject of transition into civilian life
  • delivering and coordinating Enhanced Employment Services to Veterans, a national employment program for veterans under Australian Government grant funding
  • reactivation of RSL Active to better coordinate sports and recreational activities across the League.


The influence of the League derives from its founding days organising rituals for ANZAC Day dawn services and marches, and Remembrance Day commemorations. In addition to pressing for benefits for veterans, the organisation entered other areas of political debate. The RSL was politically conservative,[8][9] Anglophilic, and monarchist.[10]

In the 1970s and 1980s, many defence force personnel, including veterans of the Vietnam War, found the RSL – whose members had predominantly served in the Second World War – generally unwelcoming and disdaining of their service.[11] Since the turn of the century, with the number of Second World War veterans in the RSL dwindling, Vietnam veterans and their contemporaries, along with ex-servicemen's wives, have become mainstays of the League.[2]

The focus of the RSL has been on the welfare of Australian men and women who have served in the armed forces. It has advocated for veterans' entitlements and the protection of former battlefields. Usually RSL members ensure that those who have served their country are commemorated by notifying funeral information and handing out poppies at the funeral.[12]


The League's badge is a symbol of readiness at all times to render service to the country and to former comrades. No wealth or influence can purchase the RSL badge which may be worn only by those who are members.[4][note 3] The shield is symbolic of the protection which the RSL gives to its members, their dependents, and widows/widowers and orphans of those who paid the supreme sacrifice.[4] At the top of the badge is a crown, signifying allegiance to the Crown. Below the crown are the national flowers of Australia, Wales, England, Scotland and Ireland: the wattle, leek, rose, thistle, and shamrock. In the centre of the badge are a sailor, soldier, airman and service woman marching with their arms linked, symbolising friendship and the unity of all services and all ranks in comradeship. The red of the badge symbolises the blood ties of war. The white background stands for the purity of motive and the rendering of service without personal gain. The blue is a symbol of willingness to render service to a comrade anywhere under the sky.[13]

Branches and sub-branches[edit]

RSL sub-branches often operate from small suburban premises, such as here in Wagga Wagga, in contrast to the usually large public licensed "RSL club" buildings in New South Wales, which in that state are not owned by the RSL

Each state and territory has a branch of the League, with similar hierarchical structures. Within each branch is a series of districts and sub-branches that serve the interests of members in a particular geographic area.[14][15]

The naming of these branches and sub-branches can be confused with the commercial entities generally called RSL Clubs. Ownership and operation of RSL and Services clubs differ from state to state. For example, RSL NSW and its sub-branches do not own or operate any registered clubs, nor do they own or operate poker machines; however, RSL Victoria sub-branches do.[14]

Controversy (RSL New South Wales councillors)[edit]

On 4 October 2016, the Sydney Morning Herald and ABC News reported that RSL national president Rod White, a retired major of the Australian Army Reserve, received a share in nearly $1 million of consulting fees paid by an arm of the League, RSL LifeCare, and failed to disclose conflicts of interest.[16] Mr White denied any wrongdoing and was quoted as saying, when questioned by an ABC News reporter: "I believe I have personally fulfilled my obligations legally and ethically and I'm just absolutely surprised at your questioning of my integrity in that regard".[17]

In October 2016, legal advice commissioned by the RSL's New South Wales Branch indicated RSL New South Wales councillors, including Mr White, may have broken the law by receiving a share in $1 million of consulting fees while holding a voluntary position in the veteran's group: "It is possible, but not certain, that in doing so they did not meet one or more of their duties and obligations, or contravened the law."[18] Subsequently, calls were made for Mr White to step aside in order to rebuild public trust in the League.[19][20][21]

On 7 November 2016, ABC News reported Mr White as being likely to stand down pending an investigation into the consultancy fee payments, and that new documents obtained by ABC revealed that the quantum of consultancy fees paid was "far greater than originally thought – totalling more than $2 million since 2007".[22]

On Remembrance Day 2016, ABC News reported that the New South Wales Branch of the RSL was at risk of losing its charity status as a result of the payment scandal and that the Australian Charities and Not-For-Profits Commission had written to the RSL "outlining its concerns that the league may not be meeting its obligations as a charity" and warning, as a worst case, that "the commission may use its powers to revoke the league's charity status if it finds evidence that the rules have been broken".[23][24]

The RSL acting national president, Robert Dick, was subsequently reported as saying the league would be working with "regulatory bodies to deliver an appropriate corporate governance structure to ensure there is no maladministration in the NSW Branch. We are determined to expose any wrongdoing".[25]

In March 2017, Mr White resigned as President of the RSL; he had held the position for eight months.[26]

Licensed clubs[edit]

The Highett RSL Sub-Branch Club in suburban Melbourne, is one of more than 200 RSL and services clubs in Victoria
Caulfield RSL building, in Elsternwick, Melbourne

