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06 June 2019

Second Reading Debate: Firefighter Presumptive Rights Compensation and Fire Services Legislation (reform) Bill 2019

I rise to condemn the Andrews Labor government for this horrible piece of legislation in front of us today—so bad that it could not even see the light of day until yesterday. We get less than 24 hours to actually go through a bill, much of which was not introduced in the lower house and we have not been able to go through. The people on the other side have tried to fabricate that the bill was available. It has not been available. It was introduced yesterday. I think it is incredibly disrespectful to the community, particularly in the country areas that actually rely heavily on the volunteers.

Let me tell you: I have been in this role for three and a half years, and that whole time the volunteers have been asking me to stand beside them, stand with them and fight for them. They do not feel like they are being represented by a government that decides to wrap fire services reform in with presumptive legislation. Let us be clear: we want presumptive legislation, and I support the reasoned amendment put forward by the shadow minister for emergency services, the member for Gembrook.

We want to see this. We have a government in power at the moment who have voted this presumptive legislation down twice. And it is not equal. Do not let anyone tell you that there are equal rights for both the paid and the volunteer firefighters. It is totally disheartening for the volunteers, and they feel undervalued. They feel let down. I have had so many conversations with friends of mine who are farmers who have said, ‘Look, we’ll just get our own truck. We’ll do our own thing’. That is not what we want to hear. We have 140 years of history where we have refined things. Yes, I understand there can be improvements, but we do not want that attitude where people are actually saying they will not be part of the system. That is where we will see lives lost. That is where we will see dangerous activities that we do not want. We want this wonderful training that we see for all firefighters, both volunteer and career, who are professional in their role and who do the job that we need them to do—to protect our homes, particularly out in the country.

We are 5 hours from Melbourne—4 hours at Nelson, 4 hours at Portland and 3 hours where I live. We have not got the people to be able to fill jobs to be able to grow the region, so we rely on volunteers. When we had the St Patrick’s Day fires just not long ago—it feels like not very long ago—I was at home. It was about 10.30 when we saw the fire front coming over towards our farm. The whole of the horizon was alight. I packed up the car and took my daughter and a girl from Holland who was staying with us, and the dog and the cat, and went in the car with all our clothes—with what we could grab—and headed into town. It is a 20-minute drive, and on the way into town, I swear to you, it was like I was on the Geelong–Melbourne road, seeing the amount of lights that were coming in the opposite direction. I have never seen that much traffic on Caramut Road in my life. It was all the guys and girls who were coming out from 40th birthday parties, from weddings—I cannot remember all the functions; there were an amazing amount of functions on that night—and they dropped everything and headed in the exact opposite direction from where I was going. They were heading into the fire front. We will not have that surge capacity if we have volunteers who have lost the capacity to fight for what they want to do—volunteer their time, give of themselves.

I have received a number of emails, and I want to just quote from a couple of them. This gentleman said:

… thank you for your unfailing dedication to us CFA volunteers. I am really very sick in the guts with this disgusting and callous performance of Daniel Andrews, the Labor Party and the UFU.

A member interjected.

Ms BRITNELL: This is a gentleman—give him some respect. He continued:

I have been a very active volunteer for 50 years and I have enjoyed every minute of that time and no doubt that is why I’m still part of a wonderful worldwide recognized organization. No Union should have the power to run this or any other organisation. Ask them why are UFU members entitled to cancer compensation no questions asked and volunteers have to show proof, we are just second rate citizens.

That man is a volunteer. He has been very involved. It is not only him that I want to quote from. Another gentleman also emailed me today, saying:

I don’t have all of the answers to the issues below but I would love to know the details …

Exactly, because we cannot find out; we only got the legislation introduced 24 hours ago. He then said:

… where is the money coming from for this expansion (our fire service levy?)—surely this will result in less for the volunteer CFAs as there is only so much money to go around.

We have so much need in our community to upgrade our services. The fire station at Bolwarra does not even have lights. There is so much we need to do. Volunteers are happy to give their time, but they need the equipment. We are not going to be able to afford more equipment with this situation we are going to find ourselves in. He continued:

Lastly the CFA will not be independent as our management will be unionised and seconded from the new organisation—not really independent.

And he is right, because the staff will be seconded to the CFA. So you only have one boss. Two bosses has never worked in my history of those sorts of examples.

Lastly, I want to quote from a fantastic gentleman from Portland, a former CFA board member and Portland volunteer, Lieutenant Frank Zeigler. He said:

Unless we’re going to change the fire services for the better, don’t change it at all.

What scares me—

he said—

there’s been little consultation.

That is the issue here. These are volunteers. Frank Zeigler was on the board of CFA. He has been involved the whole way and he is saying there has been little consultation. He cannot believe it is being changed if it is not being changed for the better. None of us disagree with improvements and better situations, but ripping apart the CFA and only being able to do it by wrapping it with the presumptive legislation is completely underhand. If that does not tell you enough about the bill, I do not know what would. Why could the government not have introduced the presumptive legislation, like they said they would, within the first 100 days. They did not have to wrap it together in this bill. It just shows how disrespectful they are being and what they may be trying to hide. This bill is not what the volunteers are wanting and it will not bring integration; it will bring separation. The guys in Portland, who are all working quite well together, have had this thrust upon them. They said to me that it was like being forced into a divorce when you are actually in a happy marriage. They were the quotes those Portland fellows gave me a couple of years ago.

I am very, very disappointed that the government has pushed this so hard. They want to smash up what we have seen across the world as one of the best volunteer organisations. That is probably one of the things I have noted and found to be most remarkable about this role—that is, that people in our communities who are good, who are just wanting to give back to their community, virtually have to beg for the right to do so. If this is not an example of that, I do not know what is.

I will conclude, because I know there are other people who want the opportunity to speak, by saying that there is nothing we want to do more on this side of the house than to protect our volunteers and ensure they feel valued. We will stand by them and we will not continue to let this government destroy the CFA. They can change the legislation, but we will back our volunteers every time.