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International Volunteer Day Celebration

Issue date: 
Friday, 5 December 1997
The Rt Hon Sir Michael Hardie Boys, GNZM, GCMG, QSO

Mayor Philip Woollaston (Mayor of Nelson); Deputy Mayor of Tasman District, David Ogilvy; Bev Harvey (Chairwoman of Nelson Volunteer Centre Trust); Nancy Cowan (Regional Co-ordinator, Volunteer Centre); Mary Lafrentz and Bruce Hancox (Chairwoman and Deputy Chairman of Fifeshire FM Foundation); volunteers, ladies and gentlemen.

I am not sure how many places in New Zealand are commemorating International Volunteer Day, but I am glad that Nelson is, and I am very happy to have been invited to come across and share the occasion with you. I am sorry it has to be such a brief visit. Volunteers are the backbone of our New Zealand communities. Without them, New Zealand would be a very different place. To pay people to do the work that volunteers do would be completely beyond us; and the same must be true of many other countries that have social philosophies similar to ours.

I am told that a study was recently done of volunteering in Nelson , which put an annual monetary value on the hours and effort Nelson volunteers have given: a few more than eleven hundred volunteers contributed approximately 97,000 hours to different agencies. Assuming that the equivalent work were to be done commercially, it was deemed that that labour would have cost $9.11 an hour. So the volunteer contribution to Nelson's economy came to $6.9 million dollars.

Of course people don't usually do that sort of calculation, and even if they did, how much is inevitably left out of that sort of account. What volunteers do really cannot be measured in money terms. Anyway, you probably couldn't employ anyone to do many of the things that volunteers do so willingly. And so however good the numbers look, they will never convey the whole story. Figures cannot capture the true and total worth of what volunteers accomplish; here in Nelson; elsewhere in New Zealand; anywhere in the world where volunteers work for the common good.

A striking thing about life in New Zealand today is the enormous contrasts you see: contrasts between those who are prospering and those who live in caravans or in run-down, even squalid houses, who are rarely well-nourished and who sometimes go hungry: contrasts between strong, loving families and dysfunctional, broken and abusive families: contrasts between the well employed and the unemployed, between the cared for and the neglected, contrasts between motivated and resourceful and successful young people, and the suicidal, the alienated, the violent, the dropouts: contrasts between those whose lives have room in them for the service of others, and those who believe in self gratification, or in philosophies in which right and wrong are merely relative terms; labels they would say, that signify nothing more than that individual or sectional interests sometimes conflict.

Some of these contrasts are highly destructive. Others create great stresses in economic or social terms. Somehow we have to tone them down , and that process will require consistently effective leadership. The example of leadership given by New Zealand's volunteers, by your doing as well as by your saying, by serving rather than by directing, your example shows how some of those contrasts can be lessened.

In the last 15 years, New Zealand has been changing at a rate that has probably not been experienced since the period from about 1860 to the mid 1880s. Then, it was the natural landscape that was radically transformed. The current transformation is of our ethical, social and economic environment.

Economically, the country as a whole has seen benefits from the reforms of government, the civil service and of the economy. However, the gap between our highest- and our lowest-income families has broadened. Some fear that this gap is permanent. Others argue that the economy and different peoples' performance within it, are more dynamic than that; that over time, economic groups at the bottom do not stay there but rise again. I suspect that only time will tell who is right. But we cannot afford simply to wait for the answer, to rely on the possibility of a particular theory being proved correct. We cannot afford to dispense with safety nets, effectively operating now.

Preceding and during our economic de-regulation, New Zealand also went through a process of moral, or ethical, de-regulation. This is where some truly disastrous changes have occurred - I've already mentioned some of the symptoms - despairing young people, families living in privation, domestic violence, abused and battered children.

That ethical de-regulation meant that it became more "acceptable" to avoid personal responsibility, to see no difference between what is dutiful, or of service, or ethical, and what is selfish, or dubious, or anti-social or even criminal. And not only has our ethical de-regulation had dramatic and at times tragic consequences , it has had other, often hidden, costs as well. The general quality of life in this country is not what it was. Just think of some of the things that people older than 45 to 50 or so grew up with, but which our children and grandchildren might never know.

When we were growing up, the front doors of our homes were often left unlocked, whether someone was home or not. We only locked up when we were going away on holiday. And that practice was absolutely typical, whether you lived in a city, a town, a small settlement, or out in the country.

Parents told their children that if they got into some kind of difficulty, they should knock on the door of the nearest house and ask the adult who answered to please help them - the unquestioned expectation was that this would easily be the best and safest thing for a child to do. Today? Well, it would depend on a lot of things, many of which a child is not competent to decide upon.

Families far more frequently used to stay together, not always happily to be sure, but for longer than in recent times: certainly long enough for many more fathers, however inadequate they might have been, to have had some positive influence on even the most wayward of their sons. The current much-greater willingness to abandon fatherly responsibilities is clearly contributing to that percentage of New Zealand's modern-day young men who can be so destructive in their behaviour, so dissatisfied, unfulfilled, or actually violent.

And, everywhere in New Zealand, whatever the size of your community, you used to encounter a greater readiness to help friends, neighbours, even strangers. It was just expected of you, whoever you were. As it is to this day, helping others help themselves could be a joyous, fulfilling experience. The people being helped benefited, and so did the people doing the helping.

I'm not saying that our past was any sort of golden age: every period in our history has had its shortcomings, great and small. But the strong sense of community, and safety, and comparative freedom from some sorts of crime, are aspects of life which it would be truly wonderful to reclaim. Are these things lost forever? Must we reconcile ourselves to our present situation? I am sure the answer is no.

Volunteers in their own lives demonstrate why this is so. Your lives display a truth that bears constant repetition: the joy, the sense of fulfilment, that comes from being of help, of service, to someone else. I know that there are many reasons why most voluntary organisations have difficulty recruiting new younger helpers. Economic pressures bear very heavily on many families. Yet there are still many people whose own lives would be enriched if they could only take up the opportunity to lend a hand. So please don't desist from the effort I am sure so many of you already make to recruit more and more helpers to your particular cause. It is not only the cause that needs them, it is the health of the nation.

The social virtues I have been talking about can only be restored, or re-woven, not in any wholesale fashion, but thread by thread, one person at a time. Which is why volunteers and volunteering are so important, and why you volunteers have a special day, commemorated internationally, to point to the value of what you contribute.

So you volunteers earn whatever gratitude you may receive - and often, unfortunately, I know that you do not receive nearly enough - but you also merit respect; the respect due to those who are doing their "fair" share , and probably much more than their fair share, of supporting others who, for whatever reason, are not faring as well as they might.

International Volunteer Day is the occasion for commemorating, around the world, the enormous, often-hidden value of voluntary work, the extraordinary contributions made by individuals, acting freely, around the world.

I am greatly honoured and privileged to be able to add my voice in support of the International Volunteer Day message, that what you volunteers do in Nelson, in the Tasman District, everywhere in New Zealand, that what you do is vital for the long-term well-being of our country. You have more than earned all the thanks you may ever receive. Kia ora, kia ora, kia ora tatau.

Last updated: 
Friday, 9 January 2009

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