Local Issues CFA

Matters of Public Importance - Fire Fighters

Wednesday 24th May 2017

Mr WALSH (Murray Plains) — I rise to speak on the matter of public importance before the house. I remind the member for Monbulk, the old plastic policeman over here, that this motion should actually be a bit longer. There should actually be some respect shown to the member for Brunswick as the former minister. There should be some respect shown to Lucinda Nolan, as the former CEO of the Country Fire Authority (CFA). There should be some respect shown to the former CFA board.

There should be some respect shown to Joe Buffone, the former chief fire officer, someone who dedicated his whole career to the fire service in Victoria and whose reputation was absolutely trashed by the minister at the table, the Minister for Emergency Services. The minister at the table is happy to go out and protect the member for Melton, he is happy to go out and protect the rorting member for Tarneit, but he was not happy to go out and protect his chief fire officer at that particular time. He was very happy to go out and just absolutely trash his reputation, but he will stick up for the rorting members for Tarneit and Melton.

This motion should also show respect to Peter Rau, the former chief fire officer of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB), someone who had to retire because of ill health. There were reports that that ill health was partly brought on by the fact that he was so persecuted by this government in his particular role. Those people, as well as the volunteers and the paid firefighters, should be shown respect in this motion.

Can I say that the member for Gembrook does a very good job as a local member and a shadow minister. I am proud to serve on the front bench with the member for Gembrook, so let us get that very, very clear at the start.

My very first role in public life was actually as secretary of the Jarklin fire brigade, so I have been a secretary of a fire brigade. When I bought my own farm and moved, I was a member of both the Yando and the Appin South fire brigades, with all the training that involved, all the Sunday rosters and all the work they did. So I have been a member of three different fire brigades and was very proud to serve as a volunteer for quite a few years while I was a farmer. I must say that, particularly with the Jarklin fire brigade given that it was actually on the Loddon Valley Highway, in the time I was there I think we probably attended more car crashes than we did fires. We know that volunteer firefighters serve multiple roles in our communities where there is no State Emergency Service. So with those incidents I have been involved in a number of fire brigades. The CFA often sell their old fire trucks and we bought an old Woosang fire truck and used it as our private fire vehicle on the farm as well. So I have had an active involvement as a volunteer with fire brigades over that time.

What has happened over time is that the United Firefighters Union (UFU) and its secretary, Peter Marshall, who has had unrealistic demands of the government and for whatever reason he now has leverage over the Premier and the Minister for Emergency Services, want something that is too extreme and that will disadvantage volunteers. We have seen the continual debate in the public and in this place about what was or was not in that particular enterprise bargaining agreement (EBA), that there was going to be a right of veto over management of the CFA and the way they treat volunteers. That is why the people I mentioned when I started my contribution have all now left the CFA management or board, because they could not succumb to the bullying of the Premier to make sure that that EBA was rammed through over that time.

We have had the intervention of the Turnbull government. I must give full credit to Malcolm Turnbull and his minister for the legislative changes they made to make sure that volunteers were actually respected in any EBA. What we have now is effectively a situation where the CFA and the MFB are going to be destroyed as we know them just so that the Premier can ram through a dirty, rotten EBA that favours Peter Marshall and the UFU.

I refer to the press clippings over the last couple of days and some of the comments of the volunteers. Paul Nicoll, the captain of the Echuca brigade, said:

It’s against the volunteer charter. We should be consulted. The opinion is that the changes are being made to ram through the EBA. The question we ask is, ‘Would the changes be made if the EBA wasn’t in dispute? … Obviously there will be some effects on how we do business, like do we lose John Cutting —

who is the district 20 operations manager.

Andrew Ford, the Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria (VFBV) chief executive, said:

The Victorian government wants to use their new fire service structure to ram through the union’s agreement, giving them large scale control over Victoria’s fire services. Volunteers will be replaced by paid staff in delivering urban services with volunteers effectively relegated to a secondary role. This will undermine community safety and cost taxpayers and their households an arm and a leg.

I think that is one of the issues that has not been discussed at this stage. The Premier gave a commitment that there would be no increase in the fire services levy for two years with what is being proposed. We all know this is the Premier that said tearing up the east–west link contract would not cost $1, and what did it cost? It was $1.3 billion. There are reports that these changes to fire services in Victoria will cost upwards of $1 billion in the future, and it is people who own property and pay the fire services levy that will be paying through the nose for this Premier’s cheap, short‑term, nasty political fix to his own political problem.

The Cosgrove and Pine Lodge CFA captain, Ross Harmer, said the changes were simply part of the government’s agenda. He said:

There hasn’t been any discussion, it has just been pushed through.

The theme is the same as you go around the state, with volunteers right across Victoria very, very concerned about this. We saw the demonstrations last year when this all happened. What you are seeing now is I think an absolute galvanising of the determination of the volunteers across Victoria. The volunteers up until now had been saying, ‘We are not going to be political; we are just looking for a good outcome for the service we provide to our community’. Volunteers are now coming up unsolicited, saying, ‘If you want someone to help you at the next election, we will do whatever it takes to get rid of the Premier of Victoria because we despise what he is doing to our fire brigades’. They are coming up unsolicited and saying that they are going to help.

Particularly the regional members of the Labor government on the other side of this house might have felt really, really happy when Peter Marshall and his colleagues doorknocked 43 000 homes and had 700 people manning booths at the last election. I just say to some of the members on the other side that the volunteers are coming for you with baseball bats because they just do not want to see you in government next time around. They actually want to see a government that will govern for all of Victoria. They do not want a Premier just for Melbourne. They do not want a government just for Melbourne but a government for all of Victoria that shows respect for volunteers.

There has been no respect shown to volunteers through this particular process. If you go to Owen O’Keefe, who is a volunteer from the western district firefighting area, he is quoted in the Weekly Times as saying:

Daniel Andrews is treating volunteers with contempt. If this goes ahead volunteers will see their work isn’t valued and it will be difficult to maintain numbers.

But the fight’s not over yet. It has to get through Parliament.

That is where the rub will be in the immediate future. If you go to the Warrnambool Standard of 20 May, a CFA representative, Owen O’Keefe, said that James Purcell in the Legislative Council sold his vote to the government. He said:

… the first priority of the VFBV would be to lobby upper house member for Western Victoria James Purcell, to oppose the plan.

Again, for those people who sit on the crossbenches in the upper house, the CFA volunteers will be knocking on their doors and making sure they actually hold this government to account for not consulting before proposing their legislative changes, because it just does not do the right thing by volunteers or by the safety of Victorians.

I finish with those senior fire and emergency people who are running around the country toeing the government’s line and selling this particular concept. If they think nothing is going to change for volunteers out of this, I say that they still believe in fairies at the bottom of the garden, they still believe in Santa Claus and they still believe in the tooth fairy. If they have a tooth fall out, they had better put it in a glass of water on the bench and hope someone puts some money in it, because that is what they believe in if they believe these changes being proposed will not actually change our fire service for the worse and make it more unsafe for Victorians in the future.


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