Liberal Member for Western Victoria, Simon Ramsay, has sided with Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria in rejecting claims by the Andrews Government that its plans to reorganise country fire services are in keeping with the 2015 Report of the Victorian Fire Services Review: Drawing a Line, Building Stronger Services.
Speaking in the Legislative Council on Wednesday, Mr Ramsay told State Parliament he had “scanned” the report and that he could not find anything in it which favoured busting up the Country Fire Authority (CFA) and merging its paid workforce with that of the Metropolitan Fire and Emergency Services Board (MFESB) in a yet-to-be legislated new agency called Fire Rescue Victoria.
“The review talks about strengthening the bond between career and volunteer firefighters in our integrated stations, providing more resources, better using the resources that are available for our firefighting services and respecting not only the career firefighters that do very important work but also respecting the volunteers who are unpaid, as we know, and who give up their time to protect their local communities,” Mr Ramsay told parliament.
“On that basis the review indicated we should continue that ongoing support to make sure that our volunteers are fully trained and fully resourced with all the new safety equipment that is available.”
Mr Ramsay said it was “interesting” that the Labor Government would attempt to introduce legislation on the pretext of a review which did not in any way support a wholesale restructure of country firefighting.
“It is intriguing that the Andrews government, for whatever reason, no-one can fully understand the reasoning, would be bringing forward legislation that actually splits the goodwill of the current model of firefighting services in Victoria.”
Mr Ramsay said the proposed Fire Rescue Victoria model, being entirely about the employment and deployment of paid personnel, would not only require a whole new enterprise bargaining agreement but the ceding of “significant control” over management decisions to the United Firefighters Union by way of union-veto clauses.
He said that while the Federal Government had amended the Fair Work Act 2009 to protect volunteers and actually remove some of the bite of the veto clauses in the current CFA enterprise agreement, these would still impact on the work of paid officers in the new fire and rescue agency.
Mr Ramsay also expressed concern that the Labor Government had opted to do all of this in the same bill as one that was meant to compensate firefighters who contract cancer in the course of their duties.
If the bill is delayed to protect the CFA, the “presumptive” compensation measures will also be delayed.
He said the two matters should be considered separately rather than one being made conditional upon the other.
He also said the Andrews Government had repeatedly shown disregard for its statutory obligations (see Section 6G(c) of the Country Fire Authority Act 1958) to consult Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria Inc on any matter that might reasonably be expected to affect volunteer firefighters.
“I know our CFA volunteers are greatly concerned,” Mr Ramsay said.
Mr Ramsay said he hoped the five upper house crossbenchers – who will ultimately decide whether to pass the bill or not – would “think long and hard” about the impact that the legislation as a whole would have on volunteers, particularly those who will be marginalised by the proposed new structure.