Volunteering Australia Reception – National Volunteer Week
Government House, Canberra
Wednesday, 17 May 2023
Thank you all for joining us. My name is Andrew Leigh, Assistant Minister for Competition, Charities and Treasury. I acknowledge the Ngunnawal people, pay my respects to their elders, and commit myself, as a member of the Albanese Government, to the implementation in full of the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
Your Excellencies, thank you for having us here today and for your passion and hard work on behalf of Australian volunteers. To Mark Pearce and Michael Drew from Volunteering Australia, thank you for the important work you do. And to all the volunteers and volunteer peeps in the room. Thanks for keeping the country running.
It's pretty hard to imagine an Australia without volunteering. You think about the work that volunteers are doing in looking after our environment. What volunteers are doing to sustain young people in organizations ranging from scouts to guides, to school volunteering.
Volunteers are in our aged care homes and in our early childhood centers. In a couple of days, I'll be running in the Canberra Runners half marathon, which passes a few hundred meters away from the gates of Government House. A run that wouldn't happen if it wasn't for volunteers who sustain that race as they do so many sporting events around the country.
Yet we’re meeting at a time in which volunteering and the Australian community sector as a whole is under pressure. In 2000, I worked as part of Robert Putnam's research team at Harvard just after he brought out research on the collapse in America of civil community. Over the last generation, we've seen a similar collapse in Australia. Australians are less likely to join community groups than a generation ago, less likely to volunteer. Fewer Australians participate in organised sport. Putnam’s book was called Bowling Alone. And I can report that statistically Australians have become less likely to engage in tenpin bowling or lawn bowling over the last couple of decades.
Australians on average have half as many close friends as we did a generation ago. We know about half as many neighbors. We are less likely to join a union, less likely to be involved in a religious community, less likely to be participating in these important social groups.
That context matters because community connection is important to us as a government. I've been fortunate to hold this portfolio for my party for the last decade. And my ambition as the Assistant Minister for Charities isn't just to think about this as a narrow charities regulation portfolio. Instead, it is to tackle that broad challenge of civic engagement, and to work to build an Australia, which is not just a nation of ‘me’ but is a country of ‘we’.
Volunteering does so much to knit us together. And to break down social differences. Volunteering helps to bring new migrants into communities and helps to cross-cut the generations. Volunteering makes us wealthier, healthier, and happier. And if you like I can provide statistical evidence for each of those claims afterwards!
I want to leave you with a quote from one of my great heroes, a friend of the family, Herb Feith. Herb established the Australian overseas volunteering program, following in the footsteps of the Peace Corps set up by John F. Kennedy. Herb used to say that ‘volunteering is symbolic of human equality’. By that he meant that when you volunteer, you help someone else at their level – that there you're not trying to be better than them.
Volunteers aren’t trying to win an award. You’re not trying to get an accolade. You're not even hoping for a visit to Government House. But you symbolise human equality and you're making Australia – as an egalitarian nation - the better for your volunteering.
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