Indicator: Community Participation

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Summary of results

Although data were limited and sometimes difficult to interpret, they showed ACT residents were more likely to participate in voluntary work than were residents of other capital cities. Volunteering rates have increased in recent years, both in the ACT and nationally. The generosity of those offering help to people affected by the January 2003 bushfires was striking.

The ACT community was provided with numerous opportunities to participate in ACT Government consultation processes and participants overwhelmingly found the experience to be positive. However, data on the extent to which participants believe they were able to influence decisions were conspicuously absent.

What the results tell us about the ACT

Volunteering rates provide a useful measure of community participation, as data on volunteering is regularly collected by the Australian Bureau of Statistics and organisations such as VolunteeringACT. For the purpose of this report, formal volunteering is used as a primary indicator, even though this provides only a partial picture of ACT residents’ sense of community. The role of volunteers in developing social networks and social cohesion is particularly relevant to community participation. However, the economic value of services provided by volunteers also contributes to community wellbeing.

ACT has a volunteering spirit

The ACT has the highest rate of participation in formal volunteer work of all Australian States and Territories. While the volunteer rate is significantly higher for the ACT/Canberra than for other capital cities, it is lower than the rate reported outside the capitals in Western Australia, South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales. This geographical variation in participation rates may reflect the more prominent role of community organisations in non-metropolitan communities.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics conducted surveys of voluntary work in 1995 and 2000. There was a substantial growth in participation rates both in the ACT and Australia between 1995 and 2000 (see Table 1).

Table 1: Adults (18 and over) who participated in volunteer work in the past 12 months
Year Proportion of People Volunteering
ACT All Capital Cities Australia
1995 26.1% 16.2% 19.0%
2000 36.2% 28.4% 31.8%

Source: ABS (1995 ,2000)

These participation rates are not directly comparable as the 1995 survey included people aged 15 and over (rather than 18 and over) and asked respondents to report on the volunteering activities of all members of their household (rather than just their own). This was deemed to have resulted in a systematic undercount of volunteers in 1995. The 2000 survey includes revised figures for 1995. The revised data suggest a volunteering rate of 21% for capital cities and 29% for other areas in 1995.

Volunteers’ motives for participating in voluntary work indicated the importance of volunteering in contributing to sense of community and community wellbeing. In 2000 the top four reasons for volunteering were: to ‘help others/community’, ‘personal satisfaction’, ‘personal/family involvement’, and ‘to do something worthwhile’. Moreover, 82% of volunteers first became involved in this kind of work through a personal contact. This suggests that volunteering grows out of social networks as well as building them (ABS 2000, 4441.0).

The fact that volunteers are increasingly not reimbursed for their costs is an emerging equity issue. Some people are unable to work as volunteers, even if they have the time and inclination to do so, because they cannot afford to carry the costs (Mary Porter, VolunteeringACT, personal communication).

Community in planning

The Your Canberra Your Future consultation process identified ‘creation and maintenance of a healthy community’ as an emerging core value for Canberrans. Community participation in planning was recognised to be a key aspect. In 2002, Neighbourhood Planning community consultations were held in the Central Canberra suburbs of Deakin, Braddon, Turner, O’Connor, Lyneham, Dickson, Downer, Hackett and Watson. The consultations included a household survey, interviews at local shopping centres and two workshops.

The return rate for household surveys was between 11% and 25%. Between 94 and 166 people were interviewed at each local shopping centre. Between 91 and 160 people attended the community workshop for each suburb (around 200 attended the combined Downer/Hackett/Watson workshop).

Of those who filled in the workshop feedback questionnaire, between 60% and 96% stated the workshop was a positive experience and fewer than 5% stated it was a negative experience (in Deakin the question was presented differently: 19% said their expectations were exceeded, 72% said their expectations were met and 9% said their expectations were not met). Between 35 and 91 people participated in the ‘moving forward together’ workshop for each suburb. Of those who returned feedback questionnaires, between 72% and 89% stated they found the workshop a positive experience.

It is difficult to interpret these data as there are no points of reference from other reporting periods or jurisdictions, so no trends or comparisons can be suggested. There is also no data on the extent to which community members felt their participation would influence planning decisions.

