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Speech: Fair Work Amendment (Respect for Emergency Services Volunteers) Bill 2016 (Second Reading)

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 21 Oct 2016

Monday, 10 October 2016

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (10:39): The Fair Work Amendment (Respect for Emergency Services Volunteers) Bill is dangerous legislation. If you are committed to public safety, as I would hope all senators are, you would vote against this legislation. When you look into it—when you look into the way the minister has handled it, what happened during the election campaign with regard to the submissions and the evidence that was given—you see that this is a major stitch-up. It really continues the ongoing way that this government works. It works to undermine workers' rights; it works to undermine how unions operate. It will go to extraordinary lengths. In this case, we are talking about the undermining of public safety.

This bill is political opportunism. It should have been buried. It should never have come to life. It should now be buried. I say that it should never have come to life after the federal election because it was part of a whole ploy. Sometimes bad tactics come out in election campaigns, and this was certainly one of them. The government argues that this bill is needed to protect the rights of Country Fire Authority volunteers, but that does not stand up to scrutiny. When you look at what the minister has said and when you look into what is stated about what this bill will do, that certainly is not the core of this bill.

Volunteer firefighters do an incredible job in Victoria and across the country. The enterprise bargaining agreement the Turnbull government is trying to destroy with this bill will not undermine the massive contribution volunteer firefighters make. I was able to sit on this inquiry, hear the evidence and read many of the submissions. The evidence is overwhelming in that it does not back up what the government asserts. We heard evidence from volunteer firefighters working at integrated stations where volunteers are working side by side with paid firefighters who do not support the bill. Mr Luke Symeoy from Craigieburn told the committee:

On behalf of my brigade: we do not want this bill to go ahead. We want this settled. I would like this settled. The fire season is coming up and we do not need this. This has gone on for too long. The EBA has got nothing to do with volunteers. If anything, it is going to better us and better our skills and better our equipment, because half the equipment that we have got today we would not have if it were not for staff. That is the honest truth. I can stand here and put my hand on my heart and tell you that.

Mr Raj Faour, a volunteer for Hallam, told the committee:

"You probably hear a lot in the media, and the VFBV love to speak about 60,000 volunteers and how they represent the 60,000 volunteers. Well, I am one—and one of many—who stands before you today and tells you that we are not represented by the VFBV."

That is why I urge senators committed to public safety to ensure that when the next firefighting season hits Victoria the uncertainty and the undermining at the core of this bill is not allowed to settle into how things will operate in Victoria. I believe that these are informative comments that deserve our consideration when we are looking at this bill.

In going back to the issue of public safety—and this is a key matter that Minister Michaelia Cash sidesteps when she talks about this issue—we need to look at what is happening in Melbourne. Outer Melbourne should receive the same level of protection for firefighting that all people of Melbourne receive. Having sat on the inquiry last week, what became abundantly clear is that we are talking about areas of Melbourne that were once country but are now part of the outskirts of Melbourne. These are areas that deserves full fire protection.

Clearly, Melbourne is a growing city. Where those outskirts areas were once farming land, now when you visit those areas you often see large housing divisions. These areas have been well serviced by the CFA. The CFA was able to do a very effective job when there were rural workers and farmers. The farmers and rural workers were the locals who volunteered and did a mighty job as firefighters. But, as I have said, these outskirts are changing. Now we see that in so many of these areas the workforce is quite different.

I want to quote from a very significant comment from the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission. They said: 'We've got a problem here in Victoria with these boundaries. What is called country in some areas is still legitimately country, but in some areas it is now suburban Melbourne, so what are we going to do about it?' It is a very important question; it is a question that this government is refusing to answer. It could be to the severe detriment of public safety and saving lives.

Again, this is a reference to those areas where locals are now more likely to be working not locally but at a distance, in offices and factories. If you are not working locally, you are not readily available to volunteer. The people who live in these areas pay their rates and taxes like other city residents and understandably expect, and have a right to expect, that firefighters who cover the rest of the city will turn up to their part of the city and fight fires. That is what we should be dealing with here. How do we ensure that their transition is as smooth as possible? It is happening, but if this bill goes through it is going to really blow it apart. What will be the impact on public safety if this bill is passed and people in outer Melbourne growth areas are not covered by paid firefighters?

