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Thursday, 2 December 2004
Page: 146

Senator BARNETT (6:21 PM) —I rise tonight to pay tribute to a precious and irreplaceable cornerstone underpinning our society, and that is our volunteers. On Sunday, 5 December I commend all Australians to reflect on the value of our volunteers as we pay tribute to them on International Volunteer Day. I firmly believe that the efforts of volunteers in Australia provides the moral spinal cord of our economic and social fabric. It is the volunteer character of this activity that provides us with one of our greatest human and moral assets as a nation, especially in times of need and crisis. The Macquarie Dictionary defines a volunteer as `someone who enters into any service of their own free will, or who offers to perform a service or undertaking'. In 1985, the United Nations General Assembly declared 5 December to be International Volunteer Day. While in 1996 some 69 countries observed International Volunteer Day, by 2003 more than 125 developing and industrialised countries marked the day.

In Australia, International Volunteer Day has been designated as a day for the recognition of volunteer involvement. Australian communities and workplaces will embrace the volunteer spirit by participating in events organised by Australian Volunteers International. These events will include at the St Mary's Community Health Centre, in my home state of Tasmania, the Nursing in Developing Countries exhibition, which will display memorabilia from volunteer placements in the Solomon Islands and Pakistan.

Why the fuss? Why is volunteering such a big deal and worthy of profound acknowledgement—apart from saying thank you? I am constantly amazed at the statistics on volunteering. Australian Bureau of Statistics data shows there are well over four million volunteers in Australia aged 18 and over, representing more than 30 per cent of the adult population, or almost one in three adult Australians. In my home state, an estimated 38 per cent of the adult population are volunteers, which is an outstanding record.

A paper done for Volunteering Australia by Duncan Ironmonger calculated the value of volunteering work in 1997 to have been a massive $41.7 billion, or almost eight per cent of Australia's GDP—yes, donated free of charge. Other more conservative estimates are that the value of volunteering is $24 million or $66 million per day. Either way, the value to Australia of volunteering is immense and quite a significant omission on the balance sheet of public administration in Australia.

In December 2002, I prepared a paper on volunteering entitled `Volunteering in Australia—how can we help' which included many recommendations, such as restoration of small equipment grants for volunteering organisations—which I am thrilled to say has happened—as well as small tax breaks for volunteers.The Howard government has demonstrated its commitment to supporting community service throughout our nation through the restoration of those vital small equipment grants, and I am pleased to say the government has also demonstrated its commitment through the provision of $100,000 in my home state to help Volunteering Tasmania develop a resource kit for volunteers.

The government also has pledged to spend $16 million over the next four years to establish a national emergency volunteer support fund, aimed at boosting the recruitment, skills and training base of volunteer organisations at the front line of emergency services management—a fund which the Attorney-General, the Hon. Philip Ruddock, referred to again today. These organisations will be able to apply for grants to fund capital equipment and formal emergency skills training.

I want to thank Maxine Griffiths, the Executive Director of Volunteering Tasmania, for the tireless, wonderful work she, the board and the staff of Volunteering Tasmania do for volunteering in my state. I also want to recognise the work of Sha Cordingley, the Chief Executive Officer of Volunteering Australia, for the work she and her team do.

The $100,000 project in Tasmania is part of the very successful Tasmanian package and grew out of the close working relationship I hold with Volunteering Tasmania. The Tasmanian Liberal Senate team got right behind it. The resource kit will include practical guidance and support for volunteers and volunteer organisations on issues such as getting started, recruitment of volunteers, orientation, support and management, information and training, codes of practice, insurance tips and tips on grant applications.

On the issue of public liability insurance, I have hosted several public forums in Tasmania over the last few years, which have been supported by Volunteering Tasmania and the Tasmanian Small Business Council. They were most productive and have concluded in the preparation of a 20-odd page survival kit, which has been made available to volunteering organisations and small business.

With International Volunteer Day just days away, I take this opportunity to promote the notion of a volunteering medal. We recognise volunteers in an ad hoc fashion for various awards, but rarely do we recognise them nationally for their volunteering efforts. Volunteering is part of the Australian furniture—we know it is there and that pleases us, but we expect it to always be there. It is often out of mind because it does not need a payment. Taking volunteerism and volunteers for granted is dangerous and wrong.

The Australian honours system consists of several award categories, the most well known of which are the four levels in the Order of Australia. The Order of Australia recognises citizens for their service to Australia or to humanity, irrespective of whether their service is provided in a paid or an unpaid capacity. A specific `volunteer medal' in the Australian honours awards, either as a category within the Order of Australia or as a category on its own, would highlight the role that volunteers play in Australian society. A volunteer medal would provide increased recognition in the community and would be a suitable gesture at a national level to commemorate International Volunteer Day. Of course, the giving of such an award would need the careful consideration of issues such as what defines volunteering, how candidates are rated, whether the medal should be cast within the Australian honours system and so on.

Volunteerism was recognised in the biblical story of the good Samaritan, often taught in Sunday school or primary school, and in the Bible message `love thy neighbour as thyself'—helping a mate when they are down, irrespective of whether the volunteer knows them personally or not. Churches, charities and a multitude of service and community groups all contribute. More often than not this contribution is unseen.

The contribution is made by the quiet but persistent achiever. These people give of themselves, expecting little or nothing in return but the pleasure of knowing they have contributed to a better community and a better Australia. In every phone book in Australia, there are hundreds of listings of incorporated and unincorporated organisations whose objectives are to give without seeking a reward. Their objectives are purely non-financial—to offer generosity and to lend a hand. Service organisations and their many members expend time and resources to assist these organisations and meritorious causes.

Both fire and ambulance services throughout Australia, particularly in rural and regional centres, rely on volunteers. In Tasmania there are an estimated 5,000 volunteer firefighters, while nationally there are 350,000 volunteers involved in emergency organisations such as rural fire services and state emergency services. The training undertaken by these volunteers is often regular and nearly always selfless, requiring not only the cost of time but financial sacrifices in travel and transport costs, such as petrol, phone and postage. The cost of the psychological effects of on-the-job volunteerism is incalculable, but most volunteers of course would say it is positive.

Yet the need is great, and growing. We can do more. We all have a responsibility to review the financial, time and other contributions we make to the lives of others. It is time for each of us to pause and ask, `What gift can I make—a sacrificial gift, a love gift, a tithe from my income?' Volunteers want to serve. They want to help, and many want the personal satisfaction of giving back a small amount of what benefits they derive from Australia's economy and this great nation. A vast majority would not dream of seeking publicity, some form of compensation, reimbursement or thankyou for what they do, because they want to remain anonymous and simply experience the joy of giving. They know that the saying `it is better to give than to receive' is true. However, this is no reason for the rest of the community to blithely accept such charity and not offer some form of tangible recognition through their elected representatives.

My speech is not about undermining or ruining the concept of volunteering by suggesting that we pay people to volunteer, because that would be absolutely counterproductive, a contradiction in terms and I believe a majority of Australians would reject such a move as unnecessary and unwelcome. My proposal is, however, about Australians acknowledging the contribution made and saying thank you, not only for the human value placed on volunteering but also for the staggering financial value they contribute to this country. It is about the Australian community collectively doing their bit for volunteering in a systematic and reasonable way.