140 Years of Community Building - Speech

‘Salvation Army: 140 Years of Social Mission in Australia’

Grand Hyatt, Melbourne
8 November 2023

The Origin of the Salvos in Australia

I acknowledge the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation, and recognise all First Nations people present today.

The Salvation Army has been marching alongside Australians for over 140 years.

The Salvos have been with us through some of our toughest times and greatest milestones.

You were among the first to reach Darwin on Boxing Day 1974 after Cyclone Tracy hit. In 1977 you were supporting people affected by the Granville train disaster. In 2019 and 2020, the Salvos were dispersing funds and supporting thousands affected by the Black Summer bushfires.

We are not surprised when the Salvos turn up, because the Salvos have always been there.

To support victims of natural disasters. When jobs are hard to come by. When a family falls into crisis.

Our nation and the army have grown up together.

The Salvation Army was established in Australia just 15 years after being founded by William and Catherine Booth in London in 1865.

Pioneering meetings were held by various immigrants who had been converted by the Salvation Army back in Britain.

Adelaide was the first official Salvation Army Corps in Australia.

John Gore and Edward Saunders were both converts who met in the colony of South Australia and decided to form a Salvation Army Corps.

The first meeting took place in Adelaide’s Botanic Park on 5 September 1880. Saunders and Gore spoke from the back of a greengrocer's cart.

Gore famously told those assembled ‘If there's a man here who hasn't had a square meal today, let him come home to tea with me’.

Two years later, in 1882, Major James Barker and his wife Alice were sent to Melbourne by the General from London to work ‘in all the colonies of the Southern Seas’.

By 1883 Major Barker had leased a small house in Lygon Street, Carlton, to provide accommodation and find work for prisoners newly discharged from Melbourne's jails.

Then and now, ex-prisoners are often shunned by society. These early Salvation Army workers actively chose to help them.

Federation and SAO Crackers

In 1896, Commandant Herbert Booth, the youngest son of William and Catherine Booth, arrived in Melbourne to assume command of the Salvation Army in Australasia.

Herbert quickly tapped into public opinion across the Australian colonies in support of an Australian Commonwealth. He threw support into various Federation leagues and societies and his public political stand was done ‘in a desire to remove those boundaries which separate peoples and nations’.

The Salvos were even there to film the inauguration of the Australian Federation on 1 January 1901 (Cox, n.d.).

The film was produced by Australia’s first film production company ‘The Salvation Army Limelight Department’.

Between 1897 and 1910 Limelight was run by the Salvos from 69 Bourke Street, Melbourne, producing some of the world’s earliest films and documentaries. Equipment and photographs are still on display in the museum at the same address today.

And I can’t resist noting that Arnott’s SAO crackers, produced since 1904, are said by some to be an acronym for ‘Salvation Army Officer’, possibly because one of William Arnott’s five sons was a colonel in the Salvation Army.

Prisoners and Social Work

As the Army notes in its own history of social work, the formation of the ‘Prison-Gate Brigade’ was the first permanent social service of its kind anywhere in the world.

The work quickly developed to include a ministry for ex-prisoners with the Brigade standing at the prison gate to invite released men to start a new life.

But as the economic boom of the early 1880s turned to bust by the end of the decade, Barker lobbied the Chief Secretary of the Colony of Victoria, Alfred Deakin – later to become Australia’s second prime minister – on behalf of the poor, the imprisoned and the growing ranks of unemployed.

In 1886 the Government of Victoria gave The Salvation Army £500 towards its social work.

In January 1888 the Government granted James Barker the authority to apprehend without warrant any child under the age of 16 years found residing in a brothel.

Meanwhile, Alice Barker became a vocal campaigner for the rights of women and children and abandoned mothers.

Employment Services

In 1890 Australia had entered an economic depression and ‘Marvellous Melbourne’ was hit particularly hard.                       

By the winter of 1890 the Salvation Army had opened a free labour bureau at 53 Latrobe Street.

It was the first formally operating employment bureau in Australia.

Labour bureaux were soon operating in Sydney and Adelaide (Salvation Army, History of Social Work online, n.d.).

Today, the Salvation Army is still running Employment Plus providing specialised training and support services for job seekers (Salvation Army, Employment Plus online, n.d.).

Social Reform

Perhaps one of the reasons Australians have such a soft spot for the Salvation Army is your organisation’s support for social reform.

