4 May 2016
Mr WALSH (Murray Plains) – It is a pleasure to join the debate and to support the member for Gembrook in his matter of public importance (MPI) before the house. I put on the record what a great job he is doing as the Shadow Minister for Emergency Services. He is actually continuing the tradition from this side – joint parties of people who are very supportive of the Country Fire Authority (CFA). The previous minister Kim Wells the member for Rowville and Peter Ryan the former member for Gippsland South both did a lot of work for the CFA when they were ministers and the member for Gembrook is continuing that great work.
I say to the minister that her words of support for the CFA will be hollow words if she does not actually back them up by ruling out the most contentious clauses in the enterprise bargaining agreement (EBA) discussions. The volunteers are relying on her to stand up to the Premier to stand up to United Firefighters Union (UFU) secretary Peter Marshall and to stand up the UFU on behalf of the volunteers.
I was here with a number of my colleagues including the member for Gembrook and the Leader of the Opposition a few Saturdays ago when 421 fire appliances drove past the steps of Parliament House – something that was organised at about 24 hours notice to raise this issue and to make sure that particularly those who sit on that side of the house understood how important this issue is to the volunteers. One of the things they actually did was to bring flowers along for the minister because they believed that she was going to stand up for them and do the right thing by them as volunteers and not back the Premier and the UFU on this particular issue.
Graeme Jilbert from the Swan Hill brigade who is actually the vice-president of the Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria (VFBV) brought along some chocolates. I am not sure if the volunteers on the steps ate the chocolates or whether the minister actually got the chocolates from Graeme but he brought those chocolates along because he had great faith in the minister that she would do the right thing by the volunteers. I ask that she not let the volunteers down on this particular issue.
Today is actually International Firefighters Day so it is interesting that we are having this debate on this particular day. International Firefighters Day was set up after the tragic loss of five lives in Victoria in 1999 at the Linton fire burnover so today is a special day for firefighters. We need to keep that in mind as part of this debate.
My very first role in public life as a 19-year-old was as secretary of the Jarklin volunteer fire brigade. When I bought my own farm I moved and was a member of the Yando fire brigade. I was on the roster there taking the truck out and doing all the things you do as a firefighter. When I was elected to Parliament I had the pleasure of attending a dinner at Boort for the Yando fire brigade where two of my neighbours received service medals for being volunteers for the fire brigade for 65 years. They had been in the fire brigade their whole lives since it was formed back in the mid-1940s.
The point I am coming to is that since the mid-1940s the CFA has been a volunteer organisation supported by paid CFA staff. It was born in volunteerism and it will continue in volunteerism. Our communities rely on those volunteers to make sure we are safe from fire. There are no paid firefighters living in my electorate. There are no career firefighters living in my electorate. If we have the situation of a house fire in Swan Hill with the new rules and this enterprise bargaining agreement the volunteer firefighters of the Swan Hill brigade are going to have to stand there for more than 2 hours while the paid firefighters drive from Bendigo or drive from Mildura which is more than 2 hours away in both directions.
I know that people on the other side are saying that that is ridiculous. Yes it is absolutely ridiculous. But they are the words that are on the page. Volunteer firefighters will not be able to lift a hose until seven paid firefighters turn up at the fire scene. For somewhere like Swan Hill Echuca or Kerang let alone smaller towns like Ultima or Gunbower that is just absolutely crazy. That is one of the clauses the Minister for Emergency Services needs to rule out. She needs to stop saying there has been no agreement reached yet because people are worried. The volunteers are worried that they will not be able to do their job and the community is worried that the volunteers will not be able to do their job. The issue around that is a real problem for the communities that I represent and right across country Victoria as is this consultative committee.
The consultative committee in the Metropolitan Fire Brigade according to the fire services report is not working and should not be included in the enterprise bargaining agreement for the CFA. The last thing we want is the United Firefighters Union and Peter Marshall having the right of veto over management decisions that impact on our volunteers and their ability to deliver the services they deliver to our community.
The volunteer charter something that is set out in black and white has been owned by both sides of politics. I would hope that the minister and those who speak for the other side would recommit to this charter but also recommit to making sure they will actually abide by it. It is not just about the charter itself; it is about making sure they abide by it. It says that the volunteer charter:
… is an agreed commitment by the state of Victoria CFA and VFBV on behalf of CFA volunteers to each other –
that it will be a volunteer organisation. It goes on to say that:
… policy development and change should always be considered in terms of its potential to support and facilitate the volunteer contribution and the particular situation of local brigades …
It goes on further to say that the elected representatives of the VFBV will be consulted on changes into the future.
The secretary of the UFU got to meet with the Premier but I have noticed that he has not been tripping over himself to meet with the volunteers on this particular issue. This matter is of real concern to the communities. We have all had lots of emails; I have had quite a few. One was from someone in the Dumbalk brigade in the electorate of the member for Gippsland South. He has a great name – Barry Auchterlonie – and is a firefighter down there. He said:
Volunteers devote their time and effort to supporting and protecting their community and many of the UFU’s demands threaten the autonomy and efficacy in which we can continue to do this job.
Colin James from Toolamba talks about the issues facing the CFA. He said:
… the most recent being the ongoing intrusion of the UFU into establishing policies that extend way beyond their charter to represent career firefighters and to impose their influence over the entire CFA.
I refer to the Montrose fire brigade. If this brigade is not in the Deputy Premier’s electorate it is very close to it and we know what an interesting relationship he has with CFA volunteers in his electorate and the issue of whether he told them the truth or not coming up to the election. Craig Williamson of that brigade said:
This reported secret non-financial deal is a direct attack on the operational ability of the Country Fire Authority leadership to perform their legislative responsibilities the volunteer system and the Victorian community.
That comment is from a lieutenant in a brigade in the Deputy Premier’s electorate.
Andrew Winter from Paynesville fire brigade in the electorate of the member for Gippsland East wrote:
I cannot accept any clauses or agreement that ignores diminishes or takes away the control of the CFA and reduces the role of volunteers in this world-class organisation.
Another email is from Mark Sandford from the Echuca Village fire brigade in my own electorate. He said:
The management team of the CFA do a fantastic job and have my full support; please don’t let the UFU dictate what they can and can’t do.
They are just a sample of the emails we are all receiving. Those volunteers are relying on the minister to do the right thing by them to abide by the charter to stick to what has been developed by both sides of politics in Victoria and to support our volunteers and that organisation. Minister please rule out the most contentious clauses so that our firefighters can focus on doing what they do best and that is fighting fires in the community. Rule out the seven-up that have to come before firefighters can fight a fire. Rule out the right of veto. Rule out all of those sorts of things that are going to make it too hard for our volunteers to do their job in the future.
I am really concerned that if this EBA is agreed to if the authority of the CFA is undermined and the strength of the volunteers is undermined our communities are going to be at risk from fire in future because there will not be the surge capacity of volunteers to go and fight not only the house fires or the small grassfires but the major campaign fires. If you look at the number of brigades that travel right across the state four and five days at a time to attend our campaign fires it is those volunteers who are the core of that effort. We have got to make sure that we do not lose that surge capacity and lose that spirit of volunteerism here in Victoria because the government wants to honour an IOU with the UFU because of what it did in manning polling booths during the last election. That is what this is all about: it is about those firefighters who intimidated and bullied people at polling booths.