Firefighters' Presumptive Rights Compensation and Fire Services Legislation Amendment (Reform) Bill 2017


MR RICH-PHILLIPS (South Eastern Metropolitan) (20:45:22) — I am pleased to make some remarks this evening on the long-awaited Firefighters' Presumptive Rights Compensation and Fire Services Legislation Amendment (Reform) Bill 2017. This is a bill with which I have had some involvement since the Fire Services Bill Select Committee was established by the Council back in June of last year to look at a number of the issues which arose from this bill.

We should put in context what we see across Victoria from our Country Fire Authority (CFA). Of course in the last 10 days we have seen in the south-west of the state the role that the CFA plays in supporting our community. Last Thursday I was with Roma Britnell, the member for South-West Coast in the other place, on what was a pre-organised visit to the south-west but which coincided with the aftermath of the fires. What was evident from that visit was the incredible role that CFA volunteers played in fighting those fires in the south-west and the regard with which they are held in those communities.

Over the course of that visit I heard an anecdote. When the fires started the previous Saturday night in the Cobden-Camperdown area, there were a number of events on in those local towns. There was a wedding, there was an engagement party, there was a 40th birthday party and there was a 70th birthday party. Over the course of that Saturday evening those four events emptied out as guests went off as CFA volunteers to fight those fires around Cobden and Camperdown. That really highlights the commitment of CFA volunteers to protecting their communities, and that is why this Parliament has such an obligation to ensure that we protect those CFA volunteers. This legislation before the house tonight fails to do that.

Last week we received a report from the Ombudsman on Labor's staffing rorts. That report described the structure that was put in place for those staffing rorts as an artifice — an artificial structure designed to get an outcome, in this case in relation to staffing rorts. What we have before the house tonight is a piece of legislation which is also an artifice. It is a piece of legislation which has been brought to this house by the government to get a political outcome for Peter Marshall.

We saw over the course of the first two years of this government an attempt by the government to force the Country Fire Authority to adopt an enterprise bargaining agreement (EBA) which the United Firefighters Union (UFU) wanted. This was an enterprise bargaining agreement which was not in the interest of the CFA, was certainly not in the interests of CFA volunteers and was not in the interest of the Victorian community. It was in the interests of the UFU and Peter Marshall, and for that reason the government and the Premier — the Premier in particular — sought to ram that through the CFA.

In order to do that we saw the loss of senior CFA executives — the chief executive and the chief fire officer — we saw the board of the CFA turned over when they refused to agree to that EBA which was not in the CFA's interest and was not in the Victorian community's interest and we saw the board stacked with members who would be compliant. What then happened was commonwealth legislation under the Fair Work Commission provisions, which required EBAs in organisations such as the CFA that involve volunteers — and of course there are around 57 000 to 60 000 volunteers in the CFA. That commonwealth change to the federal legislation meant that the impact of that EBA on volunteers needed to be taken into consideration when it was looked at by the Fair Work Commission.

The way in which the EBA was structured was completely at odds with the interests of volunteers. It was an EBA which sought to vest in the UFU, vest in Peter Marshall and his cronies, effective right of veto over many decisions of the CFA management, CFA tasking, CFA asset allocation and ultimately the way in which volunteers are used through the CFA. Because of that the Fair Work Commission could not sign off on that EBA, given the new commonwealth framework.

What we then had was this piece of legislation brought to the Parliament — legislation which sought to separate the volunteers from the paid staff in the CFA; vest paid staff with Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB) paid staff in a body called Fire Rescue Victoria (FRV); put the paid staff under the EBA, which Peter Marshall wanted, and do it in such a way that they were removed from the volunteers and therefore not caught by the new provisions of the Fair Work Act 2009; and then once that EBA was in place second those paid staff back to the CFA. It was entirely an artifice to get around the changes to the commonwealth Fair Work Act to allow that EBA to be put in place in respect of the CFA at the cost of the Victorian community and at the cost of the 57 000 CFA volunteers in this state.

Not surprisingly this legislation has met with enormous resistance across Victoria. Last June the Legislative Council established a select committee, which I chaired. That select committee travelled across Victoria. We had hearings here in Melbourne, we had hearings in Wangaratta, we had hearings in Swan Hill, we had hearings in the Latrobe Valley and we had hearings in Hamilton to understand the perspective of CFA volunteers and CFA brigades. Virtually without exception the opposition from CFA volunteers to this legislation was strong, it was deep and it was genuine.

One of the reasons for that opposition was the complete lack of consultation around the development of this bill. We heard through the course of the committee that there was no meaningful consultation undertaken in the development of this bill. In fact the only party which was consulted about the development of this bill was the United Firefighters Union. The development of this bill did not sit with the Department of Justice and Regulation, which oversees emergency services like the CFA and the MFB; it was taken into the Department of Premier and Cabinet. It was tasked to Tony Bates, who is the deputy secretary and the government's preferred fixer at the moment, to develop the legislative framework. This was done in combination with Peter Marshall from the UFU and nobody else. In fact we received oral evidence through the course of the committee hearings from Mr Bates and Mr Eccles, the secretary — but he was very clear that it had nothing to do with him; it was all Tony Bates — which was then corrected by Mr Bates in written submissions subsequently that set out the time frame for consultation and made it very clear that the bill was worked up with Peter Marshall, so not with the CFA volunteers, not with the CFA itself and not with the MFB.