Licensed clubs were formed as commercial activities to initially provide services by sub-branches to their members, including providing an environment for the protection and promotion of the ideals of the ANZAC spirit and heritage. The venues were established to provide hospitality for war veterans and a place for comradeship. Often they were located on land granted by the state government.[27] Over time these commercial entities, known generally as RSL Clubs (but also called Ex-Services, Memorial, Legion or other similar names)[27] generated profits and often donated to local community services.[14][27]

The membership base of the licensed clubs, totalling more than a million, differs significantly from membership of the Returned and Services League (RSL). Membership of the League does not automatically confer rights of entry or membership to a licensed club but in some jurisdictions clubs extend honorary membership to serving members of the ADF.[27][28]

The RSL licensed club in Goodna, Queensland

Licensed clubs operating under the RSL name usually have bar and dining facilities for their members and guests, and sometimes have extensive gambling areas. Each evening at 6.00 pm the Ode of Remembrance is read, followed by one minute's silence to honour those who died serving their country.[29]

RSL NSW and its sub-Branches do not own or operate any registered clubs, nor do they own or operate poker machines.

Other commercial activities[edit]

RSL Care[edit]

The first RSL home for ex-servicemen was established in 1938. The affiliated organisation, which became RSL Care, had 26 facilities in 2011. Following a merger with the Royal District Nursing Service in Victoria, in 2016 it became RSL Care RDNS Limited, an Australian public company registered as a charity, trading as Bolton Clarke. With more than 28 retirement communities throughout Queensland and New South Wales and several others in development, it was one of Australia's largest providers of retirement living and aged care services.[30][31]

RSL Cabs[edit]

Operating under a co-operative structure, in 1946 a group of returned servicemen established RSL Ex-Servicemen's Cabs & Co-Operative Members Limited to provide taxi services to Sydney. By the 1950s, the co-operative had expanded to more than 60 drivers.[32] As of 2021 it operated on a commercial basis in which drivers were not required to be members of the League.

RSL Art Union[edit]

Commenced in Queensland in 1956, the RSL Art Union is a lottery that raises funds to provide welfare services to ex-service men and women, their dependents and to other members of the community. A major prize of a luxury waterfront home on Queensland's Gold Coast is usually offered, together with a range of bonus prizes. As of 2011, the RSL Art Union had provided since its inception A$80  million in prizes and had raised more than A$70 million for development and maintenance of RSL nursing homes, hospitals and centres, and retirement complexes for elderly people.[33][needs update]


  1. ^ A Tasmanian representative was unable to attend but Tasmania nevertheless joined with Queensland, South Australia and Victoria as a founding member of the League. New South Wales was admitted to the League the following year and Western Australia in 1918. In 1927, the Australian Capital Territory formed a branch and was admitted.
  2. ^ The post-nominal "SC" applies both to the bravery decoration, Star of Courage, and the legal practitioner title, senior counsel. Greg Melick is a senior counsel.
  3. ^ It is an offence under the laws of most Australian states and territories for an individual to wear an RSL badge (a) that has not been issued specifically to them by the RSL, and (b) unless they are entitled to wear the badge, at that time, under the rules of the League: Returned Servicemen's Badges Act 1952 (SA), the Returned Servicemen's Badges Act 1953 (WA), the Returned Servicemen's Badges Act 1955 (Tas), the Returned Servicemen's Badges Act 1956 (Qld), the Returned Servicemen's Badges Act 1956 (Vic), the Returned Servicemen's Badges Act 1960 (ACT), and the Discharged Servicemen's Badges Act 1964 (NSW).


