OPINION

We would grind to a halt without volunteers

VOLUNTEERS IN ACTION: What's polling day without the traditional volunteer-cooked democracy sausage?
VOLUNTEERS IN ACTION: What's polling day without the traditional volunteer-cooked democracy sausage?

With the countdown until the election down to just a couple of days, the campaigning has reached a frenetic level.

If you've wandered past a pre-polling centre, you will have seen dozens of volunteers handing out how-to-vote cards and throwing their support behind a campaign.

For the majority of these people there is no financial reward for the hours they devote to helping out. They're driven by their passion and belief in the importance of their cause.

Of course, the party faithful and helpers are just one example of the millions of people who give up their time as volunteers.

Volunteering Australia estimates that about six million people in this country regularly put their hands up to help out in community groups.

Calculations suggest that volunteers' estimated annual economic and social contribution in Australia is a whopping $290 billion.

We see these volunteers everywhere we go, from local sporting clubs to hospitals and schools, providing support and assistance that in many cases simply couldn't be bought.

At pretty much any local sporting fixture on any given weekend, there will be dozens of volunteers, from the coaches and administrators to the emergency organisations like St John Ambulance Australia who are ready to help with first aid.

Think of the countless hours of training undertaken by the members of the Volunteer Rescue Squad, State Emergency Services and Rural Fire Service.

Not only do they devote their time, and sometimes their own money, but they are willing to actually put themselves into potentially hazardous situations to protect others.

We have all seen images of crews battling to protect life and property as a bushfire approaches, or watched as emergency crews work to help people make their homes safe after a storm has swept through and left little behind beyond damage and heartache.

If you ever chat to these people and ask why they're happy to devote hours and hours to helping strangers, you're likely to be told that "someone's got to do it" or "you have to give a bit back".

We often hear debates about what it is to be Australian, or more to the point un-Australian, and more often than not, the debate takes on a nasty tone.

But could there be a better example of what is good in a community than its volunteers?

We know our social structure has changed and more people are juggling to make their work, home and social lives function. Some regional areas are seeing a decline in population as young people, particularly, move to larger centres in search of greater opportunities and many groups are finding it hard to attract new members.

Yet despite these setbacks, dedicated groups of volunteers continue to do their bit, and next week they will be officially recognised.

From May 20 to 26, Australia will celebrate National Volunteers Week. The week-long celebration will include breakfasts, morning and afternoon teas, as well as open days, award ceremonies, picnics, forums and training sessions.

In the lead-up to Saturday's federal election, Volunteering Australia is also calling on the major parties to "think seriously about the impact volunteering makes on the Australian economy and about how volunteers support key programs and services in society, particularly in high-demand community services such as disability, mental health and emergency services".

The organisation says its election policy platform highlights the fact that there needs to be adequate consideration of volunteer rights and legislative reforms to provide stronger protections for volunteers in Commonwealth legislation.

Let's hope party politics can be put aside when it comes to making sure our nation's millions of volunteers are able to safely get on with what they do best: devoting themselves to making our communities a little bit safer, happier and healthier and providing the care that would probably simply not exist otherwise. Australia is the lucky country to have so many caring residents.

Jody Lindbeck is an ACM journalist.

If you ever chat to these people and ask why they're happy to devote hours and hours to helping strangers, you're likely to be told that "someone's got to do it" or "you have to give a bit back".