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How over-regulation is killing volunteerism
22 April 2005
by Jan McCallum

The Victorian Government's proposed law requiring a police check for almost every person working with children will discourage some people from volunteering but it won't surprise anyone who is already active in community groups.

The policy of requiring a police check for volunteers working with children increasingly applies, which is why it takes about two months to get one. Laws that treat everyone over 14 as a potential pedophile are just the latest obstacle to volunteering. It is time governments considered how the weight of regulation is strangling community work.

Within a few years voluntary groups have had to absorb GST compliance and privacy legislation and the extra paperwork they created, plus insurers raising public liability costs and making everybody afraid of organizing anything. In Victoria, state food-handling regulations have more recently added to the time and cost of events serving food. You might have cooked for your family for 20 years but the regulations treat you as a likely poisoner.

On its own, each one of these is enough to stop some activities, but as layer upon layer of bureaucracy builds, they discourage participation and make community work more difficult for volunteers and paid workers who are already stretched. A huge amount of resentment has built up among volunteers. Many organizations now think twice about whether activities require too much effort for the benefit obtained.

A friend who attended the Anglican Church's annual synod said people from several churches told her they had stopped holding fetes because of the Victorian food regulations. "It just isn't worth doing any more," is a frequent comment in the sector these days.

It is often said that people won't volunteer, but there are many people of goodwill who expect to pitch in and run their local kindergarten, sporting club or school fete. It is getting harder for them, though, as events that were once organised simply and quickly among friends become complex operations.

These days every voluntary group needs a seasoned hand who knows about council permits, public liability and food safety laws. The complexity discourages younger people and newcomers from joining in and deters people in paid work.

When I was working full time and on the committee of a community-run kindergarten, a complaint was made and, as the responsible officer, I was interviewed by a state official. The interview started when I was presented with a written statement saying that anything I said could be used in evidence against me. Although I understood this was a standard procedure, and no criminal activity was suggested, it was very unnerving.

My ignorance of child-care legislation became obvious during the interview and I was shown a copy of the legislation and told I was expected to know it. I said it was a lot to expect from a parent volunteer. Only a child-care professional could be expected to know the regulations and keep up with regular government directives, which is probably why the corporate child-care businesses have grown so fast; it's too hard for the rest of us.

I would not volunteer for a kindergarten committee again because the requirements are too onerous and I don't have the time. Unlike paid employees, volunteers can choose to give up activities because they are fed up with being treated like idiots.

As the volunteer pool shrinks, groups in disadvantaged areas will fail because they lack expertise. As more money is spent on compliance, less will go to the people who need it most and for whom it is raised.

How important is the community sector? Although community work is hard to value, it does greatly improve economic efficiency, and not only by raising funds. The sector retains and uses the skills of retired people and helps others gain confidence and experience they can take into a workplace.

Getting involved prevents people from being lonely and alienated.

People find paid work through their voluntary network and generate funds spent at local businesses.

The sector lessens the strain on government through these networks as well as services it provides. There would not be a Country Fire Authority or State Emergency Service without volunteers.

In a research paper on social capital, published in 2003, the Productivity Commission found the many benefits attributed included improved health and child welfare and lower crime rates. There are many good reasons to support the voluntary sector and governments do give money and other benefits. But it often seems that they give with one hand and slap us across the face with the other.

The Productivity Commission has recommended that governments "at least consider the scope for modifying policies that are found to damage social capital".

It's a sensible suggestion that needs to be implemented before volunteers are swamped by officialdom. Just hope it happens before your local community group is regulated out of existence.