Second reading debate – Firefighters’ Presumptive Rights Compensation and Fire Services Legislation Amendment (Reform) Bill 2017

I rise to speak on the Firefighters’ Presumptive Rights Compensation and Fire Services Legislation Amendment (Reform) Bill 2017, a bill that plays politics with cancer and has created confusion and trepidation among Country Fire Authority (CFA) volunteers. Today we are debating a bill that will have huge impacts on fire services, a bill that is being rushed, a bill that aims to break up an iconic organisation, a bill that divides people based on status, and a bill that has left volunteer firefighters feeling confused.

My electorate includes two integrated stations, one in Portland and one in Warrnambool. Both will be handed to the proposed Fire Rescue Victoria (FRV). My electorate also includes about 50 volunteer brigades, and the captains I have spoken to in the past week all have the same feelings: confusion and concern.

I quickly want to make mention of the Fire Services Victoria website. This site is touted as a place where people can find answers to the questions they have about these reforms, but it only adds to the confusion. A fact sheet about the Portland station begins by saying:

As the population of Ballarat expands …

Ballarat? A city some three hours away? It also says the Portland CFA has been serving the community since 1937, despite the Portland fire brigade having been established in 1857. The Warrnambool fact sheet at least gets the city’s name right, but it says Warrnambool has been served by the CFA since 1991. The Warrnambool brigade was established in 1863.

These might seem like small issues, but these little anomalies add to the confusion. After all, they come from a page entitled ‘fact sheet’. Are the dates of the service simply talking about the first paid officers coming into the brigades or are they a mistake? How can we expect people to feel confident in what is being said about the biggest shake-up of fire services in Victoria’s history when there are anomalies like these, no matter how small?

It just shows that this legislation is being rushed through without due process. The question is why. Why are we debating this bill today? Why did the government not consult Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria (VFBV), as it is required to do and as is laid out in section 6G of the Country Fire Authority Act 1958? Why is it being tied to presumptive rights, a completely separate issue?

The presumptive rights issue is causing concern among volunteers. To start with they are disgusted that it has been tied with the fire services reform legislation, and they are very concerned the proposed structure of this system is a watered down version of what has been promised. Last Monday’s Herald Sun featured an interview with Mark Potter, the son of former CFA chief Brian Potter. He believes the government is politicising this issue and that presumptive rights should not be linked with splitting the CFA because they are two completely separate and unrelated issues.

This view is shared by one distinguished CFA member from my electorate, who said most of the members of his brigade do not want to see presumptive rights legislation go through in this way because it is linked to a completely unrelated piece of reform. What does it say when the people this legislation will directly benefit, who have been campaigning for it for so long, would rather see it lost? It says they can see through the grubby game that is being played. This is simply a tactic by this government so they can send out media releases saying those on this side of the house do not care about those fighting cancer.

I was not a member of this place when this was last debated, but I have survived cancer. I have had the treatments, and I understand the gravity of a cancer diagnosis. I back all firefighters who are fighting a battle with cancer. I want to make that absolutely clear. But I cannot back this legislation as it stands because there are far too many questions about how the proposed FRV will work. The reforms are being sold as the modernisation of Victoria’s fire services. They may well be, but if we truly want to modernise fire services, we should look at significantly improving small brigades.

In my electorate there a number of brigades that do not even have power connected to their shed. They use the torch on a phone to back a fire tanker in after they have been called out at night. This is unbelievable. We are proposing to spend $5 million on new uniforms and rebranding, but we have rural brigades who cannot even turn on a light in their sheds.

Heywood’s fire truck cannot be kept in the station — there is no room for it there. Across district 4, which covers the western part of my electorate and is characterised by native bushland and large timber plantations, there are 18 tankers that are more than 25 years old. Government members will be quick to say they are putting $100 million into the CFA, but how far will this go when we have 18 tankers in just one district that are ageing and need replacing now or in the near future at a cost of around $400 000 each?