Role of relationships

In the 2001 ACT Child Health Survey, respondents were asked to report on a number of social connectedness factors influencing the health of children in the ACT, including family functioning, social support and social capital. These data can be used – albeit opportunistically rather than systematically – to give a subjective measure of community wellbeing.

Significantly, 73.2% of respondents said they would be sad if they left their neighbourhood (2001 ACT Child Health Survey, cited in Draft CHO Report 2000–02).

Respondents reported receiving a very high level of support from others, for example:

  • 96.3% of respondents reported relationships with friends and family that made them feel safe secure and happy
  • 96.8% had someone to help them when things went wrong
  • 98.5% had someone they could count on in an emergency.

Responses regarding levels of neighbourhood connection, trust and safety were more moderate:

  • 64.0% of respondents could get help from a neighbour to care for a child
  • 64.9% had visited a neighbour in the last week
  • 67.0% felt safe walking in their own street after dark
  • 77.7% believed their local area had a reputation for being safe
  • 68.0% believed most people could be trusted.

Bushfire response

An interesting consideration is the possible change in Canberrans’ sense of community in response to the bushfires of January 2003. The headline ‘New Canberra emerges from the ashes’ (Canberra Times, 20 January 2003) reflects the view that the crisis may have precipitated a new and different sense of community. But the question remains: were these supportive community relationships always present in latent form, ready to be brought to the surface by the need to respond to an emergency?

How did the fires know we lived here? Canberra’s bushfires January 2003is a compilation of Canberrans’ stories of the bushfires. The sense of community realised during and after the emergency is a recurrent theme:

On 666 ABC Canberra we heard amazing accounts of savage destruction, narrow escapes and bravery beyond the call of duty. We also heard about the immediate and overwhelming generosity of those offering help. We learnt that we are part of a community that reaches out and cares for those in trouble, that Canberra indeed has a heart and soul. Louise Maher, ABC Radio 666, p. 7

Community spirit is stronger than ever, new friendships are being forged and we will, like the Phoenix, rise from the ashes. Lyn Nicholls, Duffy, p. 190

Over 1000 people volunteered to assist in bushfire recovery, both through Volunteering ACT and also directly to evacuation centres, the Emergency Services Bureau and the Recovery Centre. Volunteering ACT registered 850 volunteers, around 450 of whom were placed immediately. Some were unable to be placed because their skills were not matched to immediate requirements. Others quickly returned to paid work and were unavailable when positions became available. Some are being contacted again to aid in garden cleanup (data supplied by VolunteeringACT).

Events well attended

During the 12 months before the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics survey of Attendance at Selected Cultural Venues and Eventswas conducted in 2002, 96% of ACT residents attended at least one cultural venue or event, compared with 88% nationally. For 10 of the 12 categories of venues and events, residents in the ACT recorded the highest attendance rates (ABS 2003, Cat. No. 4114.0).

Data sources and references

ACT Health (forthcoming), ACT Chief Health Officer’s Report 2000–02: Draft for Review: Version 3, 2003.

Australian Bureau of Statistics 1995, Voluntary Work, Australia 1995 , Cat. No. 4441.0.

Australian Bureau of Statistics 2000, Voluntary Work, Australia 2000 , Cat. No. 4441.0.

Australian Bureau of Statistics 2001, Voluntary Work, Australia 2000 , Cat. No. 4441.0.

Australian Bureau of Statistics 2003, Attendance at Selected Cultural Venues and Events , Cat. No. 4114.0.

Mathews, S (compiler) 2003, How did the fire know we lived here? Canberra’s bushfires January 2003, Ginninderra Press, Canberra.

‘New Canberra emerges from the ashes’, Canberra Times, 20 January 2003

Data relating to volunteer responses to the January 2003 bushfires supplied by Volunteering ACT, the peak body for volunteering in the ACT region. For more information on Volunteering ACT see < >. Data on participation in neighbourhood planning provided by the Neighbourhood Planning and Community Partnership Team, ACT Planning and Land Authority.

For more information on community participation in planning in the ACT see the ACTPLA website <>, specifically: the ACTPLA community consultation page and Neighbourhood plans.

New editions of Australian Bureau of Statistics data relating to attendance at sporting events and participation in sporting and physical activities had not been released at the time of writing. Participation in sport and physical activities, Australia (ABS Cat. No. 4177.0) has been discontinued.

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