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Jun 18, 2014

Mayne: compulsory civic service not such a bad idea

Venture capitalist Mark Carnegie raised eyebrows when he called for compulsory civic service in the inaugural Di Gribble Argument last night. Stephen Mayne was there for the bunfight.

In an increasingly polarised world, it was refreshing to attend last night’s inaugural Di Gribble Argument in the Great Hall of the National Gallery of Victoria with luminaries from all sides of politics, corporate and civic life.

There was Paul Keating and Qantas chairman Leigh Clifford, in the same room with the likes of author Shane Maloney, Neil Lawrence and the ABC’s Jon Faine.

Former MP Lindsay Tanner hosted a table which included Federation Centres’ CEO Steven Sewell, corporate proxy kingmaker Dean Paatsch and tough professional director Susan Oliver. Andrew Denton flew down from Sydney for the occasion. Fund manager John Sevior brought his son.

The speaker for the Wheeler Centre event was that one-man tour de force Mark Carnegie who somehow manages to straddle the contradiction of being a pub owner and 2GB shareholder/director profiting from Alan Jones — while also believing in higher taxes for the rich and having been in business with Keating, Tanner and the late, great Di Gribble.

As you might have seen on Lateline last night, Carnegie wants a compulsory system of non-military service. He did indeed walk into a firestorm of criticism and argument at the NGV, under the novel format which saw lively responses from three panellists and then a ding dong slug-fest from the floor.

Despite giving Carnegie a light-hearted spray last night, I actually think there is actually some merit in his proposition.

It’s compulsory to have a passport, compulsory to vote and compulsory to be available for jury duty, so why not encourage young and retired people to volunteer for a week a year, and those in the workforce to step up for a week every several years.

As middle Australia works increasingly hard to get ahead in one of the highest-cost countries on earth, Carnegie is right that more and more people are retreating to their family core and opting out of civic service.

Rotary and church numbers are down, kindergarten committees are being out-sourced to professional managers, tennis club committee are handing their responsibilities to the paid club coach, political party membership levels are at record lows. There is also general disillusion with the quality of Australia’s political leadership.

We all know the problem, but how do you fix it? Carnegie reckons that 38% of Australians are currently volunteering but these numbers continue to fall.

Columnist Vad Badham was the first respondent last night and she did indeed have a tough gig trying to slaughter the HECS system in front of one of its founders, PJ Keating, who took notes throughout the evening but declined to take a pot shot from the floor.

An obvious starting point for Carnegie’s scheme would be the government to provide modest HECS discounts for those who volunteer.

However, it is less clear how you would organise “wisdom transfer” from the old to the young and also how on earth compulsion could be enforced if a culture of draft dodging is not to take hold. The government would be sending a lot of feathers in the mail.

Whatever you think of Mark Carnegie, you’ve got to admire the way he’s prepared to have a go.

As a shareholder activist, this recent Channel Nine hit on the self-serving Millner family was a most unusual development for the corporate club to grapple with.

The bloke is rich enough to not give a damn and prepared to go places where many others fear to tread. Di Gribble would have loved last night, and the Di Gribble Argument looks set to become an entertaining fixture on the civic calendar each year.

* Gribble, a successful publisher and co-founder of Private Media (which publishes Crikey), died in 2011

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12 thoughts on “Mayne: compulsory civic service not such a bad idea

  1. Draco Houston

    This idea has a huge problem, ‘volunteering’ when you are being volunteered.

    I don’t know if anyone else noticed, but we’ve been living in a capitalist society for quite some time. The basis of our current economy is time=money. Money is used to purchase all commodities, including those essential for subsistence. Advocates of volunteerism under these conditions never seem to come to terms with the fact that people need money to live.

    Smash Capitalism and I’d be more receptive to the idea of being volunteered. Better yet, cross-subsidize the wages for the work and pay people to do it.

  2. emma-lee

    Like Draco I have a huge issue with the idea of enforced volunteering – it’s not volunteering at all, and it’s already happening with the work placement scheme currently run through job service agencies.

    As someone heavily involved in the voluntary sector I also take exception to the idea that volunteering is not only a cure-all for societies ills, but also that it’s “easy done”, that all we need to do is send a few hundred young and retired along to their local rotary or kindergarten committee and all will be right with the world.

    Managing volunteers, giving people a meaningful experience and ensuring that not for profits in particular have the skills and people they need to make a *real* difference requires resources, a special set of expertise and lots of time and effort.

    Yes, many organisations need more volunteers but they also need the right sort of volunteers, and volunteers that WANT to be there, not that are forced to be there. There are massive issues through the JSA work placement programs with NFPs having jaded and unmotivated people thrust upon them, taking hours to train, who then leave as soon as they get a job and take away the organisations precious time that would be better used helping beneficiaries.

  3. Yclept

    Most people don’t have the time because they are already being “volunteered” to work free overtime for their employers and our various governments seem to be happy with this. So volunteering is dead!

  4. Gavin Moodie

    I agree: this proposal is not for volunteering but for compulsory civil service. Instead, I would invest in creating jobs for the unemployed.

    Surely it is ‘compulsory’ to have a passport only if one wants to travel beyond the nation’s borders. Neither is it compulsory to vote: merely to attend a polling place on election day.

  5. Draco Houston

    “Neither is it compulsory to vote: merely to attend a polling place on election day.”

    Also if you never enroll you are not compelled to vote. I doubt this proposal would be as easy to opt out of.

    Emma-Lee makes some good points imo. The best volunteers are the ones that actually volunteer. Also that proper training takes a good while in some cases too and this can be a burden.

    At nursing homes you’d lose a day of the week the person has been volunteered for due to mandatory OH&S training, another half a day introducing them to everyone and showing them around. I just don’t get who wins from this idea.

  6. Brian Melbourne

    Compulsory community service is a tough sell, however the idea of encouraging this as part of our working life is good. Eg, Telstra has one paid day per year for this purpose. It’s good for people’s well being apart from anything else.

  7. BH

    Compulsory volunteering (1 week a year) sounds quite good but who is going to pick up the insurance tab.
    Insurance costs are enormous as any volunteer organisation will tell you.
    BrianMelbourne has a good idea. Let businesses organise a few days paid volunteering per year for each employee and let the Govt. cover insurance costs for volunteers not in work.

  8. Dion Giles

    It’s part of the Abbott-Pell government’s crash programme for reshaping Australia as a socially impoverished plaything for brasshats. See excellent article at for why I am saying something that may to some appear wildly counter-intuitive.

  9. Paddlefoot

    Volunteers have to actually volunteer to be defined as volunteers. Might as well make scouting compulsory – it’s another thought-bubble that pops easily under examination. Forcing ‘goodness’ screams of political correctness from somewhere right of The Australian.

  10. Wombat

    Well Stephan, glad to see all you capital lads advocating for a decent dole – three cheers! Oh, you don’t get it? Since the 1970’s when the dole was enough to live on without busting into cars, robbing people or needing a good snort of MDA to forget you had nowhere to live. It once funded a vast youth voluntary network. This was maintained until some tax dodging sycophants were deluded that it was a comfortable income. They made a bureaucracy and then an industry around getting the dole and the media took turns at head kicking the unemployed. Its not National Service that we need me well off ladies – its a decent dole. You could save a packet to pay for it by using a tax file number to get on at the post office and the presentation of a tax file number when you start work gets you off. Left right, left right mister Mayne – where do you want us to march too now – that infamous creek or the road to nowhere? Can’t run a car on the dole to do ‘civics’.