Better Together

My Chronicle column this month is on volunteering, telling the tale of a Canberran who got active in her local community.
Volunteering can have a snowball effect, The Chronicle, August 2012

One of my passions in public life is revitalising Australia’s civic culture. Over the past generation, Australians have become more disconnected from one another. We’re less likely to be active members of a community group, and less likely to play an organised sport. Churches, unions and political parties are losing members. Surveys show that we have fewer close friends, and are less likely to know our neighbours.

That’s why it’s great to see individuals and organisations that are bucking the trend, and becoming more engaged. Recently, 27 year-old Julianne Livingston told me the story of how she had become more connected. Growing up in a relatively introverted household, Julianne wasn’t particularly civic-minded as a teenager, but she told me that in her mid-twenties, she had ‘began to long for a stronger sense of genuine connectedness and trust within my community’.

Over the past couple of years, Julianne has undergone her own civic renaissance. She joined the public speaking club Rostrum, has volunteered to help animals, joined her union, and has committed to donating blood regularly. She plans on holding a street party, and writes to MPs that she agrees or disagrees with.  After I gave a speech about building a stronger community, Julianne wrote to me: ‘Thank you for reminding me how important, and easy, it is to strengthen my civic connectedness.’  I expect Julianne’s next message will take issue with something I’ve said in parliament.

Civic activity fits into busy lives. For example, if you volunteer with friends, you can catch up while helping a good cause.

If this sounds overly virtuous, you’re getting the wrong picture. Julianne told me that life is more fun when you’re involved in local organisations. As a university student, she said, ‘I think I was a bit more self-centred’. Now, she said, ‘I feel more empowered. So when there’s an issue that angers me, I feel like I can shape it, rather than complaining about it.’

When Julianne sees something on the news she disagrees with, she fires off an email. What’s more, she encourages others to do the same. Her volunteering has put her in contact with a more diverse range of people, in terms of age, ethnicity and social background. As a result of volunteering, Julianne finds that she is better able to appreciate the different ways that her workmates do their job.

In the last Australian Bureau of Statistics survey that asked volunteers why they gave their time, the number one reason was that someone asked them to volunteer. For every person who volunteers because of an advertisement or a media article (like this one!), seven people volunteer because of a personal request.

Julianne now finds herself encouraging friends and workmates to volunteer – a positive snowballing effect. It’s a great reminder of the fact that a civic renaissance in Australia can’t be driven by government. All of us can be a part of rebuilding community life, and volunteering is a great place to start.

Andrew Leigh is the federal member for Fraser, and the author of Disconnected (UNSW Press, 2010). His website is

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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.