Firefighters' Presumptive Rights Compensation And Fire Services Legislation Amendment (Reform) Bill 2017 Second reading
Debate resumed from 25 May; motion of Mr MERLINO (Minister for Emergency Services).
Mr WALSH (Murray Plains) — I ask that the reasoned amendment in my name be circulated. I move:
That all the words after ‘That’ be omitted with the view of inserting in their place the words ‘this bill be withdrawn and redrafted to:
(1) retain the provisions providing for the presumptive rights of firefighters; and
(2) take into account further consultation with Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria, volunteer firefighters and other associated organisations about the proposed amendments to the Metropolitan Fire Brigades Act 1958 and the Country Fire Authority Act 1958.’
How have we arrived at the situation we have here before us today a bill to smash up the Country Fire Authority (CFA)? If you look back at the history of this particular bill — and it goes back a long time — I suppose in more recent times the first chapter in this very sorry and torrid time would be the enterprise bargaining agreement (EBA) with the Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB) back in 2010, I think it was. The board and senior managers at that time were very concerned about the rights of veto that were inserted in that EBA, which did make it very, very difficult for them to run the Metropolitan Fire Brigade, because effectively the United Firefighters Union (UFU) and particularly Peter Marshall had to tick off on all the different management decisions that the MFB wanted to make through that time.
I can remember a time when we were in government in the last Parliament when the MFB introduced some new fire appliances into their fleet, and the United Firefighters Union did not want to tick off on those particular fire appliances. From memory they sat in a shed gathering dust for something like two years while there was an argument backwards and forwards between the United Firefighters Union and the MFB about getting those appliances actually used. Those sorts of issues were something that were very concerning to management and the board of the MFB over that time, as was their ability to actually run the MFB as they would have liked to see it, as emergency fire services here in Victoria.
I suppose with that background and that knowledge the CFA were very determined in their enterprise bargaining agreement with the United Firefighters Union and particularly Peter Marshall that they were not going to find that they got into a position where they had issues that actually limited their role as management and as a board to fulfil their obligations under the Country Fire Authority Act 1958 (CFA act) and particularly under the CFA charter, when they were there to make sure that the volunteers’ rights were respected and looked after because the overwhelming majority of firefighters for the CFA are volunteers.
There were a number of years of negotiation around that particular enterprise bargaining agreement. We have all heard the debate, but it is useful to put something on the record today about who was actually going to be in control of a fireground if this enterprise bargaining agreement went ahead. Was it a professional paid firefighter with six months fire experience who would be running a fireground rather than an officer who might have 20 or 30 years experience? They were the sorts of issues that were bouncing back and forth on this. Particularly from a volunteer’s point of view, I have the utmost respect for the office‑bearers — the captains, the lieutenants — of our volunteer fire brigades because they actually have the experience and the local knowledge, and because of how they run the services on a particular fireground.
One of the more contentious issues in that enterprise bargaining agreement came out of the leaked documents around the enterprise bargaining agreements: whether there had to be seven paid firefighters on a fireground before volunteers could actually attend fires or whether it was just the fact they actually had to be dispatched before the fire could be fought — all those were issues underlying the negotiations in the EBA. It was effectively all about power to the union rather than the best outcomes in fighting fire over that particular time.
You then come to the 2014 state election, and you have Peter Marshall, as the secretary of the United Firefighters Union, bragging about the fact that he had paid firefighters. Admittedly they were not in their actual uniform; they were in a uniform that was made up, that was just slightly different enough that they could say they were not in their firefighters uniform, but for all intents and purposes for a person on the street they looked exactly the same as a paid firefighter. Peter Marshall then bragged in a left‑wing journal that those firefighters doorknocked 43 000 homes during the 2014 state election. He also bragged about the fact that he believed he had 700 firefighters in those mock‑up uniforms actually man pre‑poll polling stations on that particular day.
That is some of the background to this bill. I can remember during the election going out and doing an event with the Liberal candidate for Yan Yean, who was late to the function we were having. When he arrived he was physically and emotionally shaken because he had been to a pre‑poll and there had been a scuffle with those people I talked about in those particular mock‑up uniforms. As has been reported and as was reported to the electoral commission, there was a fair bit of push and shove at those places, and we know who instigated those particular actions.
This is the background to where we are today, where we actually have a Premier who is indebted to Peter Marshall and to the United Firefighters Union to be in government, let alone all the other rumours that people circulate about what Peter Marshall has got on the Premier. I do not know any truth to those rumours, and I am not going to repeat them in this place, beyond the facts reported by Peter Marshall about the number of houses those United Firefighters Union members doorknocked, and the number of United Firefighters Union members who manned booths for the Labor Party both at pre‑poll and on the actual election day.