Another major concern of volunteers I have spoken to is that the chain of command is unclear. No-one understands what will happen when they require specialist equipment that will be controlled by FRV. They want to know if paid staff will answer to volunteers. We have been told things will stay the same, that the chain of command will not change, but I am sure we have all seen the emails from volunteers coming in over the last week reiterating this point.

The chief officer visited South West Coast last week and told the Warrnambool Standard that nothing will change for CFA firefighters. He said if there is a house fire or grass fire at Koroit, a town a few kilometres away from Warrnambool that is serviced by an active, skilled, professional volunteer brigade, the Koroit captain would be in charge of that fire. He said if the Fire Rescue Victoria truck turns up, the volunteer captain of Koroit is still in charge. But in my consultation with volunteers in my electorate who, incidentally, have been told not to speak to me, I have heard numerous stories of this not being the case. Four separate volunteer captains told me of difficulties they have already had maintaining the chain of command at various incidents — and this is even before the organisation has been split.

There is confusion over CFA volunteers co-locating with FRV career firefighters, as will happen in two locations in my electorate. Will the CFA volunteers be able to fight fires in the FRV district? Section 93B of the Country Fire Authority Act 1958 states it is an area of concern. Put briefly, it says CFA brigades need permission or a specific request to be able to fight fires outside the CFA district boundary, be that interstate or within the metropolitan fire district. This bill does not seek to amend that section of the CFA act, meaning that section stands as is.

Under these reforms Warrnambool and Portland will become FRV districts. With section 93B remaining unamended CFA volunteers in Warrnambool and Portland will ultimately have no authority to make decisions in the event of a fire unless under the control or request of FRV firefighters. Does this mean volunteers in Warrnambool and Portland will have to sit by and wait for a request to be able to put out a fire within the FRV boundary?

Craig Lapsley was quoted on this issue in the Herald Sun last Tuesday, saying:

I’m solid in the sense that the legislation supports us working together and I think the legislation does that …

So on the one hand he is solid that the legislation supports CFA volunteers and FRV paid staff working together, but then he only thinks the legislation does that. Is there any wonder there is confusion?

Clause 48 stipulates that the CFA chief officer has control over co-located volunteer brigades, but there is no clarification on the chain of command both on the fireground and in the stations between the CFA and FRV.

The bill also sets out that officers and staff from the newly created FRV will be seconded back to the management of the CFA. To me this is baffling. On the one hand the bill is saying that we need to split up the fire services to improve safety and response times, but on the other hand it is saying that the services will have to share staff to make sure both services are adequately supported. This means that the claim that the CFA is 100 per cent volunteer is false. The frontline officers might be volunteers, but there will be staff who have been seconded from a second organisation in control. This is where we see the true purpose of the bill. It simply creates one organisation for paid staff and a second for volunteers in order to get the enterprise bargaining agreement passed.

Clause 38 of the bill states:

… an officer or employee … of Fire Rescue Victoria made available to the Country Fire Authority … remains an officer or employee of Fire Rescue Victoria and is not an officer or employee of the Country Fire Authority.

These staff will be seconded to the volunteer organisation at top dollar using money that should be going to volunteer resources, but will the CFA volunteers or board have any say in which staff is seconded to them?

The entire bill is nothing more than a political fix to a dispute with the union. It again removes people who do not agree — namely, the Metropolitan Fire Brigade board — and in essence hands control of fire services over to the United Firefighters Union and Peter Marshall. After all the bluster and all the hype about enshrining the rights of volunteers into law, what we will see are volunteers reporting to staff seconded from the new FRV.

There may be some merit in this bill, but why is it being rushed through? Why is there no consultation with volunteers or their associated bodies, despite it being a requirement of any proposed changes? Why is there no impact statement of the changes? Why is cancer legislation being tied into what is a completely separate issue? This raises alarm bells, and I cannot support this bill in its current form. It is not too late to prevent this bill from tearing apart an organisation that has a proud history of skilled, professional members who have given so much to all of our communities. South-West Coast and its 55 brigades need to receive more respect than what this bill is delivering them.