Community volunteering made harder by unnecessary over-regulation

I support the coalition’s opposition to this bill and, should we get into government, our commitment to repealing it, to provide a very simplified process for the not-for-profit sector and our volunteers.

For the majority of our invaluable volunteers who work in charitable and not-for-profit organisations the government, unfortunately, appears to be giving three direct messages through the legislation. The government is reversing the assumption of trust for volunteers.

The government wants to make the job of volunteering even harder and more onerous. It wants to increase regulation, not decrease it, making it more bureaucratic and more costly.

That is a critical issue for such organisations. Unfortunately, the government believes it should control everything you do—the Labor government, Big Brother ‘always knows best’ approach to every issue that we see repeated constantly.

The Productivity Commission identified that there are 600,000 not-for-profit organisations across Australia. The majority, 440,000, are small, unincorporated organisations, which include those who volunteer for our community aged-care facility boards, our local sporting clubs, our bushfire brigades and our local churches.

These are groups run entirely by volunteers. They might be the friends of the local park, the local Landcare group or the local state emergency services organisation.

These organisations are mostly run by local community members who know that our small communities in particular cannot survive without volunteers.

That is really obvious in rural and regional communities, which live or die by the community spirit and by volunteers. Without these people, our kids do not play sport and the local aged-care facilities that are locally run will not function. Lonely people, particularly those in isolated regional areas, will be confined to their homes instead of interacting with others.

It is immensely difficult to quantify the economic and social contribution of the 440,000 separate groups, which volunteer millions of working hours every year.

But it is worth billions and billions of dollars. Over 4.6 million Australians volunteered in not-for-profit organisations in 2006-07. ABS data classified those 60,000 not-for-profit entities of ‘having an active tax role’ on the basis that they employed staff or accessed tax concessions.

Financial data is already available for these organisations. That allows us to examine their contribution in an accurate and quantitative manner.

That group employed 889, 900 staff, which is around eight per cent of national employment, contributing just under $43 billion to Australia’s GDP in 2006-07. That is a significant contribution. More importantly, it is a major contributor to people’s wellbeing and we should not underestimate the impact on people’s wellbeing.

On the ground, organisations across Australia are struggling for volunteers, which is why we should not be adding to their workload in a way that prevents them from delivering on the ground the way they want to and need to.

Every one of these groups and organisations is being weighed down by the ever-increasing burden of red tape and compliance costs.

In spite of its intention, this legislation adds to that compliance and cost burden it adds to it. Whether it be the    local junior football club, the local P&C or the local bushfire brigade, in many organisations there are frequently dwindling numbers of volunteers who are being asked to do more and more.

Often in small regional communities the same people volunteer in many local organisations, not just one—the P&C president is also a bushfire volunteer and a weekend junior sports coach, and a young mum helping out at the school canteen is probably also your local volunteer ambulance driver.

There are major shortages in that sector and this government is going to load more and more onerous compliance, cost and time burdens on these very generous people.

There will be more burnout, particularly for those who are still volunteering. We need to encourage these people; we need to encourage volunteering. We have to make it easier to volunteer, not harder.

We heard today, repeatedly, that we have had 18,000 regulations introduced by this government and only 86 repealed at a rate of 11 a day.

It would be a miracle if that is not adding to compliance costs right across the board. As I said, the government is determined to add to the burden of volunteers.

Like so many in this place, I spent a lot of my life volunteering. Whenever I have had a leadership role in one of these organisations and I have had to ask people for help or support, often the first thing they say to me is: how much time will it take? That is a key question. They ask me: ‘Will I start off with a small job and end up with a big job that basically takes over my life?’

I am afraid that, with these cost and compliance burdens, there will be more ‘yes’ answers to that question. The thought of taking on office-bearers roles with the responsibilities that go with that and then add these particular requirements to it, more often than not people will just say: ‘It’s just too hard. You’re wanting my time; I want to help on the ground where I actually make a difference, where I can add to someone’s wellbeing, where I can add to the kids playing footy.’

We go to events where small community groups fundraise through functions, usually by selling drinks or food. We keep making it difficult with training for volunteer service staff and the need to obtain qualifications. That drives volunteers away.

So many of them do not want that. When you talk to them one on one they do not want that. There are those who do actually commit and take on the roles and I have seen this myself. They actually say, ‘I’m the only one who has got this qualification, so now the load becomes so heavy.’

It is often a small community. We have places like Brunswick and Donnybrook—little communities in my part of the world—and you can end up with just a couple of people with the required qualifications that then have to assume the total load for that organisation. We wonder why they burn out and stop volunteering. We have to make their job easier and not harder.

