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Malcolm Turnbull's son-in-law, James Brown, is now the NSW RSL president

Former soldier James Brown, now the NSW RSL president

University academic and former Australian Army officer James Brown, was elected the scandal-riven New South Wales RSL’s new president yesterday in a dramatic changing of the guard.

Brown, 36, is research director of the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, and son-in-law of prime minister Malcolm Turnbull. He commanded a cavalry troop in southern Iraq, and was attached to Special Forces in Afghanistan. He was elected to the RSL’s top job when its congress met in Albury yesterday.

The NSW Branch, now in its 100 year, is currently facing several investigations over claims of financial mismanagement and allegations of fraud against members of the former executive. The NSW Police fraud squad and Charities Commission, as well as auditors are investigating while the NSW government is holding its own special inquiry.

RSL patron and NSW governor David Hurley took the chance to bring the issue to a head as he addressed the congress a calling for “a new direction”.

“We are all wounded by this as an organisation,” he said.

Members responded to his call. Brown defeated three other candidates for the top job, including former president, John Haines.

Before the election, Brown wrote an opinion piece for The Daily Telegraph in which he said the goings-on in the state council of the NSW RSL “would make a union heavy blush”. He will now lead the 13-member state council for the next three years and is the fourth state president in three years.

At age 32, Mick Bainbridge is the youngest member of the new council, while Sandra Lambikin is the first female board member in some time.

Many former board members currently under investigation stood for re-election, with five returned to the state council.

At yesterday’s AGM, the council failed to provide any financial records for members to examine, a move that outraged Brown and the membership.

Among several changes introduced yesterday, the organisation must now deliver quarterly expense reports to the membership.

The Constitution was also changed so State Council can now expel councillors on a majority vote.

NSW veterans affairs minister David Elliott, himself a veteran, called Brown’s election the “first step in a new direction for the iconic organisation”.

“Today, the members finally have had their say and it is now time for the league to return to its core mission of assisting our veterans,” he said.

Speaking to ABC TV’s Lateline program last night in his first interview, Brown said the RSL’s 38,000 members wanted a more youthful approach.

He said there were a number of questions to be dealt with in terms of the legal costs of those currently under investigation. He said one of the problems with the organisation had been a lack of transparency.

“There are a lot of steps we can take right away to make sure we don’t ever again have councillors who have an approach of entitlement when it comes to other people’s money,” he told Lateline.

Brown has already looked into RSL Lifecare, a $1.3 billion RSL-affiliated nursing home company central to the financial concerns, with $2.5 million in consultancy fees allegedly paid to executive members now under investigation.

Brown has been a long-time critic of the RSL and its financial operations, including registered RSL clubs.

In his 2014 book, Anzac’s Long Shadow: The Cost of Our National Obsession, Brown called the relationship “poisonous in some cases” in an excerpt published on Business Insider.

What was once a symbiotic relationship between registered RSL clubs and veterans has become poisonous in some cases. RSL clubs, originally a grand idea to grant special privileges in return for a promise to support veterans, have become tangled thickets of vested interests and multi-million­ dollar property deals.

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