29 August 2006
by Misha Schubert
Volunteer firefighters, emergency services crews and other Australians who donate hundreds of hours of their time each year could be offered petrol vouchers, tax rebates or cash reimbursements to defray the soaring costs of fuel.
The push to cover volunteer expenses is led by government MPs, who warn that some volunteer services may be reduced or closed without some form of compensation being offered.
Under the plan, hatched by Tasmanian Liberal senator Guy Barnett with support from South Australian MP Kym Richardson, volunteers would be offered financial aid to ensure the high cost of petrol does not force them to end their voluntary work.
Senator Barnett cited examples of emergency management volunteers and ambulance officers paying more than $100 a week in petrol to cover their voluntary work.
Community Services Minister Mal Brough has agreed to consider more detailed modelling to be developed by a group appointed by Volunteering Australia.
The group, to be chaired by Queensland University of Technology's centre of philanthropy director and Board of Taxation adviser Myles McGregor-Lowndes, held its first meeting yesterday.
Professor McGregor-Lowndes said that volunteer groups could be paid cash grants by the Federal Government, and in turn reimburse their volunteers for petrol, equipment or other big costs.
A tax rebate or deduction was another option for volunteers, but this would require new legislation, tax forms and extra compliance costs.
Volunteering Australia chief executive Sha Cordingley said there were growing concerns that the costs of volunteering were prohibitive for some Australians.
Other members of the group that is looking at solutions include Freehills partner and tax expert John Emerson, CPA Australia senior tax counsel Paul Drum, Australian Emergency Management Volunteer Forum chairman Hori Howard, and the chairman of the Scouts national executive, Ian Langford-Brown.
Mr Howard said the nation's 500,000 emergency volunteers were not looking to be paid.
"What we are looking for is some way in which volunteers who are significantly out of pocket to the extent that it is hurting, can get some relief," he said.
Petrol was a big cost, along with uniforms, forfeited leave and membership fees, Howard said.
Cordingley said the group could have some proposals ready to submit to the government by November, while others could take longer to develop.
Liberal MP Peter Lindsay, who chairs the government's backbench committee on family and human services, praised the initiative as "very worthwhile".