Over the past 140 years, you have developed programs to help people experiencing unemployment, homelessness, alcohol and drug addiction, child abuse and family violence, as well as programs for the elderly.

The long history of the Salvation Army means the organisation has participated in historic debates that shaped Australia - in the 1916 and 1917 referendums on conscription the Salvation Army supported the deployment of conscripted Australians to overseas battlefields. A position that went against majority public opinion.

Any organisation with such a long history goes through change and that process can be profoundly challenging. But it’s necessary to ensure that historic mistakes aren’t repeated. As Salvation Army Officer John Cleary wrote in 2016 (Cleary 2016), the shattering revelations of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse led to the largest restructure in almost 100 years.

From ‘We’ to ‘Me’

In Australia today, we face a disconnection crisis (Leigh and Terrell 2020). Over the past generation, Australians have become less likely to join community groups. Rates of volunteering have declined. The share of people playing team sports has dropped. The share of Australians donating to charity has fallen. Compared with the mid-1980s, the average Australian today has only about half as many close friends, and knows only about half as many of their neighbours.

Meanwhile, inequality has risen. One way to see this is to look at Australian Bureau of Statistics earnings surveys, which allow us to separate earnings for the lowest-paid (those at the 10th percentile), median workers (at the 50th percentile of earnings) and the highest-paid (employees at the 90th percentile).  From 1975 to 2021, real wages grew by 33 per cent for the lowest-paid, 55 per cent for median earners and 81 per cent for the highest-paid (Leigh 2022).

Another approach is to look at income data, which encompasses not only salaries, but also investment income. New analysis just published by Australian National University economists Chung Tran and Nabeeh Zakariyya looks at individual income data from 1991 to 2020 (Tran and Zakariyya 2023, 13). Over this three-decade period, they calculate cumulative real growth in income after taxes and transfers.

For the bottom fifth, income growth was only around 5 percent. That’s not 5 percent a year. It’s 5 percent, total, over three decades.

At the middle of the distribution, income growth is stronger, at around 20 percent. But that figure is dwarfed by the income growth enjoyed further up the distribution. The top fifth saw income growth of over 40 percent.

The gains were larger for those even more affluent. The top 1 percent – a group whose average annual income is around $350,000 today – saw their annual disposable income rise by around 70 percent. The top 0.1 percent – whose average annual income is now around $1.2 million – saw their real take-home income grow by around 120 percent.

Put another way, average incomes grew 24 times faster for the top 0.1 percent than for the bottom 20 percent.

In this environment, our 2023 budget did more to reduce inequality than any other budget in the past decade. Halving the cost of prescriptions for many people with long-term health conditions. Boosting income support payments. A pay rise for aged-care workers. New vocational training and university places, helping those who are the first in their family to complete a post-school qualification. Ten days family and domestic violence leave. The biggest increase to Commonwealth Rent Assistance in three decades. The biggest boost in Medicare bulk billing in four decades.

Social isolation and a widening economic gap aren’t just an Australian story. In their book The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again, Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Garrett note that both these trends characterise the United States over the past half-century. Disconnection and inequality, they argue, are both ‘we versus me’ problems, and both have common roots.

When Disadvantage and Disconnection Coincide

In Australia, the disconnection crisis is particularly acute for the most vulnerable.

The 2020 General Social Survey (ABS 2021) asked people over the age of 15 about the unpaid voluntary work they had done in the 12 months prior. Of those with a university degree, 31 percent had volunteered. For those without a post-school qualification, 18 percent had volunteered.

The volunteering rate was 30 percent among the highest income quintile, compared with 21 percent in the lowest income quintile.

Another question asked people whether they had been involved in a civic or political group. Among university graduates, 12 percent said yes. Among those without a post-school qualification, just 4 percent had been involved in civic or political groups.

In the top income quintile, the rate of involvement in civic or political groups was 14 percent. In the bottom income quintile, it was 4 percent.

Building Community

In Reconnected: A Community Builder’s Handbook, Nick Terrell and I devised a law we called ‘Sutton’s Law of Social Capital’. It’s named after Willie Sutton, the infamous bank robber, who when asked why he robbed banks said ‘because that’s where the money is’. Likewise, if you’re looking to build social capital, you should start where the need is greatest.

