KEYNOTE ADDRESS TO THE NATIONAL VOLUNTEERING CONFERENCE
22 JUNE 2018
Thank you Adrienne for that generous introduction. I honour the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, on whose lands we meet today, and pay my respects to their elders past and present. I acknowledge my parliamentary colleagues Dan Tehan and Louise Pratt, and thank Adrienne Picone, Vicki Darling, and the Volunteering and Contact ACT team for their organisational work. In taking the lead to organise this Sydney event, my fellow Canberrans have proven that our national capital is also Australia’s social capital. I particularly thank each and every attendee - generous volunteers coming together to discuss about how we can strengthen Australia’s civic fabric.
When I think about my teens and twenties, volunteering memories loom large. Time working with the Australian Trust for Conservation Volunteers building bushwalking tracks in Lane Cove and Nowra. The days I dressed up in a clown suit in Hornsby shopping centre, attempting to sell juggling balls to unsuspecting passers-by to raise money for Oxfam. Volunteering for Redfern Legal Centre in Sydney and for the Welfare Rights Legal Centre in Canberra. Now, as the father of three boys, I can attest that my boys are simply nicer human beings when they’re doing something for other people.
Yet Australia today faces a social capital crisis. In 2001, I was fortunate enough to work on Robert Putnam’s Harvard research team shortly after he brought out his book Bowling Alone, documenting the decline in civic engagement in the United States. My own book, Disconnected, noted that much of the same trends could also be seen here. A decline in churchgoing and union membership, a decline in the share of Australians involved in voluntary organisations such as the Scouts, Guides, Rotary, Lions, and the RSL. We’ve seen even a decline in the share of Australians who report close friendships and good relationships with their neighbours.
Given that background, after the last election, I asked Labor leader Bill Shorten whether I could serve as the Shadow Minister for Charities and Not-for-Profits. It is the first time any major party had had a shadow minister responsible for charities and not-for-profits. Part of that role has unfortunately involved fighting back against attempts to damage the work of charities. We saw a period from 2011 to 2016 when the Coalition was committed to scrapping the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission. Since coming to office, the Coalition has had five different ministers responsible for the charities commission, which has meant it’s lacked the leadership and strong direction it needs. Louise Pratt has been arguing against the inclusion of gag clauses in social services agreements. Labor have been arguing on behalf of environmental and legal charities for their right to have their voices heard in the public conversation. It’s not great surprise that a Pro Bono Australia survey finds that two out of three Australian charities say it’s harder to have their voices heard by the federal government than it was five years ago. Recently we’ve seen an attempt by the Coalition to include charities in the ban on foreign political donations. Labor has worked with the Hands Off Our Charities alliance, with philanthropists, and with volunteers in order to push back against those unnecessary measures.
But there’s also a much bigger agenda around sparking a civic renaissance in Australia. As you’ve heard from Adrienne, I’ve held 13 Reconnected forums across Australia, in places as diverse as Launceston and Adelaide, Perth and Darwin, meeting with over 1200 charity leaders. It certainly hasn’t been a solo effort. I’ve hosted these Reconnected forums with many of my parliamentary colleagues, including Tanya Plibersek, Amanda Rishworth, Don Farrell, Tony Zappia, Louise Pratt, Sue Lines, Matt Keogh, Luke Gosling, Emma McBride, Sharon Claydon, Julie Collins, Brian Mitchell, Justine Keay, Ross Hart, Terri Butler, Julie Owens, Anne Aly, Julian Hill, Peter Khalil, Milton Dick, Claire Moore, Susan Lamb and Graham Perrett.
Out of those forums have come fresh ideas that can be shared between different groups to help us build a stronger sense of community. Greening Australia organises tree planting events for singles. So if things go well, you can plant a new tree and meet the love of your life, and if things don’t go so well you’ve still helped the environment. Parkrun, a free 5km run at 8am on Saturday mornings, has sprung up across hundreds of Australian communities. They’re working to ensure that their volunteers don’t do extraneous work but just focus on what they love – organising a great fitness event on a Saturday morning.
GIVIT has put together a ‘virtual warehouse’, allowing unwanted objects such as a washing machine or a laptop to be donated to charity without having to go via a dusty shed. We’ve seen the advent of ‘pop-up events’, such as pop-up book depositories in our communities, part of the repurposing of libraries as community spaces. The Heart Foundation is organising local walking groups, building social capital and making us healthier at the same time.
Hunter Intrepid Landcare has put in place kayaking tours through local waterways in which participants engage in remediation of the riverbanks – again, helping the environment and staying fit at the same time. We’ve seen the growth of TedX talks, spontaneous community organised Ted talks that are fuelling a sense of connection in local communities, but also inspiring us with new ideas. Australia has hosted six times as many of these TedX talks as our population would lead you to expect.
Created in Brisbane, Orange Sky Laundry’s mobile vans let people who are sleeping rough get their clothes washed. But that’s just a way of bringing people in for a conversation and to build connections. Orange Sky Laundry also stands out too for its innovative use of data, which has allowed them to refine their volunteer services.
In many of these cases, we see volunteering that meets multiple objectives. That matters in an era when Australians feel more time-crunched than ever.
To conclude, in Labor you have a strong partner in your volunteering works. To use the three themes of your conference, we are committed to igniting your advocacy engagement. We are committed to invigorating your energies towards the things you want to do. We don’t want you to waste time with unnecessary paperwork, which is why we support strengthening the charities commission and back the Fix Fundraising campaign.
Finally, in Labor you have a partner that wants to work with you to inspire a civic renaissance. Through our Reconnected project, we’re identifying innovation and novel social entrepreneurship. We’d love you to be part of the conversation. Please get in touch if you want to share ideas, know about what we learned or teach us some of the great things you’re doing so we can share them with others.
Authorised by Noah Carroll, ALP, Canberra