I rise to make a contribution to the debate on the Firefighters’ Presumptive Rights Compensation and Fire Services Legislation Amendment (Reform) Bill 2017.
This bill encompasses two major changes to the way Victorian firefighters are managed and cared for, and its intended purpose has been the subject of hot public debate for a very long time.
Importantly the new firefighters’ presumptive rights compensation act aims to ensure that both career and volunteer firefighters who risk their health for the protection of others are, within the guidelines of the legislation, entitled to presumptive compensation for cancers attributed to their efforts. This is a long-awaited change, and it will relieve a very heavy burden of medical red tape for those battling what are really insidious diseases. The bill also seeks to fundamentally alter the management and operating procedures of this state’s fire services. It proposes to merge career Country Fire Authority (CFA) firefighters with their metropolitan counterparts and return the CFA to being a volunteer-run organisation.
In the Shepparton district there is just one integrated station, and that is in Shepparton itself, and it comprises both career and volunteer firefighters. That is part of my electorate. It is part of district 22, one of the districts that forms a part of the north-east region of Victoria. As with the rest of regional Victoria, there are many CFA units and stations within that broader area within my electorate outside Shepparton that are entirely manned by volunteers.
This is a bill that I have had to give a lot of serious consideration and a lot of hard thought to, and quite frankly it has been a pretty serious gig for me. I would have to say, first of all, that I have taken the time to speak to very many people. Not many people emailed me; I received just a few emails from people in my electorate. I received a number from Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria people, who genuinely have concerns and expressed those in those emails. But within my own electorate I actually had to go out and talk to people, so I made the effort to do that and spoke to quite a few.
Given the highly politicised nature of the debate, and I have been very privy to that sitting in this Parliament for the last two and a half years — and of course it was going on long before that — I was surprised in talking to the volunteers at the lack of interest in the political issues that go with what is happening here. While a number of them came to me prepared with political speeches and with lists of issues, which were around many of the things that have been discussed in this Parliament, when I said to them, ‘Look, I’m an Independent. I just want to talk to you about what this means on the ground. How will this affect us in our electorate? What will it mean for your organisation?’, a lot of the argument fell away, and it did come down to probably just a couple of really significant issues. The first was a serious concern about the lack of consultation. That was expressed quite broadly by a number of people. There were concerns about how the reforms would be put into effect on a day-to-day basis and that there has been little opportunity to explore the practical impacts of this legislation.
I spoke with a number of CFA volunteers after the chief fire officer visited Shepparton last Thursday and spoke with a large group of local people. I was told that the chief fire officer had been very positive about the changes, that there did remain questions that even he did not have the answer to in some cases and that there was a recognition that there is still a lot that has to be worked out.
One very senior officer acknowledged that there had been a need for change for a long time and that this reform package provides a framework for how things should happen in the future. Even though substantial resources are coming with this reform package to the CFA, initially concerns were expressed about the future resourcing of the CFA. It was acknowledged that this has always been an issue, that it always comes with ups and downs and depends on the budgetary circumstances of governments from time to time. There was apprehension on the part of a paid CFA firefighter who will be transferred to Fire Rescue Victoria based on the fact that again there just remain questions about what it will all mean to him.
There was some acknowledgement that the CFA, being a fully volunteer firefighting service, will have the advantage of not needing agreement to a range of their activities which are currently dictated by the United Firefighters Union enterprise bargaining agreement. This was recognised as an advantage of the separation and the independence that would come with it. I was told that there are CFA volunteers who are concerned about their ongoing access to things like training. This is a concern, and it really must be addressed. I think it is a concern now and it will always be a concern, and I trust that this extra resourcing will go to addressing some of those things, because it is essential that our CFA volunteers do have the level of training that they need, and that just continues to grow with the new technology that many of them are being exposed to.
The captain of a small brigade shared some of his concerns, again similar to those I have expressed so far. He really just summarised by saying, ‘Sorry, Suzanna; we just feel that we can’t trust politicians’, while some volunteers had a feeling that change was needed and that they may as well get on the bus and help to steer that change. I think they are the words that Chief Fire Officer Warrington was using in a number of his whistlestop tours around the state. There is a recognition that the organisation does need change, and even though there is that acknowledgement there is a real, genuine anxiety about the lack of detail at this stage.
So I have to come to my opinion. My opinion is that there has been conflict for much too long and that it has to be brought to an end. There has been a complete failure to conclude any negotiations or to achieve an outcome to date. I do not believe that this disputation that we have had for so long should be allowed to continue. CFA volunteers are primarily there to serve their communities and protect them in times of emergency, particularly from fires, although we see them at road accidents and in so many other environments in our communities. They have a long, proud tradition of doing this, and a number have given their lives in the course of undertaking this selfless work. So many are tired of the conflict and the anxiety that has gone on in recent years. They deserve to feel respected and valued, and this must be an outcome of any reform.
I am of the view that when a situation has been allowed to flounder for so long, strong leadership has to be shown, and in this case it has to be shown by the government. The government should have some level of consultation with the partnership organisations. Consultation is important, but sometimes decisions just have to be made. I think about Scott Morrison and the bank levy. He did not consult with the banks. Sometimes when you have got something really difficult to do I think you just have to make a decision and go with it. I believe the general public are really tired of political parties taking totally opposed positions to each other instead of working constructively to try and resolve issues.
Again at a federal level we see what has been to some extent a federal Labor budget, and yet the Labor Party are vigorously opposing so many aspects of it. Opposition for opposition’s sake is a really poor position to take, and I believe the community is sick and tired of it and wants issues that have been around for a long time to be resolved. This Parliament has been unable to do it, and it has not happened outside this Parliament. There have been many opportunities to try and resolve it, and I am not seeing any alternatives presented from anyone. It would be very easy for me as a regional MP to oppose this bill and to support the reasoned amendment, but it is too important to take the easy way out. If this bill does not pass, then we are left no further advanced than where we were two and a half years ago.
The coalition in a press release threatened that they will fight very vigorously at any election campaign any Independent or crossbencher who supports this legislation. In relation to that I say, well, of course they are going to do that anyway, and particularly in Shepparton because we are now a marginal seat and the National Party and the Liberal Party will fight strongly for that seat. It is not going to deter me from doing what I think is the right thing in this situation. I am continuing to talk to people during the course of this week, and I have a number of further meetings organised. I trust that we will get a resolution this week.