Regulating the end of neighbourliness
Last Sunday was Neighbour Day. The idea behind the day is simple and worthwhile. Neighbours are encouraged to say hello to one another. Neighbour Day was started by Melburnian Andrew Heslop in 2003 and is now celebrated throughout the country. The concept has been welcomed by politicians from both sides of politics, federal and state governments and local councils.
It is ironic that governments support Neighbour Day, given government regulations are a chief cause of the decline in the sense of community in our neighbourhoods. Forty per cent of Victorians engage in some sort of voluntary activity, and voluntary organisations are central to strong neighbourhoods. Yet government rules are putting the future of those organisations and what they do at risk.
Community initiative is being stifled as regulations become so burdensome that many volunteers find that their participation is simply not worth the trouble.
Fund-raising sausage sizzles are now subject to 40 pages of regulation from the Department of Human Services. It is a legal requirement that functions appoint an "event co-ordinator", who must complete a checklist of more than 30 questions, ranging from the time the event started and finished, to whether the area was free of pests, to the name, address and phone number of anyone who supplied food. To conduct a sausage sizzle will probably require two separate permits from the local council. One permit to authorise the fund-raising and another to allow food to be sold.
The purpose of all this bureaucracy is, of course, to prevent food poisoning. And, possibly because of additional regulation, a few people have been saved from an upset stomach. But there is a trade-off. As governments make it harder and more complicated to run voluntary activities, volunteers become less willing to organise those activities. People no longer attempt to help themselves, and instead they look to government for the solution to their community's problems.
It might be obvious, but what is often forgotten is that voluntary organisations are run by volunteers. Even if they wanted to, volunteers don't have the time to navigate their way through 40 pages of instructions, fill out five pages of paperwork, and then wait 14 days for council approval, all so that they can cook some sausages. Common sense has been replaced by adherence to a rulebook. Most people understand that buying food at a school fete is different from buying it at a commercial restaurant. Many of the issues council health inspectors try to solve could be fixed by simply declaring that anyone purchasing at a community event does so that their own risk.
The modern-day mania for "risk management" has eliminated a range of activities previously conducted by voluntary associations. While risk was once an accepted part of everyday life, now it is something that must be eliminated.
For a number of years a group of volunteers has operated an after-school sports program for children living on an inner-city housing commission estate in Melbourne. The program was supported by an AFL club whose players regularly visited the estate to teach drills to the 30 children who attended each week.
This year, with the program growing and consuming more time, the volunteers decided to hand over the running of the program to a local government agency. The first requirement from officials at the agency was that the program institute a "risk management" plan and that every volunteer have a "position description". It didn't matter that the worst accident any child had ever experienced was a bump on the head, and that volunteers had spent years working quite happily without "position descriptions". The result was that because none of the volunteers had the time or expertise to complete the necessary paperwork the program was cancelled.
Victorians would be surprised to know there's a state government department responsible for voluntary organisations. It's called the Department for Victorian Communities and its mandate is to work "with local people throughout Victoria with the mutual goal of strengthening communities". The department is even running an inquiry into the red tape faced by community groups. So far nothing much has happened.
Maybe a new and radical approach is necessary. The best thing government could do is get out of the way. Rather than attempting to abolish the inevitable risk associated with practically anything a community group does, government could let people make their own choices.
It is hoped that as attitudes change back to what they once were, we may no longer need to be reminded to say hello to our neighbours.