The financial reporting and compliance is more and more complex. It is harder and harder for volunteers to meet the requirements. They literally do not want that burden.

They say: ‘I want to make a difference on the ground. I want to see that I am actually being effective with my time with this organisation.’ There is everything in this legislation that really would be worrying those in community organisations, people who just want to give their time and a bit of their resources.

They would be worried about the powers of the Australian Charities and Not-For-Profit Commission—policing and enforcement powers, the powers to suspend and remove office-bearers of organisations, inspection and record-seizing powers, powers to prosecute individuals and entities, powers to apply penalties, powers to enter premises under a monitoring warrant. It sounds like a police state for a lot of these volunteers.

I know about this from going and talking to people—at times almost begging them to come and help because we are desperate for help in a small regional community, when you cannot get the job done without them, when you cannot deliver that service. How can you possibly expect people to volunteer with that hanging over their heads? How do people in small communities take on those roles?

I wonder how non-government school boards and community aged care providers will feel about the government looking over their shoulder even more than now. How many will be wondering what comes next? How many independent school boards might be wondering what is next? I would add that to this discussion.

There are so many small entities without professional staff. How do they manage the compliance and reporting load? How do you physically manage that? How many desperately needed volunteers will walk away from their organisations because they do not want that responsibility imposed by this legislation?

And there are those who will literally be intimidated by the powers of the commission and this government. That will happen. I know it will happen, because I know the questions that are asked of me when I go and talk to people when I want them to volunteer.

How many small community groups actually understand what the government is intending through this legislation? Many of them will not, but they are going to get a very rude wake-up call with this.

There will be layer upon layer of compliance and costs, more hours and hours of volunteers’ time spent on governance and compliance standards, on the requirements for external conduct standards, record keeping, information statements—right down to the government wanting changes of address and names of ceased members.

By the time you do all this, as a volunteer, you would actually have very little time left to do the work of the charity or organisation. It is really just extraordinary.

I look at the Donnybrook District High School P and C, which now spends thousands of dollars a year on bookkeeping, when for decades volunteers were able to perform those duties. That is thousands of dollars that are not returned to students for enhancement of their education.

It is no wonder that this and many other P and C organisations around the country are struggling. I look at the Brunswick, Harvey and Australind St John Ambulance groups—wonderful volunteers who save lives in my electorate and right around our country. They save lives. What a great job they do. I just hope this does not add even more to their burden.

The Productivity Commission recognised in their report:

… generic regulation, such as occupational health and safety requirements, are imposing disproportional costs on NFPs—


These and more specific qualification requirements are raising the costs of using volunteers. Such … costs come at a time when volunteers are tending to volunteer for fewer hours on average, with younger volunteers preferring episodic and work-based volunteering. Some NFPs have dealt well with the changing environment … but others struggle.

I would say those that struggle are in rural and regional areas like my own. That is the greatest issue facing the not-for-profit sector. I look at some wonderful organisations in my electorate, like the Val Lishman Health Research Foundation. We have so many like this organisation out in our communities doing an extraordinary job. It is a major issue for them. ‘There is a push for greater accountability,’ said the Productivity Commission. Business and other major donors increasingly want evidence of the effectiveness of the activities, but it is tough for not-for-profits.

As I said, there are so many groups and organisations that will be affected by this. We see that governments are making it harder and harder for community groups, making them less viable.

The government is really adding to that process. It is crucial, at a crucial time, when we need to streamline the regulations imposed on charities and not-for-profit organisations.

I believe we need to demonstrate trust in the voluntary sector, and support those working in charitable endeavours. As we know, Labor’s approach reverses that assumption of trust, essentially creating legislation that assumes that people involved and who volunteer are untrustworthy—and I find that really appalling.

I know that when I go and talk to people who I want to volunteer or who I need assistance from they need to know we have confidence in them. They will come to the table and give the organisation the best they possibly can.

Yes, we do, on this side, support a small commission to focus on innovation, education and advocacy—not yet another big bureaucracy like we see proposed through this legislation.

As I said earlier, there are so many wonderful groups out there, whether they are in education, research, hospitals, social services, culture and recreation, day care centres, diabetes research, mental health or aged care—the list is endless. We are constantly needing more and more volunteers, not fewer and fewer volunteers.

I would hate to see organisations like the City of Bunbury Surf Life Saving Club—all my surf lifesaving clubs I have throughout my electorate—the school boards, the Red Cross or any of my organisations have a burden even greater than what they take on now, that would make them question the passion and the time they give to volunteering.

I think we desperately in this place need to encourage volunteering, not discourage volunteering.