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The principle of voluntarism, which had its origins in the recognition, in the wake of the English Civil War, of the right of people to form intentional associations outside established religion, was central to the belief systems imported by Melbourne's first non-Aboriginal settlers. Voluntary associations, which by this time had expanded beyond religion in Britain and flowered even more fully in the United States, took on different and sometimes contradictory forms in the new colony, where the conviction that state provision was inevitably inefficient did not always extend to a reluctance to accept government money to underwrite voluntary efforts.

The abhorrence felt by Presbyterians and many of the other Protestant denominations left few to defend State aid to religion, which had been in place since the passage of the Church Act 1836 had ended the Anglican monopoly in New South Wales. When this was abolished in 1870 the maintenance of religious institutions became the responsibility of their adherents. In relation to education, the State, disillusioned with the sectarianism which had blighted a government-funded voluntary system, chose in 1872 to withdraw funding from all but its own highly centralised Education Department. In this arena Protestants proved far less committed to voluntarism. While Catholics struggled to maintain their own schools, most Protestant parents opted for the free education provided by the State, leaving the surviving high-fee independent schools catering for a more affluent elite.

Not surprisingly, it was this elite that was also in favour of voluntarism as the basis for the provision of charitable relief. Having left England in the wake of the introduction of the new Poor Law in 1834, they were as aware of the cost of the new system to property-holding ratepayers as they were of its harshness to the poor. Their commitment to self-help, free enterprise and family responsibility had a solid economic base. Immigrants in pursuit of upward social mobility were more likely to imagine themselves as givers than recipients of assistance and hence advocated philanthropy rather than government provision, which by its very nature implied a right to relief. In Melbourne, however, such philanthropy developed in conjunction with rather than in opposition to government. Citizens who came together in voluntary association to establish hospitals, orphanages, female refuges, ladies' benevolent associations, aged care institutions and disability services always did so in the expectation that government would underwrite their building and ongoing maintenance costs, entrusting to them the right to decide who was worthy to receive such assistance.

As a result 19th-century voluntarism had an antidemocratic taint, preserving the power of those who provided the service rather than encouraging a discourse of rights and citizenship. The argument that a system which relied on voluntary giving strengthened sympathy for the poor sat uneasily alongside its less contested benefit that it did so at far less expense than a system financed through a compulsory levy. Radical voices, many of whom had experienced the 'kindness' of charity during economic depressions, have always backed government provision, although informal self-help networks were always strong in working-class communities.

With the introduction of social security in the post-federation era, voluntary charity was seen as residual and as effectively disenfranchised from the ongoing debate despite its extensive scope. Indeed, with its economic benefits muted, voluntarism flowered, offering a wider array of activities which citizens could choose to join. The mass enlistment of men during World War I was matched by the enthusiasm with which women donated their time to the war effort through the Red Cross, voluntary auxiliaries and other patriotic organisations. After the war mothers' clubs worked to support state schools and ladies' auxiliaries were founded to raise funds for churches, hospitals and other charities. Men were drawn into voluntary work through the new secular service clubs as well as such older church-based organisations as the St Vincent De Paul Society. Children were encouraged to follow their parents' example through membership of the girl guides and the boy scouts, organisations which, while encouraging community service, were made possible by the willingness of adult leaders to volunteer their time. Moving away from their older charitable or benevolent image, voluntary associations, both secular and religious, were central to the mesh that bound communities together particularly in Melbourne's more affluent suburbs.

Voluntarism was central to Melbourne's response to World War II. Auxiliary police officers and air-raid wardens, the backbone of the city's civil defence network, were all volunteers. In addition to resuming the patriotic activities developed during World War I, women challenged established gender boundaries by enlisting in the voluntary organisations which laid the basis for the Women's Auxiliary Forces. However, just as these volunteers were recognised as professional servicewomen by the time the war came to an end, professional social workers were claiming as their own work which in the past had been undertaken by volunteers. At the same time widening opportunities for women to participate in the workforce limited the amount of time available for voluntary activities.

Despite such pressures, the voluntary ethic remains strong. Sport, at all levels, relies heavily on voluntary effort, as do the surf life saving associations that provide beach patrols during the summer. Within the now fully professional welfare agencies there has been a growing recognition that volunteers bring something special to the helping relationship. Organisations like Lifeline and Do-Care use trained and supervised volunteers in an attempt to re-create the sense of community believed to be lacking in the modern city. Self-help movements like Community Child Care and the Australian Breastfeeding Association, which originated in Melbourne, recognise the value of people in like situations voluntarily coming together to assist each other. Volunteer members of the State Emergency Service are the first line of defence in communities struck by floods, accidents and other disasters, while local Neighbourhood Watch groups work with police to reduce crime. Valued as a meaningful leisure activity by older citizens and as a source of work experience for the young, voluntarism continues to underwrite community life in Melbourne.

Shurlee Swain