Community Organisations

I spoke in parliament today about Canberra's community organisations (with special mention of the Canberra Times fun run and Hall village).
Community Organisations
12 September 2011


There are many reasons to love this fine city of Canberra, but the No. 1 reason from my standpoint is its social connectedness. Canberra is a place to enjoy the simple pleasures of sharing time with friends and neighbours, working together in clubs, groups and associations and strengthening the social ties that bind us together. All of this, what academics have called social capital, is the idea that the ties that bind us together have an inherent value. When it was first introduced it was a bit controversial, much as the idea of human capital, that the skills that people have could have an economic value.

But, just as we have come to recognise that people's skills and education have value, like a bridge or a road does, increasingly we are recognising that social capital, the ties that bind us together, are economically important. They are important not only because they are fun but because they make businesses work better. The more you trust the person who is supplying the goods to your business, the less you have to have a contract that writes everything down in case something goes wrong. The bonds of social capital, the networks of trust and reciprocity, exist between two friends who meet for a beer on Friday night. They link together the members of a local cricket team, who know that the more they trust one another the more games they are going to win. And they link together, co-workers who find that working together gets the job done faster. From the year 2000, when I first came across Robert Putnam, the author in the US of Bowling Alone, until last year I was working on a project looking at social capital in Australia, the strength of community ties. The material was eventually published in a book by UNSW Press called Disconnected. The more data I collected the clearer it was to me that we knew what was going on.

In terms of organisational membership, surveys of Australians show we are less likely to be active members of an organisation than our counterparts were in the 1960s. Organisations themselves have gone out of business. There are fewer associations today in Australia than there were in the late 1970s despite a big increase in the number of people in the country. The average age of members of organisations has also risen. This is also because existing organisations have shed members. When I pulled together as much membership data as I could from bodies like Scouts, Guides, Rotary and Lions, I saw that the mass membership of organisations peaked as a share of the population in the late 1960s and has declined markedly since then.

As to people giving their time, Australia saw a rise in the share of people volunteering in the late 1990s—maybe an Olympic effect—but volunteering rates are probably still below their post-war peak. And the proportion of us who give any money to charity has stayed pretty stable over recent decades despite a substantial increase in average income.

On the matter of informal socialising, Randall Pearce of Ipsos Mackay was kind enough to field the same question to a group of Australians in the 2000s that had been put in 1984 when people were asked about the number of close friends they had and the number of neighbours they could rely on. Even on that measure too social capital had declined. The respondents in the 2000s had shed two friends who would keep a confidence, and half a friend who would help them through a difficult patch. Compared to respondents two decades earlier, the typical Australian in the 2000s has one and a half fewer neighbours of whom they can ask a small favour and three fewer neighbours they could drop in on uninvited. We are also more likely to live alone.

I am pleased to inform the House that in Canberra, although our community strength is probably below what it was, we are the most active in a civic sense in Australia. A cornerstone of social connectedness in Canberra is the community of Hall, and there the Hall Progress Association is a critical organisation. When the original boundary was drawn for the then Federal Capital Territory, the direct line from Mount Coree to One Tree Hill took in the village of Hall. Since its official proclamation in 1882, the village of Hall has had a long and rich history of community engagement and civic spirit. The Hall Progress Association, formed in 190, has been meeting and working for the development of Hall and its residents for 110 years.

I recently had the privilege of meeting current members of the association to learn about local matters of interest. Over coffee at the general store, first opened in 1889 and still a hub in the community, I was told of the vision the association has for preserving the historic value of Hall, making it a great place for families and having an eye always firmly to the future.

One idea that we talked about over a terrific coffee, was the establishment of Hall as a 'green village', where solar power generation can meet the energy needs of Hall's 350 residents and, through the retrofitting of sustainable systems for energy, water, waste and landscape management, provide a demonstration case for other communities.

In the face of declining social capital, Canberra and the community of Hall are working strongly to maintain and build social networks. I would like to commend the Hall Progress Association for the role it plays in the process, particularly Bob Richardson, Helen White, Alastair Crombie, John Starr, Phil Robson, Paul Porteous and Trudy Mansfield for their hospitality, enthusiasm, energy and dedication to the Hall community.

I am proud to say that you see a lot of community spirit in the rest of Canberra. On virtually every social capital measure, Canberra is at or near the top. Compared to other states and territories we have got the highest share of charitable donors and the highest volunteering rate. If any Canberran listening to or reading this would like to be recognised for their volunteering we have even got volunteering awards on at the moment. Eighty-five per cent of Canberrans give money to causes in a given year, compared to 73 per cent in New South Wales, the next closest jurisdiction. In terms of giving time, 38 per cent of Canberrans volunteer in a given year compared with 33 per cent of Victorians, the next closest. In terms of sporting events, 47 per cent of Canberrans attended a sporting event in the previous year, compared to 44 per cent nationally, and 41 per cent of Canberrans actually take the field, by playing organised sport, compared to only 30 per cent in the rest of Australia. On the cultural front, Canberrans are twice as likely to attend an art gallery or a museum than other Australians. They are more likely to go to the movies and more likely to go for a stroll around the National Botanic Gardens. They can cheer for the Raiders, the Brumbies, the Capitals and the Prime Minister's XI. They can see Alfred Deakin's portrait in the Museum of Australian Democracy and Ned Kelly's death mask at the National Portrait Gallery. They can enjoy a cool stroll through the Botanic Gardens.

Canberra's community organisations may not have the same level of exposure as its well-known national institutions, but the role they play in building social capital is just as valuable. Community organisations are an integral part of the fabric that forms social capital. They bring together a wide cross-section of members of the community. They build networks of trust and reciprocity, and they link together individuals from diverse backgrounds. It is one of the reasons that living in Canberra is such an enjoyable experience and why so many people from throughout Australia choose to come to our city for work or to study. Community organisations lend a helping hand to help people newly arrived in Canberra. They help new residents connect to established members of the community.

In closing, I would like to acknowledge Jessica Woodall, an intern in my office who is working with me for the week. I pay tribute to her favourite community group, the Peregian Beach community school. I would like to acknowledge Alisha White, an Indigenous intern from Airds High School, whose favourite community group is the Iragmga Dance Group, and Damien Hickman, an adviser in my office. His favourite community group is ACT Veterans Rugby, which works to raise money for Clare Holland House, an activity that I am sure makes his wife, Kate, and his daughter Liesel greatly proud. I would also like to pay tribute to ACT volunteers: those who care for people with a disability; who help out at the school tuckshop; who assist refugees, such as the organisation Companion House does; or who campaign on issues that matter to them, like the Australian Youth Climate Coalition does.

Yesterday I enjoyed competing in the Canberra Times Fun Run to raise money for the Heart Foundation. My staffers Gus Little, Louise Crossman, Damien Hickman, Lyndell Tutty, Ruth Stanfield and Claire Daly all joined me, and they were willing to put their pride aside and all wear an 'Andrew Leigh—Supporting Our Community' t-shirt for the run. I thank them for being part of a terrific community event and for their role in raising money for the Heart Foundation. On a gorgeous Canberra spring day we ran down Adelaide Avenue, looking up at Parliament House and recognising what a wonderful city this is, how lucky we are to live in it and how terrific our community organisations are in building the social fabric of Canberra.

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