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Country answers call for volunteers
27 January 2006

A hidden army is at work. These people are never paid and rarely celebrated in public, but the country would grind to a halt without them. From emergency work, to caring for the young and aged, to charitable activity, volunteers are so ubiquitous that we sometimes fail to appreciate how much Australia's wellbeing depends on them.

Victoria's bushfires have reminded us of the courage and commitment of thousands of firefighters. Another 15,000 volunteers will don uniforms to do whatever needs to be done to ensure the success of the Commonwealth Games in March. Many more volunteers in everyday life may never come to notice - although the Queen's Baton Relay is an opportunity, not always realised, to acknowledge community stalwarts around the country.

This week, the Federal Opposition proposed a scheme, which it likened to an "Aussie US Peace Corps", that would offer another avenue for people aged 18 to 24 to become involved in community projects at home or aid work abroad. There was an element of political calculation in this, in that participants would be offered TAFE scholarships and discounts on university fees. "They need a reward," Labor leader Kim Beazley said. The scheme itself is worthy enough, but most Australians do not seek a reward for voluntary activity.

This week, too, Prime Minister John Howard highlighted findings from last year's Australian Social Attitudes report, on the extent of the voluntary sector, "the lifeblood of active Australian citizenship". A remarkable 86 per cent of respondents belonged to at least one voluntary organisation. Without them, Australia would be utterly different; certainly, Australians could never expect any government to match their own capacity to maintain a fair, caring and healthy community.