by Melanie Oppenheimer,
Professor Melanie Oppenheimer is Chair of History at Flinders University
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Apart from the volunteer bush fire fighters and perhaps the Salvation Army, the voluntary organization featured most prominently during Victoria’s horrendous February 2009 bushfires was the Australian Red Cross. At short notice, it was called upon to deliver a range of services to bushfire victims. Along with an independent advisory panel, the Red Cross was designated by the Federal and Victorian State governments to administer the Bushfire Appeal Fund that raised more than $379 million.

Historically, the Red Cross played a significant role dealing with natural disasters including floods, cyclones and bushfires. It was an integral part of government disaster plans for decades. The Red Cross was closely involved in the 1939 bushfires and during World War II, along with the YMCA, YWCA, Australian Comforts Fund, and Salvation Army, was officially sanctioned by the Federal government to provide a range of philanthropic and charitable services such as comforts and accommodation for troops, and assistance to dependants of enlisted soldiers.

For much of the twentieth century, the Red Cross was the premier voluntary organization in Australia, both in terms of membership through its extensive branch network and because of its spectacular fundraising capacity. The Red Cross fundraising appeals of the war years raised millions of pounds for war related services such as their wounded and missing bureaux and POWs.

That the Victorian and Federal governments gave the Red Cross control for fundraising rather than taking the responsibility themselves follows a long tradition. The Red Cross has always had a close relationship with governments of all political persuasions, especially conservative ones. The wives (and husbands) of State governors have always held the position of State President, and the Governor General’s wife, the Presidency of the National organization, although I note that Quentin Bryce, as the first female Australian Governor General, has now taken on that role herself.

The Red Cross is also particularly strong in Victoria. The national headquarters of the Red Cross is still based in Melbourne, a legacy of the founding President, Lady Helen Munro Ferguson, wife of our sixth Governor General, Ronald Munro Ferguson, who ran the organization from her home, Government House, from 1914-1920, and contributed to its early successes.

The fortunes of the Australian Red Cross have waned in recent decades as it struggled to remain relevant, maintain its membership base, and contend with new and sassy non-profit organizations that seem more able to connect with modern Australian society.

But in 2009 the Red Cross once again ruled the roost in Victoria at least. I can hear the mutterings of the non-profit sector from here as both new and not so new groups gnash their teeth at the re-emergence of the Red Cross as a force to be reckoned with in non-profit sector politics.

Rising from the ashes of the Victorian bushfires is a reinvigorated Australian Red Cross. It’s back to the future.

Citation: Melanie Oppenheimer, Like Phoenix Rising from the Ashes: the Role of the Australian Red Cross and the Victorian Bushfires — a Return to the Future? Australian Policy and History. March 2010.

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