If you listened to Minister Cash, you would think that the enterprise bargaining agreement is an attack on volunteer firefighters due to a union takeover of their activities. Listening to witnesses at the inquiry, it became clear that the concerns of volunteers who thought the EBA would unfairly impact on them arose from misinformation. Where correct information was available, volunteers understood that the proposed EBA does not affect volunteers. Mr Justin Rees, first lieutenant and volunteer firefighter with the Melton brigade, said:

"… we have formally expressed this to Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria. However, the volunteer bill 2016, if implemented, will affect our relationship with our members, staff and volunteers and impact our service delivery. Encouraging volunteer organisations to intervene into the employment matters and conditions of people employed by emergency services is not appropriate. We need to be focused on supporting our community, protecting life and property and supporting our emergency service people—volunteer and career."

That was so clearly said. Professor Andrew Stewart, an expert in industrial relations from the University of Adelaide, told the committee that the bill was a recipe for increased complexity, uncertainty and disputation. Again, a reminder to senators here: this bill takes us down a very irresponsible and dangerous path. We are dealing here with emergency services who need to be able to work in a coordinated, cooperative way, and that is what will be ripped apart if this bill is passed. Professor Stewart set out to the inquiry how the bill will require the Fair Work Commission to move into the highly problematic area of attempting to form judgements about how an organisation such as the CFA should construct a proper balance between paid and volunteer firefighters. Professor Stewart also explained how the bill would require the Fair Work Commission to determine matters that properly reside within the authority of the CFA and the state government of Victoria to resolve. That is why you come to the conclusion that disputation will increase if this bill goes ahead.

One of those issues is the very important matter that I mentioned earlier—the conclusion of the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission that more paid firefighters are needed in urban growth areas. That is what a responsible government would be working with the Victorian government to resolve. The need that has been identified by the royal commission is clear. A vote for this bill is a vote against that important recommendation. It really is a life-saving recommendation. We need to be very clear. This issue of public safety has been swept aside by the government, and we need to get this back into focus.

We are on the edge of summer. Bushfires, wildfires, are sweeping the world. We know that this is regularly what happens in Australia. We have seen the tragedies in many states, and Victoria has often been the worst affected. It is deeply alarming that the government is willing to sacrifice public safety and not deal with the key issue here. What becomes relevant in considering this issue is the hidden grenades in this bill, which I urge all members of parliament to acquaint themselves with. The bill is not clear as to which emergency service organisations will be covered by the legislation. The bill creates an undisclosed list of employers that are designated emergency management bodies. That is the term that is used. This is a serious development and shows an attempt to undermine a good-faith approach to negotiations for enterprise agreements. The bill, if passed, will undermine the principle of collective bargaining and, in effect, the authority and the ability of the Fair Work Commission to do its job.

Then there is the issue of the definition of a 'volunteer' in the bill. The definition is so broad it includes individuals who receive payment for volunteering. There is also the wide-ranging definition of 'volunteer bodies', which opens up the possibility of a party not covered by the enterprise agreement being able to intervene. This could mean denying workers wage rises and undermining of other parts of the agreement. It is why, as Professor Stewart identified, this bill, if passed, would most likely result in much greater disputation. Ambulance Employees Australia has given compelling evidence of why this legislation should be abandoned.

Minister Cash's management of the issue is also relevant to the debate. Her commentary, in some ways, has been of assistance in exposing what is really going on here. Minister Cash's opinion piece in the Herald Sun on 22 August shared two blatant areas of misinformation. One was that seven paid firefighters—union members—had to be present before the CFA personnel were able to be deployed to a fire. The other one was that paid firefighters had to report only to other paid firefighters, not CFA commanders. She wrote this piece; it was published in the Herald Sun. Clearly, she is out there arguing her case. But when you look into what she asserts, it just does not stack up.