In fact in developing this legislation the government was in breach of the existing legislation, which requires the government to undertake consultation with representatives from CFA volunteers through Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria (VFBV) in the development of any legislative proposal. The government completely ignored that legislative obligation under the existing act in their rush to get a bill which would satisfy Peter Marshall through creating this artifice of Fire Rescue Victoria so that the EBA could be agreed to.

In considering this bill, how it had been put together and the damage it was doing to fire services across Victoria, the committee made a number of recommendations. The key recommendation that came out of the select committee is that:

Due to the lack of implementation, operational and funding certainty; failure to undertake consultation; and consequential polarisation of fire services volunteers and staff, the bill should be withdrawn. If not withdrawn, the Legislative Council should reject the bill.

That was a very strong statement, but it recognises the failures which had taken place around the development of this legislation, the way in which it had alienated 57 000 volunteers across Victoria and the way in which the government needed to go back to the drawing board. What we are seeing today is not the government going back to the drawing board. The government received this report from the select committee last August and essentially parked the legislation following the tabling of that select committee report until today — until tonight — when we have a member of the Council absent and the government is forcing through the second-reading vote on the basis that a member is absent and it believes it has the numbers to pass it.

The government has not gone and consulted with the VFBV and with other representatives of volunteers. It has not addressed the concerns which were raised across the state through the course of that committee's hearings. It has simply waited until it could see an opportune moment where a number is different in this house — in this case a member of the Council being absent tonight — and now seeks to ram it through without addressing any of the concerns which were raised through the course of that committee consideration.

One of the key issues that arose through the committee's consideration of the bill was the fact that there was no implementation planning, no operational planning and no funding certainty as to how the Fire Rescue Victoria model was going to work. That reflected the fact that this was put together simply as an artifice to get the UFU EBA in place. None of the planning work had been done to understand how Fire Rescue Victoria would operate with the secondment, for example, to the CFA, which was proposed for the paid staff; what role the chief officer of the CFA would have in determining who those paid staff were; and what authority and direction the chief officer of CFA would have over those paid staff. Basic decisions as to how this model would work had not been made. The planning had not taken place because it was not important. All the government wanted to achieve was a structure that would allow the UFU EBA to be signed, with no regard to how it was going to work in practice.

We received considerable evidence over the course of the hearing. We asked questions of the Department of Treasury and Finance (DTF). We asked questions of the emergency services commissioner and the chief officers — the acting chief officers, I should say, of both fire services, given they were virtually changing by the day as officer after officer resigned in the two fire services, whether they were the CEO, the chief fire officer or the acting chief fire officers. The turnover was extraordinary as the implications of this proposal came to light, and it was very evident that none of the planning work had been done to understand how this would be implemented and how it was going to operate if the legislation was passed.

So having parked the bill for six months, we are in exactly the same situation. There is still no planning around the implementation of this legislation. There are still no details around the funding of this legislation and the implications it has particularly for the CFA, which will lose substantial funding with the shift of staff to Fire Rescue Victoria. The Department of Treasury and Finance unbelievably had no understanding of how much funding would be transferred from the CFA to Fire Rescue Victoria as a consequence of shifting the paid staff into the new body. It beggars belief that there was not a single estimate of the value of that funding shift from the CFA to FRV, but that was the evidence we received from DTF through the course of the hearing, which again just emphasises the lack of planning which has gone into the development of this bill and reinforces that the bill was for one reason only, and that was to deliver that EBA to the UFU.

The second key recommendation of the select committee was to recognise part 2 of the bill, which relates to presumptive rights legislation, the creation effectively of a reverse onus mechanism whereby people who are firefighters and who contract certain cancers are able to lodge compensation claims with WorkCover in the case of paid firefighters and through the fire services in the case of volunteers and have those claims accepted on the basis of the fact that they have cancer, with the onus on the agency to prove that the cancer was not related to firefighting.

That is something that we believe should be considered on its merits. The government in opposition committed to introducing legislation in its first 100 days to provide for firefighters compensation legislation. They did not do that. They left it until last year and tried to tie it to this restructure of the fire services — basically if you want the presumptive rights legislation, you have to take the restructure. We do not believe that is appropriate. We believe that the bill, if it proceeds beyond the second reading, should be split and that the presumptive rights legislation should be considered on its own merits. The restructure in this bill is nothing but an artifice to deliver for the UFU. It is not in the interests of fire services, it is not in the interests of the Victorian community and it should not be supported.

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