Speech to the 2023 Ozanam Conversation by Mr Mark Gaetani

Saturday 20 May 2023

Australian Catholic University Cathedral Hall

Fitzroy, Melbourne


It is a great pleasure to be with you today and to participate in the 2023 Ozanam Conversation. 

I would like to acknowledge that we are meeting on the traditional land of the Kulin Nation and pay my respects to Elders both past and present, and to Elders from other communities who may be here today. 

I have long been an admirer of Ozanam Conversations, which provide a welcome and much-needed space for reflection and discussion about our faith and place in contemporary Australia. 

These are two areas of concern that have occupied much of my own reflection in the months since my election in March 2023 as St Vincent de Paul Society National President. 

We stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Australians during natural disasters 

The Society has a proud history of supporting Australians in need for almost 150 years. 

We support Australians in need across the country every day and we stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Australians during major emergencies such as bushfires, droughts and floods… and more recently during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The Society is not a first responder.  However, during some crises (the Black Summer Bushfires, some of our members became first responders as fires swept through their local community.  However, but our members, volunteers, and staff always stand ready to help people in need following the immediate aftermath of danger that accompany a natural disaster. 

We have a long history of collaborating with emergency services, government, and other charities providing accommodation, support services and material assistance.  

How we have responded in the past 3 years 

There is a richness in our story especially over the past 3+ years so I will try my best to give you a good overview without getting into the details – Toby is on hand to take questions after the session. 

In recent times, we have responded to major droughts, bushfires, and flood emergencies as well as the pandemic. 

For example, between 2019 and 2021, the Society assisted 15,287 recipients through the Drought Community Support Initiative which was managed out of National Council’s secretariate in partnership with local conference across almost 50% of drought affected LGAs in Australia.  The Salvation Army tackled the other 50 % of LGAs. 

An evaluation by the Australian National University found that our administration of the DCSI was effective and well targeted. Of the $66M given to the Society we accounted for all the moneys bar $2,000. 

In relation to the bushfires, the Society worked with the Salvos and the Red Cross to distribute an additional allocation of Emergency Relief funds to local communities in Qld, NSW, Canberra, Victoria and SA.  

Our involvement saw us participate in the Cabinet war room as the bushfires burnt out of control over many weeks.  The intel and feedback we were able to give from the direct reports received from our members through state and territory councils demonstrates the esteem governments place in the Society and its members and volunteers. 

The Society’s learnings about how governments, emergency services and charities react in disaster situations saw National Council made submissions to the Royal Commission into the 2019-20 Black Summer bushfires.   

We now have a seat on the National Emergency Management Agency created by the Commonwealth to coordinate responses to national natural disasters.  

The great work of responding to natural disasters is foremost carried out by the Society’s state and territory councils. No more was this evident than during the floodings that occurred in northern NSW.  And, our state/territory councils and staff work in a collaborative partnership sharing resources wherever a single jurisdiction might need extra support and with other charities on the ground. 

Person-centred – we walk alongside 

The Society works from the initial emergency response phase—zero to six weeks—through to recovery phase—six weeks to three months—and into rebuilding phase—three months to two years.  

We also recognise that each person and community walk their own journey – in recent times this approach has seen the Commonwealth adopt a strong ‘place-based approach’ to recovery and resilience initiatives. 

Individuals also progress through recovery in different ways and in their own time.  

This means we need to be flexible – while most people might have moved from emergency to recovery phases over several months, others might only seek help for the first time, several months after the disaster has hit. 

When the pandemic hit Australia, the Commonwealth, and national cabinet, turned to the major charities for advice on where ER funds should be directed.  How is the voice of our members listened to? 

The Society is a member of the National Coordination Group based in Canberra established by the Government specifically to advise it about where extra financial support was required across the nation.   

The NCG, consisting of 8 charities, has met 71 times since the pandemic started.  This suggests the NCG is seen an integral adviser around emergency reef and food relief initiatives.  

The Minister asked us to establish a small secretariate to help the work of the NCG and to advise the department of social services. That sits inside our own national secretariate.  

The above suggests the Society continues to be a member-based, well-respected and trusted national reach organisation capable of working in partnership with governments to respond in times of natural disasters.  

Caesar’s money and the Society’s money help those in need 

Where does the Society get the money to allocate to people in times of crisis? 

There are two sources. 

First, we draw on our own funds – these are generated from: 

  1. general donations 
  2. the surpluses generated from our Vinnies retail stores  
  3. donations raised in response to a particular natural disaster. 

In respect of donations the Society is a trusted organisation that can pivot on its brand to solicit regular donations and to initiate urgent appeals from the public.  These funds are particularly relevant because they enable the Society to provide services that are often not covered in the guidelines of government funds. 

Second, all State and Territory Councils to greater or lesser extent draw on Emergency Relief funds allocated by the Commonwealth.  This allows the Society to add Caesar’s money to our own funds driving assistance and material support further for a greater number of people experiencing crisis.  

Before I conclude, let me highlight some challenges about our ongoing involvement in responding to ER situations: 

  1. the decline in volunteers across the board represents a challenge. Various Commonwealth agencies have begun to identify this trend as a risk going forward. 

    As you know we have a major initiative in full swing seeking to address our own membership challenges – I understand our membership in Victoria is very healthy! 

  2. meaningful data – we continue to have 8 different data systems in play 

  3. related to the matter of data, we need to understand that governments want ‘real time’ data (note the Commonwealth is struggling in this space). 


Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you here today. 

The Society has a proud tradition of assisting those in need and in responding to emergencies. 

We remain steadfast in our readiness to be of service to those in times of need, and we continue to learn new ways to better undertake our work. 

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