That’s what Salvos do. When you help people who are homeless, jobless or penniless, you don’t just focus on their material circumstances, but on their connections to others. You understand that humans are fundamentally a social species, and that these ties that bind us to one another are vital to living a good life.

As a government, we are working hard to build community. Shortly after the Albanese Government came to office, I conducted the largest charity consultation in Australian history, hosting town hall meetings in every state and territory capital city and online.

In the Melbourne Town Hall at 10.30am today, I will hold my 17th charity sector town hall as Assistant Minister for Charities. This is about listening and learning from the sector.

This consultation builds on seven other pieces of work that our government is already doing with the charity sector.

  1. We conducted an open and transparent merit-based process to appoint the remarkable Sue Woodward as new head of the Australian Charities and Not‑for‑profits Commission.
  2. After an open call for nominations, we appointed a new advisory board for the charities commission, chaired by Sarah Davies, that includes First Nations and CALD representatives.
  3. We are continuing to work with states and territories to harmonise charitable fundraising laws to reduce the administrative burden on charities and ensure our laws are fit for the digital age.
  4. We are streamlining the process by which charities receive deductible gift recipient status.
  5. We are modernising the law to allow the charities commission to discuss ongoing investigations where this is necessary to maintain trust and confidence in the sector.
  6. We initiated a once‑in‑a‑generation Productivity Commission review of philanthropy, to help meet our goal to double philanthropy by 2030. The Productivity Commission is scheduled to deliver its draft report by 30 November.
  7. Minister for Social Services Amanda Rishworth and I have asked the Community Sector Advisory Group to develop a Not-for-Profit Sector Development Blueprint, helping boost the sector’s capacity to support and connect Australian communities. The Blueprint issues paper was released last week, and is open for comment until 20 December.


Since we are speaking in Melbourne, I can’t resist mentioning my maternal grandparents, Roly and Jean Stebbins, who used to live at 13 Livingstone Street, Ivanhoe, less than ten kilometres away from where we are today.

When their four children left home, they took the view that the spare bedrooms should be used by someone who needed the space, so through their church, they welcomed in people who needed a place to stay. Newly arrived refugees. First Nations families who needed a home.

Jean and Roly took the view that a life of service to others was a life well lived. That philosophy is your philosophy, and I thank you for the work that you do.

Over the past generation, Australia has become more unequal, and more disconnected. We have become less a nation of ‘we’, and more a country of ‘me’.

These trends are connected in another way too. As I’ve shown today, Australians with lower incomes and less formal education are less likely to be involved in civic and political groups, and less likely to volunteer.

The Salvos, like the best organisations working in the community sector, don’t just help people with their material needs. You also provide human connections. Put simply, you are in the kindness business.

I think we can all agree that the world could do with a bit more kindness.

Our government has an ambitious agenda for the charity sector. We know that the best way to build a more connected Australia is by partnering with organisations like the Salvos.

The challenges are real, but as your history shows, it’s when times are tough that the Salvation Army can be relied on to turn up.

So thank you again for your work, and all the best over the coming decade as you build up to your sesquicentenary.


Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2021, General Social Survey: Australia, 2020, ABS, Canberra.

Cleary, John, 2016, ‘Behind the Red Shield: the Salvos in Australia’, ABC, 15 Jun 2016

Cox, Lindsay, n.d. ‘Celebrating 120 years since Federation in Australia’, available at others.org.au/army-archives/celebrating-120-years-since-federation-in-australia/

Leigh, Andrew, 2022, Fair Game: Lessons from Sport for a Fairer Society and a Stronger Economy, Monash Publishing, Melbourne

Salvation Army, Employment Plus, www.employmentplus.com.au/

Salvation Army, Our story, www.salvationarmy.org.au/about-us/our-story/interesting-facts/

Salvation Army, Employment Plus submission to the Inquiry into Workforce Australia Employment Services, February 2023. Submissions – Parliament of Australia (aph.gov.au)

Salvation Army, History of Social Work, www.salvationarmy.org.au/about-us/our-story/our-history/history-of-social-work/

Tran, Chung and Zakariyya, Nabeeh, 2023, ‘Uninterrupted growth, redistribution and inequality: The Australian case 1991-2020’, TTPI - Working Paper 15/2023, Australian National University, Canberra.


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  • Toby Halligan
    published this page in What's New 2023-11-08 10:10:12 +1100

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.