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Tuesday, 28 February 2006
Page: 99


Senator CAROL BROWN (7:28 PM) —I rise tonight to talk about the generosity of spirit and community mindedness that characterises this country. I am talking about volunteering: a vital thread of the fabric that makes up our society. It is the backbone of community initiatives and sporting, arts and community organisations and it is a great vehicle for social involvement and engagement in Australia. Each year more than 4.4 million Australians donate their time on a voluntary basis to their communities. In 2005 alone, Australian volunteers provided 830 million hours of service in areas as diverse as arts, cultural, educational, environmental, health support, emergency service, sporting and humanitarian or animal welfare organisations. Beyond this, estimates suggest that volunteering contributes around $42 billion a year to the Australian economy.

In my home state, statistics show that 34 per cent of adult Tasmanians contribute, on average, two hours a week as volunteers. That translates into well over 100,000 Tasmanian volunteers and around 11 million hours of voluntary work in Tasmania each year. One great example of this effort is the valuable work done by volunteers involved with the Hobart Cat Centre. The Hobart Cat Centre was established in 1974 by Florence Robson, who herself was a great volunteer. She began the centre off her own bat with no government support. She did it simply because she cared about the fate of Hobart’s unwanted cats and kittens. On her death Florence Robson even bequeathed her home to the centre so that the volunteers could continue her work. Today the centre has grown to capacity and will soon relocate from Robson’s old home to a new state-of-the-art facility, which will be built largely through volunteer efforts. The land for the facility has been negotiated by the hardworking president and committee of the Cat Centre board, both of which volunteer valuable time to lobby and organise on behalf of the centre.

The centre also runs extensive education programs in the community which are designed to promote responsible cat ownership, including desexing and microchipping. These programs are largely delivered on a voluntary basis. On top of these activities, the centre has established two successful second-hand shops in the greater Hobart community. Each of the shops provide vital funds for the ongoing work of the centre and each of the shops—one in Glenorchy and one in Blackmans Bay—is staffed by volunteers.

Volunteers are central to the work of the Hobart Cat Centre. Without them it could not undertake its work. Because of volunteers, the centre has dealt with more than 100,000 cats over the years, finding a home for as many as it could. The Cat Centre’s typical volunteers range from young students who volunteer their time to help clean out cages, feed cats or even just to provide attention and human contact for the animals to hardworking executives who oversee the day-to-day running of the centre in their spare time. That is the beauty of volunteering. It provides an outlet outside of work or study that allows you to use your skills to benefit others. What is even better is that this can be done in an environment where the aim is the benefit of others, not just commercial gain, and anyone can help out.

Volunteering can also make major events happen. There is no better example of this than the Melbourne 2006 Commonwealth Games, which begin in a few short weeks. This massive event will feature 4,500 athletes, around a million spectators and close to a billion television viewers worldwide. While there have been some recent media reports concerning volunteer attrition at the games, it is expected that around 15,000 volunteers will support the 12-day festival of sport that is Melbourne 2006. And it is not easy work either. A normal volunteer day is expected to be at least eight to 10 hours, and each volunteer has committed to provide up to 100 hours of service. The simple fact is that, without the efforts of these volunteers in marshalling, transport, media liaison, first aid and other areas, the games would not be possible. In total, the Commonwealth Games are offering 400 different types of volunteer options at more than 80 venues across Victoria. And the volunteers filling these places are not just Victorians; they come from right around the country, including Tasmania. It is a great display of a national spirit of service.

I think all senators in this place would support me in saying that we should all do our bit to continue the growth and development of a volunteering culture in this country. Volunteering provides a means to ensure the survival of many organisations and services that could not survive in the world of commerce and the market alone. It enriches the lives of those involved and provides new skills and training opportunities to volunteers. It is also a great social outlet. The 2006 National Volunteer Week runs from 15 to 21 May. The theme this year is ‘Change your world. Start now.’ It is a great theme for driving recruitment to voluntary organisations and causes around Australia, and we should all do what we can to support it.

As I outlined in an adjournment speech a few weeks ago, I believe that as politicians we need to find time and energy not just to focus on the day-to-day adversarial cut and thrust of parliamentary debate but also to coordinate, through the people and places we represent, greater community involvement and stronger social engagement and cohesion in this country. To me there are some issues that are above politics, and volunteering is one of them. We can and should work together and use our time, resources and influence to support activities like volunteering. Having said that, there are also things we can do as a parliament to support volunteering. Despite the massive success of and support for volunteering in Australia, there are some dark clouds on the horizon. Increasing red tape is one of them. As Jan McCallum wrote in a piece entitled ‘How over-regulation is killing off volunteerism’ in the Age last year:

It is time governments considered how the weight of regulation is strangling community work.

While I think we would all agree that subeditor’s licence has made for a pretty good headline, and while I do not believe the statistics suggest that volunteering is in decline or being killed off, I do believe that the environment in which voluntary and community organisations operate has become more complex and government requirements have become more demanding in recent years. I also believe that there is little doubt that this trend is having an effect in some quarters and, indeed, is discouraging participation in voluntary activities in some sectors. As McCallum rightly points out, in the last few years voluntary groups in Australia have had to absorb GST compliance, new privacy laws and increased public liability costs and procedures. Each, she argues, is not enough in its own right to discourage participation, but when taken together can discourage people from undertaking voluntary or community work. This effect can also discourage organisations from undertaking certain activities. She goes on to argue:

Many organisations now think twice about whether activities require too much effort for the benefit obtained.

There is obviously a delicate balance here for parliament, but we should be looking to reduce the red tape barrier that faces the voluntary and community sector where possible. It is in our interest to do it. Volunteering and community service adds, as I said earlier, $42 billion to our economy each year.

In July 2003, the Productivity Commission completed a study, Social capital: reviewing the concept and its policy implications, which found there is scope for governments to take more account of social capital in policy development and be wary of the ability that policy and regulation have to erode social capital. In particular, it suggested, public liability laws and bureaucratic controls on community groups and events have this ability. As the commission chairman, Gary Banks, observed at the time, ‘The available evidence tells us that, while some government actions can undermine social capital, it is much harder for governments to create or rebuild it.’

There is no doubt that we are becoming more aware of the importance that volunteering and social capital have in keeping Australia running smoothly. But there is still more to be done and more to be learned. In many respects the efforts made through volunteering are not easily measured by the dollar based accounting systems that we typically use to assess the value of institutions or activities in Australia. That is why there are so many unsung heroes working away tirelessly in communities in every state and territory doing their bit without recognition.

I am pleased that we at least acknowledge this now and are beginning to take steps to address it. One step in particular that I am pleased about is the inclusion of specific questioning in this year’s census about volunteering. Using the census in this way will give us the first comprehensive snapshot of the state of volunteering in Australia and help us correlate the benefit it has for our nation more precisely. By using the census in this way, we can better understand the generosity, kindness and community spirit of the millions of Australian volunteers. And through better understanding this, we can better protect, encourage— (Time expired)