Volunteering and election fatigue

Image: Volunteers for Habitat for Humanity building a new home on Vancouver Island. Photo by Jon Toogood

It’s National Volunteer Week, as good a time as any to encourage people to offer their skills and labour to community organisations and causes they believe in.

For those who donated their time to support a political party or independent candidate, though, battle fatigue has set in.

More than four million Australians voted during the three weeks leading up to last Saturday’s Federal election. This was more than double the pre-poll vote in 2016. Instead of election volunteers concentrating their efforts on just one day, it meant putting in that sort of effort for 17 consecutive days.

University of Sydney senior lecturer Stephen Mills says the pre-polling trend is changing the traditional election campaign in unexpected ways.

“Candidates are spending less time campaigning in the community and more time at pre-polling stations. Parties are announcing their more attractive promises earlier. Party volunteers are being exhausted by long weekday shifts on the hustings. And many voters are casting their votes with incomplete knowledge.”

Mills and co-researcher Martin Drum of the University of Notre Dame Australia found that three weeks of pre-polling stretched the resources of the smaller parties.

“Early voting is not a level playing field, Recruiting and organising volunteers for three weeks is more of a challenge for smaller parties and independents than for the major parties.

“Incumbent MPs are more available to stand at pre-poll centres all day than, say, a minor party candidate with a job and other non-campaign commitments.”

While the long-term trend towards volunteering is down, 5.8 million Australians aged 18 and over carry out volunteer work every year. Volunteering can range from high-risk activities (bush fire brigades, surf lifesaving and State emergency services), to delivering for meals on wheels or selling raffle tickets outside the local Neighbourhood Centre.

My father (and maybe yours as well) would often use a barracks catch-phrase from time serving in WWII – “Never volunteer for anything.” So I can use that as an excuse for rarely volunteering, apart from local fairs, fetes and music festivals.

Big music festivals like Woodford and the National Folk Festival need thousands of volunteers to ensure that they run smoothly. This year in Canberra, the NFF engaged 1,300 volunteers on tasks ranging from MCs and stage managers to garbage detail. Even small festivals, like the re-born Maleny Music Festival, need about 180 volunteers. Music festival volunteers are given weekend tickets in exchange for an agreed number of volunteer hours ranging from 20 (NFF) to 25 (Woodford).

Volunteering for an election campaign is a bit like being one of the 45,000 Australians who held their hand up to help run the Sydney Olympics. It’s a massive job, but once it’s over you won’t have to think about it again for years.

In 2019, tens of thousands volunteered for political parties large and small. The Greens said in an email last week they needed 10,000 people for Election Day alone.

In any one of the 151 electorates, parties needed two to four people to hand out how-to-vote cards in each booth. An average sized electorate with 30 polling booths would need 120 volunteers over a 10-hour period for this one job. Each party also needed volunteers for door knocking and phoning campaigns and then to help staff pre-poll centres for two or three weeks.

It’s not just political parties that need volunteers. Lobby group GetUp said that more than 9,000 volunteers made 712,039 calls to voters and knocked on 36,315 doors. More than 1,800 volunteers put in 5,954 hours on the campaign to elect independent candidate Zali Steggall in Tony Abbott’s seat of Warringah.

Even small campaigns need the support of volunteers. Controversial Anglican priest Fr Rod Bower contested a Senate seat for Independents for Climate Action Now. He told me that 50 volunteers worked with him on the campaign. It was a first for Fr Rod, who is best-known for maintaining an ever-changing campaign of political slogans outside his Gosford Parish. It was also a first for ICAN, which gained 18,430 votes in New South Wales (all-up 32,525 votes in a three-state campaign).

Who knows how many of the election volunteers of 2019 will hold their tired heads up again in 2022. Some will probably be part of a trend that began in 2014 when an Australian Bureau of Statistics social survey showed that the rate of volunteering had slipped from 36% in 2010 to 31%. The next ABS social survey can be expected later in 2019.

It may come as a surprise to find that the largest proportion of volunteers is not, as you might think, drawn from the post-retirement age group. As Professor Melanie Oppenheimer, Chair of History at Flinders University, wrote in The Conversation, the highest rates of volunteering are among people aged between 35 and 54, working full-time, with young children.

“Busy people are able to find the time to volunteer, possibly because it is important enough for them to be able to overcome their time limitations.

“The most regularly cited reasons given for not volunteering are ill health, lack of time, and lack of interest.

“With an ageing population, ill health is likely to grow as a barrier, while at the same time (there is) increasing demand for volunteer-provided services such as health or aged care.”

In a separate study, academics from Curtin University and the William Angliss Institute discovered a volunteer crisis unfolding in small rural communities across Western Australia. The researchers surveyed 10,000 people in rural WA, to find that volunteering in that part of the country is a way of life, with participation well above the national average.  However, 35% of those actively involved in volunteering said they were planning to move away from rural areas, with more than half citing a lack of essential services or the cost of accessing these services in larger towns.

Australian volunteer participation is ranked second behind the US as a percentage of the adult population. The UN Volunteers global report found it accounts for the equivalent of 109 million full-time workers. The majority (57%) of this figure are women, while in Australia, the percentage is even higher, with 63% of volunteers being women. Another pattern observed in Australia found organisation-based volunteering rates were higher for the youngest group of people (aged 14 to 24) and people over 65.

ABS data shows that Australia’s volunteers each put in an average of 135 hours a year – 783 million hours of unpaid labour per year. According to Volunteering Australia, they are involved in areas including arts/heritage, business/professional/union, welfare/community, education and training, animal welfare, emergency services, environment, health, parenting, children and youth.  As the global study found, 70% of volunteering is informal and community-based, including ‘spontaneous volunteering’, after floods, bushfires or cyclones have left communities devastated.

Flinders University researcher Lisel O’Dwyer has estimated the economic contribution of volunteering in Australia at $290 billion, surpassing revenue from major sectors including mining and agriculture. (The figures, revised in 2014, take into account the value of lives saved by volunteers such as firefighters, SES crews and life guards.)

Try telling the mining lobby that.


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Simon Wells
Simon Wells
May 26, 2019 1:28 am

Very pertinent article, Bob.
And that latter stat should spruiked around the country

Juda Bacon
Juda Bacon
May 26, 2019 10:19 am

It is why I have always said that the biggest sponsor of any folk festival, is its volunteers. Some recognise that, others just take advantage of it.