This is what we have with this piece of legislation before us, which is why we actually want to have the bill split. I do not think there is any argument across both sides of the chamber that we do need to have presumptive rights legislation here in Victoria. I think there is heated agreement about that. There will be some debate on the margins about how it is actually implemented under legislation, but on our side of the house, we very much believe that presumptive rights legislation should treat paid firefighters the same way as it treats volunteer firefighters, given the conditions that they may serve under.
With the legislation that is actually before us today there are some views that the current legislation around presumptive rights does not treat volunteers equally to paid firefighters. I think that is an issue that can be debated at another time. From our point of view, which is why I have moved the reasoned amendment, let us split the bill, let us actually get on, let us debate the presumptive rights legislation, and let us get it passed and make sure those rights are there for both paid firefighters and for volunteer firefighters in the future. So from the Liberal‑National Party point of view there is no argument about the legislation for presumptive rights. Where there is debate is on the issue of the splitting or the breaking up of the MFB, the formation of Fire Rescue Victoria and the role that volunteers will play into the future. There is a range of issues before the house.
I suppose when you come back to talking about the splitting up of the CFA there are a lot of people whose careers have effectively been terminated or trashed through this particular process, and they are the people that stuck up for the rights of the volunteers and actually stuck up for the fact that they had responsibilities under the CFA act to make sure they fulfilled their roles under the CFA act.
If you look at the list of people that were involved in that, it includes the former Minister for Emergency Services, the member for Brunswick, who was forced out by the Premier because, as is the folklore now around this particular issue, she would not roll over and force the enterprise bargaining agreement onto the CFA board at that particular time. The former board was dispatched. The former CFA chief officer, Joe Buffone, someone who has spent his whole life in the emergency services and firefighting system, had his reputation absolutely trashed by the Deputy Premier and current Minister for Emergency Services. What the Deputy Premier and Minister for Emergency Services did to Joe Buffone is absolutely wrong. Someone who had dedicated his career to firefighting had to leave under the cloud of those very, very cruel and unkind words by the Minister for Emergency Services. The former CFA CEO, Lucinda Nolan, someone who had had a very distinguished career in the police force and was recruited to run the CFA, was forced out. As has been said in this place, no‑one knows why the Premier seems to have this aversion to strong, capable women and does not want them in positions of authority in this state. The fact is that he forced out the former Minister for Emergency Services and he forced out Lucinda Nolan. The Premier has an issue that he personally has to deal with about this particular fact.
Turning to the former MFB chief officer, Peter Rau, again the government says, ‘Don’t look here — no issues here’. Peter Rau’s wife has said that one of the reasons he resigned from the MFB was his health, and his health issues were brought on by stress because of bullying by the United Firefighters Union and Peter Marshall. Again, someone who had a very distinguished career in the fire services was forced out by the bullying and intimidation of the UFU. In relation to David Youssef, the former deputy chief fire officer of the MFB, a similar story. With the change through this legislation Jim Higgins will lose his job, and the list goes on and on.
So quite a few people — very distinguished people with very long careers — believed that what was being talked about was wrong and should not proceed. To their credit, they had the strength of their convictions to stand up and be counted on this. It cost them their jobs, their careers, but we do thank them for at least having the intestinal fortitude to do what they did because they believed that what was going to be done was wrong.
What is before this house today is wrong when it comes to the structure of the fire services in Victoria. As I said, we accept the presumptive rights part of the legislation the government has put forward. If they want to split the bill, we will be very happy to have that debated and passed today and sent to the upper house; it could all be done before Parliament rises at the end of June. If you go through the legislation in detail, and if you think about this, James Merlino, coming up to the last election, said that he would have presumptive rights legislation before the Parliament in the first 100 days — well, I think we are a little bit later than the first 100 days — —
The ACTING SPEAKER (Ms Thomson) — Order! The member should refer to titles.
An honourable member interjected.
Mr WALSH — Two years and 100 days, is it? All right.
The issue with breaking up the MFB, forming Fire Services Victoria and having the CFA as a volunteer‑only structure, particularly in the 35 integrated stations in the outer metropolitan area, is there is a very real concern that Victoria will actually lose its surge capacity when it comes to fighting fires — —
Honourable members interjecting.
Mr WALSH — Particularly when it comes to fighting campaign fires we need that surge capacity, when the volunteers spend three, four or five days away from home, fighting those campaign fires. There is a very real concern among the volunteers that that capacity will be lost over that particular time. We can all remember the major fires we have had in Victoria in more recent times — the 2002–03 fires, the 2006 fires and then the tragic events of Black Saturday — where that volunteer surge capacity was absolutely critical to making sure that we could actually put enough firefighters on the ground to manage the fires, so there is a very real concern among the volunteers. I note the interjections from the other side of the house saying, ‘Well, that’s rubbish’. If you actually go and talk to the volunteers — the people who actually do this work — you will find that they say, ‘There is a very real risk that we will lose this surge capacity’. Those volunteers will choose to opt out, because it is unclear from this legislation what is going to happen to those volunteers at those integrated stations.
