Speech by Senator the Hon Mitch Fifield

Volunteering – Today’s Imperative

Location: 23rd IAVE World Volunteering Conference, Gold Coast Convention and Exhibition Centre


Thank you Ralph Devlin QC. And can I acknowledge your work as President of Surf Life Saving Queensland.

It’s a great pleasure to be here today at the 23rd IAVE World Volunteer Conference.

I am particularly pleased to be here this morning to represent the Prime Minister, who is very sorry not to be here in person. As you know he is in Arnhem Land doing important work.

Could I acknowledge particularly:

Tim Jackson, President Volunteering Australia
Dr Lee Kang Hyun, World President of the International Association for Volunteer Effort, and
the force of nature herself, Margaret Bell AM, the Patron of Volunteering Australia and Chair of the conference organising committee.
The Hon Michael Kirby

I would like to welcome all our international guests to Australia, and all of you, both our overseas and our national guests, to Queensland.

As the Assistant Minister for Social Services, I hold responsibilities for aged care and disability. Two areas that are not only the core work of Government, but areas which rely on the generosity and support of a great number of Volunteers across Australia.

I am regularly reminded as I meet people who face a few extra challenges in life, of the kindness of others who often volunteer their time to make life better for them.

Volunteers are the lifeblood of our community and come from all walks of life. On a daily basis they put themselves in the shoes of others.

I have been fortunate to have been an Ambassador for The Song Room, a not-for-profit organisation which relies on volunteers and donations to providing music education opportunities for children in disadvantaged schools. The Song Room has helped more than 250,000 Australian children perform better at school and feel better about themselves. In fact, each week their work touches the lives of more than 15,000 children across the country. Much of the work made possible through the hard work of volunteers.

If you go to the beach while you are here you cannot miss our surf life savers in their distinctive yellow and red caps. We have hundreds of thousands of volunteer life savers, men and women who patrol our beaches to protect swimmers.

You won’t see the Prime Minister this weekend, but he himself is a volunteer life saver and a member of a local volunteer bush fire brigade.

An outstanding example of the power of volunteering began here in Queensland.

More than 30 years ago a Rotarian from Nambour had the idea of harnessing Rotary International to fight polio. Rotarians around the world took up the cause. Rotary, which is of course an organisation of volunteers, secured the interest of governments and the World Health Organisation.

Their combined success makes a very powerful statement on the role and impact of volunteering which resonates both locally and internationally. In March this year for example, India, once the epicentre of the polio virus, was declared polio free. More than 172 million children had to be immunised twice a year to get this result. The Indian government set aside two days each year as National Immunisation Days. Two million volunteers were needed each day. And they came from around the world, giving freely of their own time alongside their Indian counterparts to help out.

Rotary has spear-headed this work in other countries as well. A Brisbane Rotarian who is a registered nurse has given her time to help vaccinate children in eight countries, including Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan. With efforts like these, the worldwide incidence of polio has now been reduced from 350,000 cases a year in 1988 to 416 in 2013.

And I am pleased to say that the Australian Government announced in June this year that we will be giving $100 million over the coming five years to further help the campaign in those countries where polio remains endemic. And the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have also signed onto this. All volunteer initiated and sustained by volunteers from around the word, still to this day.

This year, an Australian Rotarian travelled 2,800 kilometres across the country on his ride-on lawnmower to raise awareness and funds for the End Polio Now campaign.

The campaign against polio is a great example of Ronald Reagan’s observation:

“No matter how big and powerful government gets and how many services it provides, it can never take the place of volunteers”.

Australia’s longest serving Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies put it another way when he said there is no government department to dispense human kindness. That was the responsibility of the individual. Australians take this responsibility very seriously.

Volunteerism is based on generosity of spirit, ‘doing one’s bit’ and facing issues together as part of the human collective. Here in Australia, some 6.4million people over 18 years old – nearly 40 per cent of the adult population – volunteer in some capacity.

Volunteering is for the good times and for the bad times.

Some of you here may have seen film that went around the world following the terrible floods that hit this State some years ago. As soon as it was safe to do so, whole armies of people came from all over the State – and from other parts of Australia – literally with their buckets and mops to do whatever they could to clean up for their fellow Queenslanders.

After the dreadful fires in my home state of Victoria, farmers from interstate got together to truck tons of hay to help their Victorian counterparts feed animals, and organised rosters to rebuild fences.

These are graphic illustrations of volunteering but only the details make them unique to Australia.

Speaking of volunteerism and disasters, a Japan tsunami volunteer from Mongolia made the telling observation:

“The biggest power of recovery comes from human beings. What one volunteer can do is small, but what all of us can do is huge for recovery, it creates a stronger power”.

And volunteerism is a crucial part of community life at the best of times, too.

On Saturday afternoons around Australia, for example, you will see thousands of children playing sport. The games are largely run by volunteers, parents and others, who give their time, training, umpiring, and ferrying the kids.

Without the commitment of volunteers, our communities would lose their cohesiveness, and many valuable services that rely on voluntary work would cease to exist. To use an Australian example again, of the estimated 600,000 not-for-profit organisations in Australia, only 60,000 have paid staff. So volunteers here in our country are the bedrock of our civil society.

Even more importantly, volunteering helps expand opportunities for democratic participation and helps develop and reinforce social networks and cohesion.

For these reasons, attracting young people into volunteering is vital. I know this is something IAVE is interested in addressing. Encouraging volunteering from a young age is important to establish a lifelong habit of volunteering.

The Australian Government is also re-establishing the Prime Minister’s Community Business Partnership to advise Government on how we can best encourage both philanthropy and volunteering in Australia among all ages. This is an initiative we began when we were previously in Government.

It signifies the Government’s recognition of the important role volunteering plays in helping to strengthen and build more cohesive and resilient communities. We are looking for practical strategies.

When we talk of imperatives, protecting the independence of the voluntary sector of society from government over-reach is vital. As Prime Minister Tony Abbott has said:

“The risk when government tackles problems that are best addressed in the community, is that people are denied the chance to achieve something for themselves.”

In closing I would like to thank the International Association for Volunteer Effort for organising this conference, and Volunteering Australia for hosting it. The Government is pleased to have been able to assist with support for the conference.

This conference is a chance to renew our pledge to volunteering and to thank all of you who give so much to our community.

Thank you.