A simple code of mateship and nationalism explains the enduring appeal of the Returned & Services League of Australia. The unswerving loyalty to mates and assertive Australian nationalism which give the League its strength are easy to understand. The membership is largely self-educated: the men of World War I who remained in control of the League until well after World War II had few formal educational opportunities, and the men and women who served from 1939 to 1945 received their education in uniform.
The leadership of the League has rarely been drawn from the military or social elite. Popular generals, including John Monash and Harry Chauvel, were called but not chosen. The egalitarian nature of the League reflects more than the soldiers' suspicion of 'brass hats' and the wider Australian desire to cut down 'tall poppies' - the League has been a social and spiritual home for less-wealthy and less-educated veterans, and although affluent and professional veterans are often loyal members of the League, they have alternative avenues for fellowship.
As Victorian president, Bruce Ruxton, told a Melbourne student newspaper, "... being a young soldier in the war, I was very impressed with the rugged Queenslanders that I served with. Uneducated as they may have been, they did great deeds for Australia in the war, never recognised of course. They may not have been the most prominent citizens, but they did serve their country well during the war. You've got to remember that I went to the war straight from Melbourne High School ... I suppose I would have been one of the twenty best educated out of a thousand men, yet I knew nothing."
Although the League is one of the most representative and broad-based community groups, certain characteristics distinguish its membership. Members are mainly male and tend to be older than the rest of the population. The views of country veterans receive more than proportionate weight, thanks to the long-standing policy-making processes. Thus age, education, and bush bias make the League different from other organisations. All three attributes contribute to making an organisation which is cautious about accepting change. Thus the League can accurately be described as "The voice of stability in changing times". (Sir Albert Abbott, Queensland branch president, 1985 State Congress.)
That voice has often been strident; sometimes because harsh words were needed to protect the interests of the returned or the dependents of those who did not return, and sometimes in defence of a principle or belief dearly held.
"Returned" is the key word. Overseas service, and only overseas service, entitled a man or a woman to membership. To widen or not to widen eligibility for membership has been the most divisive and bitterly contested issue in the League's history.
Recruits accepted for overseas service but who never left Australia were ruled ineligible shortly after World War I. A plebiscite of sub-branches voted the same way in 1947. Faced with literally a dying organisation, members finally approved a plebiscite resolution for widening membership in 1983.
Ironically, New South Wales was the state most in favor of wider eligibility in 1947. The reverse was the case in 1983 and the most populous state took a further two years to accept the national plebiscite result as binding. Long-held beliefs die hard. Members in other states grudgingly accepted the change. "You only need to smile at a recruiting officer to become a member of the League these days" is a comment that sums up the feelings of many members, who concede the need for new recruits, but without much enthusiasm. In fact, the post-1983 criteria for membership is six month's service in the regular services or the reserve in Australia or overseas.
The voice of stability which ensured that criteria for membership remained unchanged for sixty-seven years extends to the League's attitudes on external issues. Policies on repatriation, ANZAC commemoration, compulsory military training and ties with Britain have altered little over the seven decades. This unchanging sense of purpose and direction is a source of strength to the organisation, particularly in its most crucial sphere or activity - the welfare of those who served and their families.