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Wednesday, 9 May 2007
Page: 55


Senator HURLEY (1:25 PM) —Volunteering is a quintessential Australian value. It encapsulates a number of qualities that promote a cohesive society: loyalty, commitment, dedication and obligation. Australians volunteer in community welfare, sport, recreation, education, youth development and emergency services more than people in most countries do. Australia’s formal volunteering participation rate outranks both the US and Canada and, while participation rates in most countries are going down, Australia surges ahead.

Over six million Australian over the age of 18 per year actively volunteer, and the numbers are growing. That equates to 41 per cent of Australia’s population, compared to only 24 per cent in 1995, and provides a very significant financial benefit for our country. Many might be surprised by the age profile of volunteers in Australia—young people volunteer in significant numbers. Indeed, those in the 35- to 44-year age bracket are the most enthusiastic volunteers, according to the survey of voluntary work carried out in 2000 by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Over one million Australians in the 35- to 44-year age group were volunteers. That gradually goes down but there are significant numbers of people who are also volunteering in the 75-plus age group. So it is an activity that not only interests people when they are young but continues, for many Australians, for all their lives.

The range of organisations that are included which use volunteers might also be surprising. The largest group is the community welfare sector, quite naturally, but education, training and youth development also has a significant percentage at 28 per cent. Sport and recreation has 34 per cent of volunteers. That is immediately obvious to anyone who sees the legions of parents and other volunteers out there on weekends in Australia helping to develop our sporting prowess. A number of people also volunteer in emergency services, environmental, animal welfare and arts and cultural activities. So there is a wide range of interests being catered for by people who volunteer.

I think it would be obvious to many also that volunteering in the education sector by parents is vital for the functioning of schools—everything from baking cakes to participating in learning programs that assist children to participate in their schooling. It is also interesting that single parents are very active in volunteering. I suspect the education area is one of the areas in which single parents are particularly active—far more so, apparently, than two-parent families.

One of the reasons I am talking about volunteering is that next week South Australia will celebrate Volunteers Week. I would like today to highlight the importance of volunteers and some of the facts about volunteering in Australia. One of those facts is a very basic one—the cost of volunteering. Volunteering, of course, does not just happen, and costs include training, equipment, insurance and often police reports and other security measures.

Anyone who has had any involvement in community organisations over the last five or so years knows the great difficulty caused by recent increases in insurance costs and requirements. Many organisations, in fact, have folded because of this and many events are no longer held. I think that is gradually being resolved, and in South Australia the state government stepped in to provide some support to valuable community organisations.

Other organisational costs are basic to ongoing operations—rent, water, electricity and telephone. For many groups, rising costs in running their centres are unavoidable and starting to become crippling. Of course organisations are not the only ones to incur costs; individual volunteers themselves are facing increasing costs. The rising petrol price is the most obvious example of a barrier to the participation of many people, particularly those in regional and country areas.

Local governments have traditionally been heavily involved in volunteer groups in their communities. Many local governments subsidise sporting and recreational groups and other service organisations to varying extents. Particularly in recent years, state governments have recognised the value of volunteering and many have appointed ministers responsible for volunteering. This has raised the profile of volunteering and underlined its importance to the community, as well as providing practical support and recognition.

I believe it is really time the federal government recognised volunteers properly and did something similar. The federal government has the ability to ease red tape, provide national recognition and give financial support to the volunteer sector. The tax system could be reviewed to look at whether not-for-profit organisations are getting enough support and whether individuals could be assisted for out-of-pocket expenses. There are ways that the federal government could ease the administrative burden for volunteers and provide a central calling point for volunteers and their agencies. Such federal government assistance would help to ensure the sustainability of volunteer organisations and the continued contribution by volunteers to our social and economic wellbeing.

I think the federal government has a great role to play in recognising volunteers, and I think that role has not been sufficiently fulfilled up until now. Given the increasing costs and increasing stresses on not-for-profit organisations, I think it is high time that the federal government started to look at practical ways that it might assist volunteers.

In fact, Australian business organisations already contribute in excess of $3 billion a year in donations, sponsorships and community programs. This is commendable, but there is also room for business to further assist employee engagement. The National Australia Bank is one organisation that has an excellent volunteering model that facilitates its employees in contributing time to their community. Such initiatives could be encouraged throughout Australia. Again, the government could play a role in this.

This initiative could be part of an increasingly recognised sector in business circles, and that is the corporate social responsibility of businesses. There is an excellent paper on this matter written by Moira Deslandes, CEO of Volunteering SA Inc., who has done a very thoughtful analysis of corporate social responsibility and how businesses might fit that into the volunteering sector to encourage that unpaid sector of our community which is, nevertheless, so valuable.

Of course big business is the best place to do those structured programs that the National Australia Bank is performing, but it has to be recognised that many small and medium sized businesses, particularly in country areas, already play an invaluable role by releasing their employees who volunteer for country fire services or for emergency services. On many occasions I have witnessed people abruptly leaving their employment—with the goodwill of the boss, and often accompanied by their boss—at the drop of a to go off hat and fight a fire or attend a road accident as part of the emergency services system. Certainly, our country and regional areas simply would not function without that generous volunteering on the part of the individuals involved and the businesses that support that kind of volunteering.

Local and state governments recognise that part of our Australian society, and I call on the federal government to do the same thing in any way that is appropriate. We can see from the list of organisations that I read out previously that large numbers of people give of their time not only in obvious areas, the ones we all think of when we talk about volunteering, but also in arts and cultural areas; environmental areas; foreign and international areas; and law, justice and political areas. The federal government has recognised this to some extent, I must admit, in that those people over 55 who are not in work get their volunteering time recognised. That was certainly a valuable initiative and one that has given quite a spur to that volunteer sector, which, as we have seen, is becoming increasingly professional.

State government support in that area is particularly important, because the establishment of departments or offices of volunteering, plus having a minister responsible for the volunteering sector, means that volunteering organisations can organise better in many ways and link up potential volunteers with appropriate services and so on—so that those people with appropriate skills can be put into an appropriate sector.

Volunteering, of course, is not just volunteers giving; it is also volunteers receiving a benefit in terms of becoming part of a community and meeting other people, staying active and feeling fulfilled. At a time when we all understand the importance right through old age of being active, alert, engaged and involved, the benefits of volunteering are very clear and go well beyond the actual services involved. Volunteering is an activity that is undertaken with skill and enthusiasm by many Australians. It is an essential part of the fabric of our society and an activity that should get the recognition from the federal government that it has long deserved.

I am sure that every member of this chamber would agree with the observation that, without volunteers, we would find it very difficult to perform all the activities and provide all the services that we do at the moment, and the cost of providing those services otherwise would have a great impact on our local government, state government and, indeed, federal budget funds. I think it is incumbent upon the government to have a minister dedicated to this area and responsible for ensuring that the facts of volunteering in relation to federal government activities and the possibility of federal government assistance are collated so that the government knows the most effective ways to provide assistance to that sector—both the people responsible for coordinating volunteers and those volunteers who are happy to assist in performing the services that we rely on and that we possibly, in a number of instances, take quite for granted. I hope that we will see a significant change in that over time.