Mr Edbrooke — Have you visited an integrated station?
Mr WALSH — Yes, I have.
The ACTING SPEAKER (Ms Thomson) — Order! The member, through the Chair and without help.
Mr Edbrooke — Which one?
Mr WALSH — The Acting Speaker will not let me answer. There is a very real risk of losing that surge capacity.
The other issue with the legislation is that under the volunteer charter and under the CFA act there needs to be consultation with the volunteers and particularly the volunteers organisation — Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria — and effectively there has not been. Last sitting week, when this legislation was introduced, we met with Andrew Ford from Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria. He had not been consulted about this legislation. If you are serious about making structural changes to the CFA, you would at least go and talk to the volunteer organisation and talk to the volunteers. One of the things that the former coalition emergency services minister, Peter Ryan, did was make sure that the volunteers charter was actually enshrined in the act. It was there to make sure that volunteers were consulted in the future. There has been a total lack of consultation with the volunteers around this particular issue, and they feel very, very aggrieved about that.
There is plenty of documentation via various newspaper articles and media reports around Victoria about how strongly the volunteers feel about this issue. The legislation sets up a process where the boundaries around what Fire Rescue Victoria is and what the CFA is are yet to be determined. I think what people would like to know around this particular issue is where the certainty is. This is effectively enabling legislation that then sets up panels and sets up committees that actually do things. Given there has been a lack of consultation so far around this particular legislative change, volunteers and rural communities are very concerned that there will be very little consultation and that they will have these sorts of issues forced on them. There is a lot of confusion around those boundaries.
The issue that I talked about in relation to the enterprise bargaining agreement was about the chain of command. There are a lot of unresolved issues when it comes to the chain of command, particularly in those integrated stations, and what role volunteers may or may not have in the future. Volunteers do not believe they will have much future, because they know very clearly the view of the United Firefighters Union about volunteers and particularly part‑time staff on that issue.
The other issue that is unresolved in this legislation, which also needs to be resolved, is what happens to CFA volunteer assets. Quite a lot of the assets of volunteer stations have been bought through fundraising. They have been bought, effectively, by the community, and they want to make sure that those assets are maintained into the future.
It is not just the opposition that is highlighting these particular issues; there are quite a few very distinguished and respected organisations that are saying to the government, ‘Don’t do this without proper consultation’. I suppose there could be no more well‑respected organisation in country Victoria particularly, but also within Victoria in general, than the Country Women’s Association of Victoria (CWA). The CWA state president, Lynette Harris, wrote:
On Saturday 27 May 2017 at the state conference of the Country Women’s Association of Victoria Inc, members voted overwhelmingly to support a resolution to request that the state government put on hold the bill to split the Country Fire Authority until there has been serious and extensive consultation with the Victorian community, and those views have been taken into account.
She went on to write:
The following points were raised by members in relation to this resolution:
Concern that consultation by the government with CFA volunteers, as required under the CFA act and the volunteer charter, has not taken place. We believe that volunteers and communities are feeling frustrated, anxious, undervalued and vulnerable, particularly following the last 12 months of turmoil.
Grave concern was expressed regarding the principle of including the presumptive cancer compensation for firefighters legislation in the same bill when that part has bipartisan support …
as I have already set out. She continued:
No evidence of data or inquiries has been made publicly available that support the claim that splitting the CFA is about public safety. We understand that there have been a number of major inquiries into the fire services following large fire events, and to our knowledge none of them has recommended the splitting of the Country Fire Authority.
It is obviously a fact that of the eight inquires that have been talked about, none have recommended splitting up the CFA. She continued:
The proposal as presented to the public does not appear to have been costed, is unfunded and without cost‑benefit analysis.
The potential that the proposal by the government to co‑locate a volunteer brigade with a paid firefighter brigade when each has their own assets, equipment and vehicles could ultimately see a breakdown in operational procedures and a further loss of goodwill between the volunteer and paid firefighters.
Members of the Country Women’s Association of Victoria consider that the proposed changes place the safety of Victorians at risk and urge you —
this letter is to the member for Polwarth —
to support our request for serious and extensive community consultation about this important issue.
I believe the Country Women’s Association have got it exactly right.
I move on to the Victorian Farmers Federation (VFF). The government are always very quick to quote the Victorian Farmers Federation when it suits their argument, but I am afraid in this case I think they will probably be fairly silent about the Victorian Farmers Federation, because the Victorian Farmers Federation does not suit their argument at all.