  1. ^ a b c d e f g "2022 National annual report" (PDF). The Returned & Services League of Australia Ltd. 2022. p. 17. Retrieved 29 November 2023.
  2. ^ a b "About Us". RSL Australia. Retrieved 29 November 2023.
  3. ^ Moore, Andrew (1995). The Right Road? A History of Right-wing Politics in Australia. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, Australia. p. 25. ISBN 0-19-553512-X.
  4. ^ a b c "Symbolism". RSL Australia. 2023. Retrieved 29 November 2023.
  5. ^ Gollan, [by] Robin (1975). Revolutionaries and reformists : Communism and the Australian Labour Movement, 1920-1955. Canberra: Australian National University Press. pp. 158–161. ISBN 0708102506.
  6. ^ "Paterson expelled by Q'ld RSL council without a hearing". The Northern Standard. Darwin, NT: National Library of Australia. 28 May 1948. p. 8. Retrieved 14 February 2014.
  7. ^ "Current details for ABN 63 008 488 097". ABN Lookup. Australian Government. 29 November 2023. Retrieved 29 November 2023.
  8. ^ Crotty, Martin (2 January 2019). "'What more do you want?': Billy Hughes and Gilbert Dyett in late 1919". History Australia. 16 (1): 52–71. doi:10.1080/14490854.2018.1558069. ISSN 1449-0854. S2CID 150593843.
  9. ^ Crotty, Martin (1 June 2007). "The Anzac Citizen: Towards a History of the RSL". Australian Journal of Politics & History. 53 (2): 183–193. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8497.2007.00453.x. ISSN 0004-9522.
  10. ^ Kullmann, Claudio (5 November 2008). "Attitudes towards the Monarchy in Australia and New Zealand Compared". Commonwealth & Comparative Politics. 46 (4): 442–463. doi:10.1080/14662040802461125. ISSN 1466-2043. S2CID 144715921.
  11. ^ Ryan, Kel (January 2013). "The changing nature of Australian ex-service organisations". Third Sector Review. 19: 27–49. eISSN 1323-9163 – via Informit.
  12. ^ "RSL Funeral Ritual – Morwell RSL". Retrieved 17 February 2023.
  13. ^ "RSL badge symbolism". History. Returned and Services League of Australia (Victorian Branch). Archived from the original on 31 December 2012. Retrieved 2 June 2011.
  14. ^ a b c "Returned & Services League of Australia (Victorian Branch) Inc". Productivity Commission Issues Paper. Productivity Commission. March 2009. p. 4. Archived from the original on 2 April 2015. Retrieved 30 May 2011.
  15. ^ "What is the RSL?". About us. Returned and Services League of Australia (Queensland Branch). 2010. Archived from the original on 3 September 2011. Retrieved 30 May 2011.
  16. ^ "RSL volunteers share in hundreds of thousands of dollars as consulting fees". David Wroe. Sydney Morning Herald. 4 October 2016. Archived from the original on 11 November 2016. Retrieved 10 November 2016.
  17. ^ "Federal RSL president Rod White defends receiving tens of thousands of dollars from within organisation". Angela Lavoipierre. ABC News. 4 October 2016. Archived from the original on 9 November 2016. Retrieved 10 November 2016.
  18. ^ "Legal advice thinks RSL bosses may have broken the law". David Wroe. Sydney Morning Herald. 21 October 2016. Archived from the original on 26 October 2016. Retrieved 10 November 2016.
  19. ^ Angela Lavoipierre (8 October 2016). "RSL president Rod White faces internal anger over payments received". ABC News. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Archived from the original on 7 October 2017. Retrieved 10 November 2016.
  20. ^ "RSL president must step aside to rebuild public trust". Sydney Morning Herald. Archived from the original on 7 October 2017. Retrieved 10 November 2016.
  21. ^ "Only strong leadership can save the RSL". Sydney Morning Herald. 19 January 2017. Archived from the original on 7 October 2017. Retrieved 8 October 2017.
  22. ^ "RSL president Rod White agrees to stand down amid claims of receiving and failing to disclose payments". Angela Lavoipierre. ABC News. 7 November 2016. Archived from the original on 10 November 2016. Retrieved 10 November 2016.
  23. ^ "RSL NSW risks losing charity status in wake of payments scandal". Angela Lavoipierre. ABC News. 10 November 2016. Archived from the original on 11 November 2016. Retrieved 11 November 2016.
  24. ^ "RSL NSW 'ruined' if charity status revoked". Gemma Najem and Rebecca Chirichiello of the Australian Associated Press. The Weekend Australian. Retrieved 12 November 2016.
  25. ^ "NSW govt to be briefed on RSL misconduct". Australian Associated Press. NT News. Retrieved 30 November 2016.
  26. ^ "RSL national president Rod White resigns amid investigation into alleged financial scandal". Angela Lavoipierre. ABC News. 9 March 2017. Archived from the original on 10 March 2017. Retrieved 10 March 2017.
  27. ^ a b c d "Letter from the RSL & Services Clubs Association Limited responding to the Discussion Paper re a New Framework for Consultation with the Ex-Service and Defence Communities" (PDF). Prime Ministerial Advisory Council on Ex-Service Matters. Department of Veterans' Affairs. 24 April 2008. p. 2. Archived from the original (PDF) on 1 June 2011. Retrieved 31 May 2011.
  28. ^ Christiansen, Melanie (1 February 2008). "RSL clubs fight for future". The Courier-Mail. News Limited. Archived from the original on 15 September 2012. Retrieved 31 May 2011.
  29. ^ "Words of Remembrance". ANZAC Day. ANZAC Day Commemoration Committee (Qld) Incorporated. 1998. Archived from the original on 3 June 2011. Retrieved 31 May 2011.
  30. ^ "History". RSL Care. RSL (Qld) War Veterans' Homes Limited. 2010. Archived from the original on 6 May 2011. Retrieved 30 May 2011.
  31. ^ "Historical details for ABN 90 010 488 454". ABN Lookup. Australian Business Register. 2021. Retrieved 4 May 2021.
  32. ^ "Home". RSL Cabs. RSL Ex-Servicemen's Cabs & Co-Operative Members Limited. Archived from the original on 18 February 2011. Retrieved 30 May 2011.
  33. ^ "Who is the RSL". RSL Art Union. 2010. Archived from the original on 4 July 2011. Retrieved 30 May 2011.

See also[edit]

Similar veterans' organisations[edit]

External links[edit]