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Tuesday, 14 August 2012
Page: 5213


Senator THISTLETHWAITE (New South Wales) (19:19): I have been fortunate to be involved in community volunteering for most of my life. When I was 13 years old I joined the Maroubra Surf Lifesaving Club and I remain an active member of the surf lifesaving movement to this day. Later, I became involved with the Eastern Suburbs Police and Community Youth Club in the area in which I worked.

The volunteer spirit is something that reflects the character of our nation, but while the number of volunteers in Australia has risen in recent years the number of hours that they commit to volunteering is actually falling. The median number of hours spent volunteering has decreased from 74 hours per volunteer per year in 1995 to 56 hours per volunteer per year in 2006. The result is that the actual number of hours Australians volunteer over time has been falling. This trend is in some respects understandable. As people find themselves working longer hours and with less time to spend with family and friends, the appeal of community involvement is diminished and its benefits are lost.

Volunteering also faces the challenge of staying relevant in a rapidly changing landscape. Many young people these days would prefer to spend time on the internet, Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites rather than volunteering in their local community. This is one of the reasons that the Gillard government created the National Volunteering Strategy. This strategy sets out the government's vision for volunteering in Australia over the next decade. The aim of the strategy is to ensure that by 2021 volunteering is encouraged, supported and recognised by all Australians. Social, economic and technological change have transformed the way that we communicate and work and, as a result, the way that we volunteer. As new forms of volunteering emerge, volunteers continue to seek more flexible arrangements and shorter term commitments. We as a society need to be able to respond to those challenges in providing volunteering opportunities in the community.

In response to these challenges, the government is committed to promoting greater engagement of young people in volunteering while also ensuring advancements in technology are utilised fully by not-for-profit organisations. In this respect, the government will allocate $12.4 million under the Digital Enterprise program to help not-for-profit organisations in targeting communities to understand how to maximise opportunities enabled by the National Broadband Network.

Volunteering is a positive pursuit for all involved. It has the power to enrich and turn lives around. I recently volunteered at the Hope Street Back Shed Cafe in Woolloomooloo in Sydney. This is a not-for-profit cafe that is connected with the Matthew Talbot Hostel in Sydney. It does great work bringing together the homeless, service providers and volunteers in that local community. It is a hub for people to come together and access services, and to provide hope—hence the name of the organisation.

It is for reasons such as these—the positivity of community work and volunteering—that I have launched a campaign on my website called 'Give volunteering a go'. I have transformed some aspects of my website into a one-stop shop for those seeking a community group or organisation for whom they would like to volunteer. It is a good feeling knowing that you are putting people in touch with community organisations and supporting the work that they do in the community. I have had a good response. In recent months, particularly during National Volunteer Week, I was out and about, volunteering across New South Wales with various community organisations. I visited the Coffs Harbour PCYC to help out with their school holiday circus school. I volunteered at the Hunter Region Botanic Gardens. I spent time in a mock prison to raise money for Campbelltown PCYC. I have worked serving coffees at the Back Shed Cafe for the homeless in Sydney's Woolloomooloo. I have been encouraging other community minded people to do the same. I believe that we should be doing all that we can to promote volunteering and encourage younger Australians to take up volunteering for the potential personal growth and learning that comes as a result of active community participation.

Every day, local organisations bring together and develop that sense of what community is really about. It is only through an involvement with other people's lives that you truly understand and gain an appreciation of the pressures experienced by those who face issues such as intergenerational poverty, mental illness and discrimination. We have a responsibility as community members to ensure that those who are most in need receive support and are not forgotten by society.

The Labor Party's connection with community organisations is a cornerstone of the working class values that our party was built on: hard work, fairness and community activism. It was one of the issues that attracted me to the Labor Party. That connection has taught us a lot, not just as a party but as people. The potential to learn from the experience of community activism is limitless. I have always said that the best management course I ever did was being in charge of 15 or 16 lifesavers at Maroubra Beach when the surf was quite big—quite a challenge for anyone. It is through my involvement with the management of surf-lifesaving clubs and PCYCs that I was inspired to enter into politics.

Some of this work leads to safer, more prosperous communities. PCYCs, for instance, work with kids who have come from broken homes or tough financial circumstances to keep them from going off the rails and help them get back on track if they do. Police youth case managers work at-risk youths, who often have an average of three offences before joining a PCYC program. These programs involve managing issues such as school attendance, peer group choice, employment options and identifying interests and activities to support new directions in the life of the young person. For the young people who participate in these programs, the rate of reoffending is dramatically reduced, demonstrating the value of volunteering and these programs. I am pleased to say that this year the PCYC movement celebrated the 75th anniversary of its founding and the establishment of that first PCYC in Woolloomooloo, which was originally formed as an avenue for kids on the street to come together and practice their boxing after school.

The benefits of volunteering are significant for our nation, for our local communities and for individuals. The benefits are economic, social, cultural and environmental. I am particularly proud of the support the Gillard government provides to volunteer organisations and volunteers across Australia. In fact, right at the moment organisations can apply for volunteer grants for this year to help with the provision of equipment, fuel costs, training courses and compulsory background screening checks.

Volunteers are the foundation of the not-for-profit sector in Australia. Of the estimated 600,000 not-for-profit organisations in Australia, only 60,000 have paid staff. Volunteers contribute more than 700 million hours of unpaid work each year to their communities. The value of that unpaid work in 2006-07 was estimated to be over $14.6 billion. Volunteering strengthens community connectedness and social cohesion. Social connections such as those developed through volunteering can provide meaning, purpose and satisfaction in a person's life.

I consider myself very fortunate to have been involved in community activism. It has shown me the way to contribute to the community in which I live. Volunteering for my community not only helped those less fortunate or those who needed a helping hand but helped me personally. I am forever grateful for the lessons I learnt in my early life, and I hope that through this campaign in New South Wales I can show others firsthand the value of pitching in and giving volunteering a go.