AUSCORPS: Time for an official army of volunteers - The Punch - 6 February 2011 > Mitch Fifield, Liberal Senator for Victoria


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The Punch

AUSCORPS: Time for an official army of volunteers

In the aftermath of the Brisbane floods Kevin Rudd cast himself in the role of volunteer-in-chief, wading through the waters in his uniform of rolled up chinos and sodden business shirt. It’s easy to be cynical, I guess.

The real volunteers, of course, sought no recognition for their work. Over 22,000 of them, ably commanded by Lord Mayor Campbell Newman, rolled though Brisbane to lend a hand.

These volunteers are a testament to the Australian spirit of generosity and mateship. But Kevin Rudd could still do something genuinely useful to help the cause of volunteering.

He could convince his successor of the merits of an idea canvassed at the 2020 Summit - the creation of a national volunteer corps.

Then Prime Minister Rudd declared this the best idea of the 2008 talkfest. In fact, it was an idea first conceived by The Australian columnist Niki Savva and developed in my maiden speech to the Senate in 2004.

One of the great strengths of the Australian community is its volunteer spirit. Our communities would not be the same without it. As in the floods, the first response of Australians in time of need and hardship is to look to each other and their community.

But it’s during more ordinary times that the voluntary sector struggles. All voluntary groups face the same challenge - an ageing and shrinking pool of volunteers. We need to look to a new generation of volunteers.

That’s why the Coalition took a policy to the 2010 election to create AUSCORPS - a scheme to offer university students the opportunity to reduce their HECS debt by undertaking voluntary work.

Those who have been given opportunity through education have a great responsibility to build and contribute to the community.

Under the pilot programme, up to 1,000 university students per year would be eligible to receive a $10 credit against their HECS debt for each hour of volunteer work they undertook, up to a maximum 200 hours or $2,000 per year.

A similar scheme could be offered for TAFE students.

Such a program would have a myriad of benefits. Students could coach a junior footy team, serve as a scout leader, plant trees, deliver meals on wheels, work in soup kitchens, serve on the board of a not-for-profit, or do SES or CFA work.

Some of the financial burden on students would be lifted, and some burdens on society would be similarly lifted. The increased engagement of young people in their community would be a boon across Australia.

This measure would also encourage greater community understanding-that misfortune befalls many people often through no fault of their own and that its remedies lie with people, not just government.

Volunteering through AUSCORPS is not designed to replicate wages or turn volunteering into a paid activity.

Instead, it is about encouraging more young people to take up volunteering in the hope that they will continue their commitment throughout their adult lives. AUSCORPS would provide further support for not-for-profit organisations and would reinforce the broader value of community service as well as extend the principle of mutual obligation.

With the inspiring example of Australians in flood-affected areas front and centre of our national consciousness, now is the time to revisit this idea.

An army of volunteers in times of disaster will always materialise, but we need to harness that spirit all through the year.

A volunteer corps, like many promises in Labor’s first term, was announced but never happened. Julia Gillard has declared 2011 the year of delivery and decision.

So Julia, how about it? Make a decision and prove that the 2020 Summit wasn’t a complete waste of time. Adopt its ‘best’ idea. Even Kevin might applaud you for that.