Dr Melanie Oppenheimer

Margaret George Award 2006

Topic: An historical perspective on volunteering in Australia in the post-1945 period
Dr Oppenheimer presented her findings in a public lecture at the National Archives of Australia in Canberra on 15 May 2007.

Biographical note

Dr Melanie Oppenheimer is Associate Professor in the School of Humanities and Languages at the University of Western Sydney (UWS). She has written extensively on various aspects of volunteering in Australia from both an historical and contemporary perspective.

Her book All Work No Pay: Australian Civilian Volunteers in War (2002), which examines the role of volunteers and voluntary organisations in wartime, was short listed for the NSW Premier’s History Awards in 2003. Dr Oppenheimer was awarded a Canadian Studies Award in 2003 to undertake a comparative study of volunteering on the Canadian and Australian home fronts during World War II. She has been a member of the editorial working party of the journal Labour History since 1999, and is a co-editor of Third Sector Review.


Melanie Oppenheimer used rarely-viewed records in the National Archives collection to provide an historical perspective on volunteering in Australia in the post-1945 period. In this project, she looked at the impact of the war on propelling and extending volunteerism into the 1950s and beyond.

Today, more than 34 per cent of Australians give their time as volunteers, contributing $42 billion a year to the Australian economy. Many volunteer organisations, such as Meals on Wheels and the National Trust, had their origins in the war years or the immediate postwar period, while others began in the 1970s following the community strategies of the Whitlam era.

Dr Oppenheimer’s project examined how volunteering has shaped economic and social policy in Australia since 1945 and the major debates and implications of these activities. Her project aimed to provide a broad historical understanding of volunteering in Australian history, but also to assess and explain the role played by the state. Governments have always been integral to the voluntary sector and volunteers have been essential to governments.

One of the items Dr Oppenheimer uncovered in her research is a promotional film from the 1970s on the Australian Assistance Plan. This short-lived yet radical and innovative social welfare program focused on empowering local communities and volunteering. Today these ideas are referred to as social capital, capacity building and community partnerships.

Dr Oppenheimer also examined records from the 1956 Olympic Games held by the National Archives. She places a new interpretation on the role of volunteers and the Melbourne Olympic Games within the debates about amateurism and professionalism in sport.


In this paper Dr Oppenheimer investigates two areas of Australian volunteering in the 1950s and 1970s – sport and community/welfare – to see what happened to the wartime vounteering spirit in the postwar era. What changes were there to the voluntary sector in postwar Australia? And how did governments, who were very keen to harness voluntary organisations during the war, respond in later years?

Cited records from the National Archives collection

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2019