Address By

His Excellency Major General Michael Jeffery AC CVO MC

Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia


Official Opening of the Australian Meals on Wheels Association 10th National Conference

Rydges Lakeside Hotel, Canberra

30 September 2003

Thank you so much for inviting us here this afternoon, and special thanks to Matilda House for the traditional welcome on behalf of the Ngunnawal people.

Marlena and I are delighted to open this historic conference, and to offer our ongoing support and appreciation.

It’s terrific to see so many States and Territories represented this week, and we extend a particularly warm welcome to the delegation from Japan.

Mrs Masako Hirano started Meals on Wheels in Japan in 1995 after she visited operations in South Australia and here in the ACT.

Mrs Hirano, as local President, hasn’t been able to make the trip this time, but the Association is very pleased to again share international perspectives on Meals on Wheels with our Japanese friends this week.

Ladies and gentlemen.

Meals on Wheels is a national institution – an organisation synonymous with selflessness, hard work and the willingness of Australians to “pitch in” and “have a go”.

This year, your group celebrates 50 years of consistent, admirable service to hundreds of thousands of frail, aged and/or disabled people.

Meals on Wheels has its origins in early 1940s Britain, when the Women’s Voluntary Service used “mobile canteens” to deliver meals to the housebound during World War Two.

The Australian version started humbly enough – in South Melbourne in June 1953 – when the very first meal was delivered in an insulated hot box mounted on a red and white tricycle.

That modest delivery vehicle trundled around Melbourne for some time, and I think it’s wonderful you’ve managed to track it down and put it on display this week in the exhibition area.

Meals on Wheels branched out into South Australia in 1954 after Doris Taylor, herself confined to a wheelchair, used her own 5-pound donation to initiate direct assistance to those she felt were being overlooked.

Meals on Wheels operations grew steadily throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s – establishing a presence in places as varied as Stirling in my home state of Western Australia, Canberra, and Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory.

Operations stepped up to a new level of professionalism and coordination when the then National Meals on Wheels Association was formed in 1991 – driven by State Presidents, including Oz Pudney, Mary Lowe and Bill Dixon.

In 2003, the scale of your day-to-day work is astonishing and can be likened to that of a well-drilled army.

For example, we know that over the course of a year, 18 million meals are delivered, by more than 100,000 volunteers, to about 60,000 recipients.

New clients come on board nearly every day, mostly through referrals from hospitals and doctors after treatment, or through relatives, friends and neighbours.

We also know that Meals on Wheels nationally is a $35 million-plus annual program, with funds coming from Commonwealth, State and Territory, and local government, as well as from donations, sponsorship and clients themselves.

Tomorrow, the day after, the day after that, and week after week, thousands of volunteers will be out delivering meals across this country and doing many other things in order to ensure Meals on Wheels not just survives, but thrives.

Indeed, it’s estimated that, at peak times, there are more Meals on Wheels cars on the road than police vehicles!

This huge national effort is, of course, the sum of thousands of smaller operations – all carried out in your street, in your neighbourhood, and in your town.

The volume and nature of the work done by volunteers varies greatly, some delivering meals just once a week or fortnight, some doing it every day.

Throughout Australia, from around 11am, volunteers, often in husband-and-wife teams, collect anything up to 20 hot, freshly prepared meals from their local Meals on Wheels base and hit the road.

But they don’t just drop off the meals and leave.

They spend time talking with the recipients, catching up on news, sharing stories, celebrating birthdays, building rapport and relationships – in general, providing essential social contact for people who, in many cases, don’t see anyone else in the course of a normal day.

There are plenty of other tasks to be done, too.

For example, some volunteers help cook food at special Meals on Wheels kitchens, others pick up prepared meals from providers such as hospitals and commercial kitchens, some collect money, and some pack and deliver up to a fortnight’s worth of frozen meals.

And, when the lunchtime rush is over, volunteers immediately start preparing for the next day’s round.

This work is carried out largely unheralded and unnoticed by the general public, though we know it’s greatly appreciated by the recipients, and that volunteers enjoy a tremendous sense of reward and purpose.

Ladies and gentlemen.

Besides the long history of achievement by Meals on Wheels, and the daily workload I’ve just described, what impresses me most about your group is its desire to look ahead and identify future challenges and possible improvements.

As a national organisation, you have in place a sound strategic plan that acknowledges a number of issues critical to your continued success – such as building the membership base, establishing a permanent national secretariat, raising your profile, and honing service delivery.

The professionalism and lack of complacency evident within Meals on Wheels is summed up by the theme of this week’s conference – “The Future Starts Tomorrow – Are We Ready?”

I think you’ve mapped out a solid program for the next two days, one that addresses prevailing trends and issues that will directly affect your ability to meet client needs.

Some of these topics will include changing food and health regulations, nutrition, food safety, liability and insurance, funding options, and better use of information technology.

To me, two really crucial issues, that I understand will be captured in tomorrow’s keynote address, stand out.

They are the size of the future Meals of Wheels client base, and the make-up of your volunteers.

As we know, Australia has a rapidly ageing population and the implications of this touch on nearly every aspect of public policy.

The Minister for Ageing, Kevin Andrews, provided some compelling statistics at the Carers Australia National Conference at this very venue two weeks ago.

For example, by 2050 the number of people aged 65 or over will have risen from the current 12 per cent of the population to more than 26 per cent.

He also said that, while there are currently 3083 Australians over the age of 100, the Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates that by 2051 the figure will increase more than twelve-fold to 38,000!

So, clearly, Meals on Wheels will likely face a significant increase in demand over coming decades and will need to husband its resources even more carefully and strategically.

Of course, the single most important resource available to Meals on Wheels has been, and will continue to be, that army of volunteers I talked about earlier.

It seems the outlook for volunteerism generally is quite good.

Latest figures show the number of people doing some kind of voluntary work has grown by more than 30 per cent since 1995, with 4.1 million volunteers averaging more than three hours a week.

It’s long been the case that a fair proportion of Meals on Wheels volunteers are themselves elderly.

This sector of the community will no doubt continue to supply a large part of your volunteer base, but I hope you are able to tap into the increasing number of relatively young retirees who will have the time and resources to lend a hand.

The other group we’d all like to see better harnessed is youth.

Now, I understand securing their involvement in Meals on Wheels is not easy because most are busy working in their jobs or at some form of schooling.

But it would be a very good thing, all round, if they, perhaps through organised youth groups and with the help of mentors, could become directly involved in your work.

This would provide for valuable contact between the young and the old, and give youth an insight into both how other people live and what volunteering is all about.

Ideally, it would instil in them the volunteering “bug” and, therefore, help ensure a larger, long-term volunteer base for the future of Meals on Wheels.

Such a trend would also help inculcate a greater sense of community spirit within the broader society – something that is both fulfilling for individuals and fundamental to building a happy, cohesive and tolerant nation.

Ladies and gentlemen.

Meals on Wheels has been doing splendid work for 50 years and, in 2003, it’s very well placed to maintain its high level of service.

The thousands of volunteers demonstrate daily how each of us, in whatever field of endeavour we choose, can contribute to a “Nation of Excellence”.

Marlena and I commend you for your dedication to helping others, and your willingness as an organisation to anticipate and plan for change.

We hope you have a rewarding and enjoyable time in Canberra this week and that, as a result, Meals on Wheels continues to prosper and enrich our society.

It’s now my great pleasure to declare the 10th Australian Meals on Wheels Association National Conference officially open.

Thank you.