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Volunteers Must “Stir the Pot” - Kirby

28 November 2011 at 2:24 pm
Staff Reporter
Volunteers must continue to stir the pot and agitate for change, former High Court judge, Michael Kirby has told the National Conference on Volunteering.

Staff Reporter | 28 November 2011 at 2:24 pm


Volunteers Must “Stir the Pot” - Kirby
28 November 2011 at 2:24 pm
Above: Honourable Michael Kirby delivers the 'Margaret Bell Spirit of Volunteering' oration.

Volunteers must continue to stir the pot and agitate for change, former High Court judge, Michael Kirby has told the National Conference on Volunteering.

The 2011 National Conference on Volunteering has kicked off, with the Honourable Michael Kirby, former Justice of the High Court of Australia, presenting the ‘Margaret Bell Spirit of Volunteering Oration’.

Kirby told the more than 400 delegates at the conference that volunteers act as agitators in society. “You don’t get much done in this world unless you stir the pot and start making some trouble,” he said.

Kirby said that Australia, under the white Australia policy, was similiar to an apartheid state, and this was changed through agitation, largely by student groups and volunteers.

He said the volunteer movement must continue to agitate for change. “It’s the volunteer movement and civil society that is in advance of government, and always in advance on politicians,” said Kirby.

Volunteers Working with Government

Kirby advised that volunteers need to strike a balance when working with government , saying “once you begin to take government funding, you have to be ready to be accountable by government standards”.

Kirby said as Chairman of the Australian Law Reform Committee in the 1970’s, he was keen to move the group from Sydney to Canberra, to be closer to the ‘political masters’.

However Sir Clarrie Harders warned Kirby against getting too close to government, saying “If you have value, it is that you are not part of politics, and can do things that a government department could never do”.

Kirby said there are important lessons in this for the volunteer movement. “As volunteers get close to government, as volunteers begin to do work for government, it’s really important that they keep the essential motivation and independence that comes from being a volunteer.”

Governments need to provide more protection for volunteers, Kirby said. At the moment only South Australia has a law protecting the rights of volunteers, and protection against negligence, discrimination and equal opportunity needs to be enshrined in law.

Above (l-r): Conference MC Peter Cocks, Margaret Bell and Michael Kirby.

Kirby also used his address to criticise Australia’s attitude towards refugees – an area where he said civil society can make a difference. “The number of refugees that come in to Australia is a trickle – by world standards it is a trickle – yet it’s a matter that gets the media and politicians agitated.”

The Future for Volunteering

Kirby said he sees three main challenges for the volunteer movement:

  • Changing demographics – People are living longer and are developing illnesses that as much of an issues in the past, which will place increasing demands on civil society and volunteers.
  • Technology – Social networks have become important modes of communication, of sharing how things are developing in the world, and people need to get over their fears of it.
  • Global – There has to be an involvement of civil society on a global level. 

Social Inclusion and Margaret Bell

Kirby said he was honoured to present the Margaret Bell oration, describing Bell as “truly a world figure in the field of volunteer work and support”.

Margaret Bell addressed the conference and said “Volunteering in Australia will rise or fall depending on whether we can engender into our society trust and compassion”.

“Australia is one of the richest, most developed nation in the world, but we are becoming a nation of whingers.” She said.

She said volunteers must ask themselves the question everyday “is what I’m doing socially cohesive?”

She said promoting trust, belief, enjoyment and responsibility are the tasks of volunteers, and are bigger tasks than anything else they need to do.

Pro Bono Australia is the official media partner of the 2011 National Conference on Volunteering, and our team of journalists are reporting live from the conference to ensure those unable to attend can follow the conference news and discussion.

You can view the latest conference news at

Join in the conversation around the conference on twitter by using the hashtag #volaus11  

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