David Jochinke is the president of the Victorian Farmers Federation and is quoted in a Corryong Courier article:
The Victorian Farmers Federation (VFF) farmers fears the government risks gutting the CFA to create a larger MFB —
this is before the Fire Rescue Victoria model was put out —
under its radical new plan to solve the on‑running industrial dispute.
VFF president, David Jochinke, said there were issues with the plan to split the rural fire service into two separate entities of only volunteers in one organisation and paid firefighters in a new fire rescue brigade.
He told Victorian Treasurer Tim Pallas that the farmer group has major concerns over the potential impact the plan would have on rural communities, including the slashing of CFA resources and a blowout in the fire services property levy.
‘Farmers are worried that any split in the CFA would cripple the volunteer service, creating a second‑class organisation that is under‑resourced and under‑staffed’, he said.
It will be interesting to see if government members actually want to quote the VFF on this particular issue, because the VFF is very much opposed to the government’s proposal to split up and tear apart the CFA.
On the issue of the fire services levy I note the government has given a commitment that the fire services levy will not increase for two years. Might I remind members of the house and the Victorian public — although the Victorian public do not need reminding — that this is the same Premier who, as Leader of the Opposition, coming up to the last state election said that the east–west contracts were not worth the paper they were written on and that it would not cost one dollar to get out of those contracts. We all know what happened with that promise: $1.3 billion later the east–west contracts, which were not worth the paper they were written on and would not cost one dollar to get out of, were finally torn up, and Victorian taxpayers are the poorer because of that.
When it comes to the Premier giving a commitment that the fire services levy will not go up for the next two years and that after that it will not go up very much at all, I do not believe him. I know everyone that I speak to in country Victoria does not believe him at all about that promise. I know the VFF does not believe him on that issue at all.
We have all had — and I am sure you have probably had them as well, Acting Speaker — lots of emails from people saying ‘Don’t do this’ when it comes to splitting up the CFA, and particularly ‘Don’t do this until you’ve had proper consultation with Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria and the volunteers’. I suppose a sample of those would be someone from the Sassafras‑Ferny Creek brigade:
I am a CFA volunteer of 10 years along with my husband and my daughter. I also have family who have been in in the MFB for over 40 years. I urge you to please look at this MFB/CFA spilt very carefully before voting for it as if it is not looked at carefully and volunteers aren’t consulted they will leave in droves because volunteers will be trying hard to fight fires with a paper bag over their heads and arms tied behind their back. We will not have access to command on demand. We will not have access to equipment, training, et cetera, et cetera …
That was from a person from the Sassafras‑Ferny Creek brigade who is very, very concerned about the splitting up of the CFA. They go on to say:
Since the 2009 fires a lot of volunteers have been struggling with PTSD and morale has been at an all‑time low. For the past 12 months the fight to stop the UFU taking charge has resulted on morale going even further down. Now if this split goes ahead without consultation and proper processes I know a lot of volunteers who will walk away, me and my family included. There is no enjoyment anymore to be a CFA volunteer and yes we want to protect our community but we are being set up to fail deliberately.
They are the sorts of comments that have been coming in in emails.
Another one is from a volunteer firefighter from the Emerald brigade, and I take it from the address that if it is not actually in the Minister for Emergency Services’ electorate, it must be very, very close by. It states:
I write to you with serious concerns regarding the way the current legislation around fire service reform is being introduced to Parliament.
Despite serving my community as a volunteer firefighter for over 18 years, please don’t think that these concerns are based on the loss of CFA tradition and emotional ties — I agree completely that there is a need for a review to ensure all Victorians receive the best possible fire service. However, I am not a fool and I cannot sit back and allow legislation to be pushed through Parliament in such haste.
My objections include:
a total lack of detail on how the proposed structure will work;
no subject matter experts have been consulted;
there has been no opportunity for public scrutiny; and, most importantly,
there has been no consultation with volunteers as required by the volunteer charter and the CFA act.
These are just a sample of the hundreds and hundreds of emails that we have had from particularly volunteer firefighters outlining their concerns about what is going to happen in the future under the proposal before the house.
I urge government members to give serious consideration to the reasoned amendment the opposition has moved. Let us actually split this bill. Let us get on and deal with the presumptive rights legislation issue immediately. We give a commitment to get it through this house as speedily as possible and we give a commitment to support it in the upper house so that it can actually be put in place, and the detail around some of the issues for volunteers can be sorted out later. So let us get on with that, but let us press the pause button on the tearing up of the CFA. Let us have the government actually go and consult genuinely and seriously with Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria. Let us make sure that the volunteers are actually talked to, and let us make sure that the volunteers are actually shown respect. That is something the Premier and the Minister for Emergency Services seem to find very, very hard to do — actually show respect to volunteers. I ask them to do that.
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