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Tuesday, 23 November 2010
Page: 1970

Senator POLLEY (7:20 PM) —Tonight, I rise to talk about one of the most important facets of Australia’s culture and character, but it presents as one of the more confusing pictures as well. I am talking about volunteering. We all know of the valuable and significant contributions made in times of crisis by Australians—after the terrible catastrophe of the Victorian bushfires, the mine disaster at Beaconsfield in northern Tasmania and the devastation of Cyclone Tracey. The efforts of Australians in dire times are not limited to within Australia’s shores. Thousands of Australians assisted with rescue and the rebuilding efforts after the 2004 tsunami and many more travelled to Haiti after the devastation of the earthquake. We know that they have been recognised as part of our history: What I would like to talk about is the other side of volunteering: the regular, routine, week after week voluntary efforts of many thousands of Australians. What do I mean by volunteering? Any activity that is freely chosen of benefit to the community and undertaken without financial reward—or, as it is less charitably described, all work and no pay. These two definitions portray the dichotomy of attitudes that have been common in Australia when we are considering volunteering.

The latest ABS data provides insight into volunteer services. Currently—and I have to say I find these figures quite surprising—there are 700,000 not-for-profit and community organisations in Australia and 5.2 million volunteers. Many Australians rely solely on the efforts of their volunteer services to continue to operate and, as well as bringing important social benefits, volunteers contributed $42 billion to Australia’s economy. But the other side of the coin is that there are very, very few references in our history to their contribution, a contribution that is often very substantial. References to the responses to crises, yes; but to the daily and weekly contributions, no.

Religious foundations existed in Australia from its foundation in 1788. Australia’s oldest charity, the Benevolent Society, was formed in 1813, founded by Edward Smith Hall. It has since provided a voice and material assistance for many of Australia’s disadvantaged. In 1912 the Benevolent Society established the first antenatal clinic in the British Empire. The New South Wales Colonial Secretary was also the Inspector of Public Charities’ administrative arrangements from 1856 to 1901. The Royal Flying Doctor Service, the oldest air based medical service in the world, was established in 1928 by the Reverend John Flynn. Even today this service is dependent on volunteers.

So why is there this mismatch between written history and reality? Volunteering has been part of our history but has not been reported. Their work is part of the so-called invisible history. Professor Melanie Oppenheimer, a senior lecturer in the School of Humanities at the University of Western Sydney, suggests there are four broad reasons. Before I go into some of them, I would like to recognise Professor Oppenheimer’s views as well as her family’s long history in volunteering. Her great-grandmother was the foundation president of the CWA, her grandmother was a volunteer during the Second World War and her mother has received an Order of Australia for her volunteering efforts.

Professor Oppenheimer’s first reason reflects a broad community view that volunteer work is less valuable than paid employment. This distinction about the value of the work, between the work being remunerated and other unpaid work, seems illogical. But there is a common theme through society that rate of pay determines the importance of the work. And yet when studies make comparisons between, for example, the work of one doctor and the work of maintaining an adequate community sewerage system, the value of the contribution to the wellbeing of that community may be quite different than that suggested by the pay rate. All I am trying to say is that the view that paid work is more valuable than unpaid work does not stand up to scrutiny. We do not measure the contributions of volunteer work in the GDP or any other significant economic measure. It is not that we cannot estimate what it is; it is just that we do not include it.

The relationship between volunteer organisations and governments of Australia—federal, state or territory—could at best be described as a moving feast. For example, prior to 1916 the care of soldiers returning from war and their dependents was the domain of the volunteer organisations. But by 1916 these organisations clearly could not cope. The federal Department of Repatriation was established in 1917. In World War I, 62,000 Australian died and a further 152,000 were injured. Major involvement by government was essential. And yet in 1925 Legacy was formed to care for the children of deceased servicemen.

The Great Depression of 1929 to 1932 again saw volunteers supporting thousands and thousands of unemployed Australians. Soup kitchens and clothing outlets were common as late as 1939. During World War II, particularly after the manpower directives of January 1942, we saw a significant number of women join the paid workforce. In 1943 and 1944 this was 32 per cent of women in Australia. Despite this increase of women in the workforce, volunteer work continued. Eight thousand funds were established across Australia that raised the equivalent today of $1.6 billion.

The 1950s is generally perceived as the peak of volunteer activity across Australia. New advocacy style self-help groups were formed, service clubs were consolidated and performing arts began to grow with the influx of volunteers. The face of volunteer organisations has changed since then. The increased participation of women in the workforce and the increase in age of the general population have led to changes in the make-up of volunteer organisations. Government policies in the 1980s and 1990s has blurred the lines between not-for-profit, profit-driven and government organisations.

I have not mentioned the type of work undertaken by volunteers. A very incomplete list would include fundraising, supporting older people and those with disabilities, administration, research, teaching, coaching, umpiring, working with animals, entertaining, conservation, handiwork, driving, youth work, counselling, gardening and childminding. Two significant changes in the last decade and a half have on the one hand made the operation of volunteer organisations most difficult and, on the other hand, have seen the demand on organisations noticeably increase due to government action. These changes are the need for organisations to implement adequate risk management strategies and to purchase adequate insurance to protect their organisations and their members. The key risks that volunteer organisations are exposed to are unsafe workplaces, no emergency plan or management plan, inadequate or inappropriate insurance, and not being incorporated. Many organisations have now ceased to exist as the costs were beyond their means. On the other hand there is no doubt there has been an underlying government policy to shift responsibility of some previous government services to not-for-profit organisations. Is this because they would provide a better service or that, if there is a shortfall in funding, these volunteer organisations will fill the gap?

I need to add that, despite perceptions in the community to the contrary, there is an increase in the number of people volunteering. If I look at Tasmania, my home state, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics at least one-third of adult Tasmanians volunteer an average of two hours per week on a regular basis. That means more than 100,000 Tasmanian volunteers, contributing almost 11 million hours of voluntary work each year. The equivalent in paid work is more than $200 million.

Tasmania’s volunteering rate was 27 per cent in 1995. It grew to 34 per cent in 2000 and 36 per cent in 2006. Women volunteered at a slightly higher rate than men. Women outside Hobart had the highest volunteering rate of 41 per cent in 2006. I want to put on the record that all governments, whether state, territory or Commonwealth, rely, as the community does, on the fantastic contributions of so many Australians giving their valuable time. The median annual hours contributed by men was 60 and by women 52 across all areas of the state in 2006.

The situation is that volunteering is growing to fill needs created quite deliberately by government activity, but, conversely, this contribution continues to be grossly unvalued and under recognised. We need a whole-of-government approach to volunteering—one that results in forms, structures and values that facilitate this work. Then we will truly recognise this huge social and economic contribution. Again I would like to place on record—and I know many others have spoken on this in the chamber—the invaluable work that volunteers do within our communities. There is a vast array of volunteer work undertaken in our communities and I record my appreciation here tonight.