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Australia considering plan to pay volunteers
04 July 2006
by Andrew Fraser

Horticulturist Carlito Da Costa (left) and Australian volunteer Jack McGilchrist work together on an orchard Timor-Leste's first silkworm farm. (Photo: Debra Plueckhahn/AVI)Horticulturist Carlito Da Costa (left) and Australian volunteer Jack McGilchrist work together on an orchard Timor-Leste's first silkworm farm. (Photo: Debra Plueckhahn/AVI)
Canberra, Australia: Prime Minister John Howard has agreed to look at a backbench plan to pay retired volunteers for their efforts and to give tax breaks to volunteers still in the workforce. The plan was put to Mr Howard in a recent joint Coalition party-room meeting by South Australian MP Kym Richardson and Tasmanian Senator Guy Barnett.

Under the Barnett-Richardson plan, volunteers in employment would be entitled to a personal income-tax deduction for the out-of-pocket expenses incurred in their volunteering.

Elderly volunteers on limited incomes and those who were pensioners should be considered for some direct monetary return for their efforts.

The two backbenchers have set up an independent taskforce to investigate options to remunerate volunteers.

The taskforce is to be headed by tax expert Professor Myles McGregor-Lowndes and is to include representatives from Volunteering Australia as well as about half a dozen other experts, including retired Major-General Hori Howard, chair of the Australian Emergency Management Volunteers Forum and the Australian Council of State Emergency Services.

Both the taskforce and the putative position of Senator Barnett and Mr Richardson, who will be involved in the inquiry themselves, have already been endorsed by the government's back bench committee on family and community services.

Mr Richardson and Senator Barnett have taken their plan and Volunteering Australia officials to both Citizenship Minister John Cobb and Community Services Minister Mal Brough, as well as to the Prime Minister's office.

All were said to have been receptive.

Their next targeted office is that of the Treasurer, Peter Costello.

Praising the "incredible contribution" of volunteers, Mr Richardson said that Australians volunteered 836 million hours each year.

He was particularly concerned with helping those who volunteered with organizations like Country Fire Services, the St John's Ambulance and surf lifesaving clubs, pointing out that many volunteers were not only often out of pocket but actually risked their lives in what they did for the communities. Canberra's bushfire fighters could be expected to be major beneficiaries of the plan.

Mr Richardson exploded the myth that young people were shy to volunteer, saying that after the 55-65-years age group, those aged 18 to 23 were the second most likely cohort to offer to do volunteer work.

The direct payments and tax breaks to volunteers were aimed at cutting it after 200 hours of volunteer work had been performed. On average, this took somewhere between 1 and two years.

Senator Barnett and Mr Richardson were looking to explore instituting new incentives to voluntary-work providers and employers to provide fuel vouchers to help their volunteers get to and from their volunteer work.

Senator Barnett said he was confident the taskforce would prepare a range of options inside three months. "I'm eager to ensure a result that will benefit volunteers," he said.