If it were the case that volunteers deployed to a fire had to sit there and wait until paid staff turned up, I acknowledge it would be a concern. But, again, that is not what the agreement says. So why did the minister state that? Did she misunderstand the bill? Why was she arguing the opposite of what the case is? What the agreement says is that in these areas where you have volunteers and professionals overlapping, seven firefighters have to be deployed, but they do not have to turn up before the volunteers can start fighting the fire. If the volunteers turn up first, they start first; they start fighting the fire first. That is not what the minister said when she wrote her article. As I said, that is what the agreement says. It is to ensure that the minimum number of firefighters who can fight a fire safely are on their way and are going to turn up at some point.

It is worth asking: why seven? It is understood to be the minimum for safe standards. Again, we are coming back all the time to the issue of public safety. The intent of the bill, the minister's comments and the minister's misrepresentation of the EBA undermine public safety. I urge all senators give that consideration. When they are thinking about how they are going to vote, public safety needs to be at the front of their mind.

As I said, the minister had another argument about the bill in which she asserted that under the EBA paid firefighters could only report to other paid firefighters, not CFA commanders, implying that the paid firefighters could not report to volunteers. Again, I ask the minister: why did you say that? It is untrue. Clause 77.5 is clear: the first arriving incident controller on a scene can determine the number of appliances and crews. And elsewhere the agreement refers to the incident controller, who could be a volunteer. Again, there is no undermining of the role of volunteers. It is a very cooperative way of working together. The EBA is something that we can learn from and be impressed by. In the complexity—which obviously there is when it comes to fighting fires—it is working through how our volunteer and our paid staff work together. But what do we get from the minister? We get this constant abuse of paid firefighters.

The minister has said that the CFA must get the approval of the union 'for any policy that affects the application or operation of this agreement, or the work of employees covered by it'. What the minister has not acknowledged—and what should have been her starting point—is that the agreement states on page 11:

For the avoidance of doubt, except as provided in Clause 60- Peer Support, nothing in this agreement shall prevent volunteers in the CFA from providing the services normally provided by such volunteers without remuneration.

The role of volunteers is explicitly protected right up the front of the agreement. Again, this needs to be centre in our minds when we are considering how we vote on this bill. The lies that are being pushed by the minister and by those trying to get this bill passed are extreme, and the seriousness of it needs to be put side by side with the question of public safety.

The Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation has also called for this bill to be rejected. In their submission, they identify the significant overreach of this bill, exposing the political opportunism that is at the heart of the government's decision to introduce this bill. The Australian Nursing Federation sets out that where the Commonwealth moves to involve itself in the activities of state agencies established for public purposes it needs 'considered policy analysis', and no such analysis has been given by the government to justify this bill.

As I have given such strong emphasis in my comments to the issue of public safety, I did want to return to the issue of bushfires. It was in 2009 that the Black Saturday fires ravaged Victoria; 173 people died in those tragic events. The Black Saturday fires were subsequently investigated, as we know, by the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission, which found serious and systemic issues within the fire agencies that prevented effective and efficient coordination and unambiguous management of the fires, including saying that on 7 February there was no single person in charge of operational planning, tasking and accountability.

The royal commission then recommended greater interoperability as an absolute priority. The EBA—what will be effectively undermined and largely destroyed if this bill goes through—goes a huge way to achieving what the royal commission set out as essential to being able to effectively fight bushfires and put public safety first.

So, again, these issues are critical in how we vote when we come to consider this bill. What we are seeing here is a government that is prepared to put its obsession with undermining working conditions and attacking unions before public safety. They are committed to working hard to divide volunteers from paid firefighting staff. There are so many examples of where cooperation is real, effective and vital to be able to fight fires effectively.

Effectively, the government have been running a major scare campaign—a scare campaign, misleading volunteers by telling them things that are simply untrue; a scare campaign attempting to mislead senators who will shortly vote on this bill on things that are untrue. We have heard about the union-busting law firm that was brought in, which again shows what the intent here has been. As part of a wider agenda I acknowledge that is something that needs to be explored. But right now what needs to be centre of our minds when we come to vote on this bill is: do we put public safety first or do we put the very narrow self-interested agenda of the government and of Minister Michaelia Cash first?

Surely, we should be putting public safety first? The CBA, at the heart of it, is about improving the operations of the firefighting services in Victoria, both volunteer and paid, in a way that is actually commendable and should not be undermined. If you vote for this bill, you undermine the EBA, and you undermine and put public safety at risk.

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