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National Volunteers Week.

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Thursday 12 May 2005

Melanie Oppenheimer, Senior Lecturer, School of Humanities, University of Western Sydney


National Volunteers Week  


Volunteers around Australia have been celebrating National Volunteers Week. In this, its 16th year, with the snappy, hip slogan ‘Go on. Do something different’, volunteers and organisations that rely on them have been having fun with a variety of events to raise the awareness of volunteers, and most importantly to recognise and thank them.  


Over 4 million Australians volunteer their time for an organisation of some kind. The total hours of volunteering is about 700 million hours per year. This has been valued at an economic contribution of about $21 billion annually. 


There have certainly been changes since the hoopla of the 2000 Olympics which did so much to raise the profile of volunteering in Australia. This momentum was sustained with the United Nations International Year of the Volunteer in 2001. In the important area of volunteer protection, there has been some progress. South Australia was the first state to introduce Volunteer Protection Legislation in 2001. The rest of the states and territories followed suit through 2002 and 2003 largely propelled by the insurance and civil liability crises. However, debates still continue regarding the effectiveness of different state legislation; and the need for overarching, streamlined, national legislation is a long sought goal. Indeed I believe that the best way forward would be to have a Federal minister for volunteering and a Department of volunteering based on the South Australian model which has an Office for Volunteers and a Minister for Volunteers. This would certainly enhance the profile of volunteering at a national level. 


However until volunteering is acknowledged as contributing economically in real and tangible ways, it will always remain in the shadows, little understood, and no more than a feel good, warm and fuzzy altruistic activity carried out on the margins. Not part of the main game. 


This was clearly evident in the Productivity Commission’s Report, Economic Implications of an Ageing Australia , released on 12 April last month. The Australian government had asked the Productivity Commission to examine the labour supply, productivity and fiscal implications of Australia’s ageing population trends over the next 40 years. The report found that the ‘profound ageing’ of Australia would reduce economic growth at the same time as intensifying demands for public services, such as health, aged care, and the age pension. In other words, older Australians would seriously imbalance the economy and suck the country dry. 


This report was based purely on economic terms and economic indices. It was all about measuring and predicting GDP (Gross Domestic Product), and the “burden” of ageing. I found the report itself and the discussion and rhetoric that flowed from its release profoundly disturbing. The media, politicians, and commentators were all, it appeared to me, discussing this ‘age’ problem in a really negative way. I kept thinking, what about all the unpaid labour - all the volunteering that older people do, and will, presumably, continue to do in increasing numbers? Surely that must be of some value? I mean it’s currently worth about $21 billion a year. 


The Productivity Commission’s extensive 300 plus page report devoted only 3 pages to volunteering, and basically said that volunteering would not make any difference. Well, of course, it wouldn’t for volunteering is not counted as part of the GDP. This has been a matter of debate for years now, to impute a dollar value on volunteering and place it within the national accounts. But governments appear no closer to working out ways to include it or to measure it in a meaningful way. So volunteer work remains outside the GDP estimates. 


I am convinced that if volunteer work was included as part of the GDP, the contribution of ageing Australians would be different. It’s a ‘credit’ that is not considered seriously in the ageing debate. On the ‘debit side, the large cohort of ageing Australians will use more pharmaceuticals, will use more hospitals - but surely their volunteering, which by the Productivity’s own estimates will increase by 40%, must count for something!! 


It’s up to volunteers themselves, and the organisations that rely on volunteers, to demand recognition for all the volunteer work they do. With 4 million Australians volunteering each year, that’s a pretty powerful lobby group I would have thought.  


Guests on this program:

Melanie Oppenheimer  

Australian History 

University of Western Sydney