COMPENSATION AND FIRE SERVICES LEGISLATION AMENDMENT (REFORM) BILL 2019

Mrs McARTHUR: Minister, I am particularly interested in the volunteers out in the more remote areas in rural Victoria that operate from very small brigades out of a small shed with often a very old truck. I am interested that you said the volunteer force had been growing, because the anecdotal evidence that many of us are getting is that it is declining. I have many comments here from volunteers to say that they did not join the CFA to clean up after career staff, for example. They joined to make a difference. I am particularly interested in the new compliance responsibilities that will be imposed on them. Many of them have told me that these new compliance restrictions will ensure that they do lose volunteers. Voluntary secretaries will be impacted upon, and many of the requirements that you will impose will just mean that their volunteers will not continue. Younger people will stick to their day job and not join the local brigade. So I am wondering how you actually are going to recruit a new volunteer workforce under these new requirements.

Mr JENNINGS (Leader of the Government in the Legislative Council): I think what you have said to me concluded with a very reasonable question. On the way through there were maybe a number of suppositions that you made that I would not necessarily agree with, but ultimately at the end of the day our community has been well served and been well served for decades, absolute decades, by communities rallying and supporting one another in times of crisis and preparing for those emergencies. Certainly the government wants to cherish that commitment that members of our community make to others in the name of keeping them safe. You would know with some of those pressures in some of the locations you are talking about that it is not only an issue about how many volunteers you have got. In fact there are some towns that have stresses and strains in relation to the viability of their workforce and service delivery. These are challenges for us, to try to keep sufficient critical mass of economic activity and of public sector support to keep small communities viable.

Overall there is a challenge. Whether it be a volunteer base or whether it be an employment base or an economic base, there are pockets of Victoria that we need to continually revisit in terms of trying to make sure that those communities are viable for a whole variety of measures. So that is a challenge for any government, and we acknowledge that.

One of the things where I think there needs to be a tangible demonstration is where we deal with this question of access to resources and to training and to other backup and a network of support. Even though there might be a small number who work in a brigade, to have a network that backs up to provide a capacity, operationally you need to have that network available to you. You need to have the technology to be able to communicate. You do need to have a look at the upgrades of the fleet that supports CFA firefighting. So that is our obligation.

 On the other side of the equation I continue to be—and I am sure you would continue to be too, even with some of these challenges—inspired by those that step up. You have got to be inspired by them. You have got to make sure that they feel as if that is actually supported and encouraged and that we have a sense of volunteerism that permeates our community. Beyond fire and beyond emergency management, as you know, there are other programs that support the general capacity of volunteerism that applies right across the board. Maybe out of your question and your concern is, how do we integrate those better? Of all the issues that I have talked about in my long answer to your question, how do all of those cumulatively build? How do you keep confidence in small rural communities? How do you keep up service delivery in rural communities? Maybe through regional partnerships we identify what is the gel that is going to keep some communities viable that may otherwise be vulnerable.

Going back to this reform, there are specific requirements in relation to the implementation monitor’s consideration of the resource allocation, the viability and the risk associated with different fire areas. Most people are actually at the moment assuming that that is relating to the transfer from CFA to Fire Rescue Victoria, but it is a two-way street because that risk profile does relate to actually what is the residual issue of the CFA and how that may be supported in the future.

            Mrs McARTHUR: Thank you, Minister. I am particularly interested in where we are going to find the volunteers to do the roadside burning, for example. I know in the Pura Pura brigade that is one of their main activities—to prevent fires by controlling roadside vegetation through burning. If we lose our volunteers, are the paid workforce going to step up and carry out that task in the future? Mr JENNINGS:As you would appreciate, in relation to fuel reduction burning or roadside burning that actually takes place anywhere across the state, a lot of it relates, as you know, to public land one way or another and a lot of it is actually undertaken by—

Mrs McArthur: CFA?

Mr JENNINGS: The CFA in relation to roadside burning, but in fact a lot of burning on public land is actually undertaken by other agencies as well—the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, firefighters and their allies—in relation to that work. We need to continue to look at the way in which we do that. Fuel reduction burning is a challenge in its own right, as you would understand, and that issue is not going to be one that is going to be resolved by a shift to Fire Rescue Victoria, because that is not predominately one of their responsibilities. In fact it is other agencies— the CFA and the other firefighting agencies—that are actually responsible for that, and I would imagine that would be, operationally into the future in terms of the order of magnitude of getting a controlled burn away in these very precarious climatic conditions, a public policy challenge that we actually have to address every year. We will continue to need to do that, but I think the shift to Fire Rescue Victoria is going to mean that all those activities that volunteers may be worried about will continue to be activities that actually take place out of Fire Rescue Victoria.

 

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Mrs McARTHUR: Minister, just by way of comment, the little I know—or the lot I know—about volunteer firefighters is that they are not actually preoccupied with being joined up. They are actually preoccupied with getting onto a fire situation, putting out the fire and protecting people’s property, assets and lives. But anyway, to go to the important part of the presumptive legislation aspects of the bill, it is curious, I think, why the volunteers need to be treated differently. I wonder—given that Tasmania introduced bipartisan legislation in 2017 to ensure both volunteer and career firefighters were treated exactly the same, and South Australia amended its scheme to remove the discriminatory difference in access—why, if it is good enough for Tasmanian and South Australian firefighters, Victoria’s volunteer firefighters cannot be treated exactly the same as our paid firefighters?

Mr JENNINGS: The reason why I am holding my head a bit, Mrs McArthur, is that within the last 2 hours I spent half an hour talking to Mr Bourman about this issue. I thought it was a very thoughtful and a very human concern that Mr Bourman raised, and I hope that I rose to that occasion by indicating why the government has structured the scheme in the way that it has. Rather than me repeat half an hour, I would encourage you to read my contribution and my answers to Mr Bourman. If you find that unsatisfactory, come back and talk to me after this committee, and I will go through it at length with you. If you find that anything I say in my response requires further explanation to your constituents or your community in relation to explaining matters that are not clear, then I will provide it to you.

Mrs McARTHUR: Minister, I am only interested in you explaining why Tasmania and South Australia have obviously got it wrong. BILLS Thursday, 20 June 2019 Legislative Council- PROOF 59

Mr JENNINGS: It is not so much that we are saying that anybody else has got it wrong. We have been very thoughtful and we believe that our system is preferable, and I have actually outlined the reasons to the chamber why we think it is appropriate to structure it in this way, rather than picking holes in any other jurisdiction and the way in which they treat volunteers or career firefighters.

Mrs McARTHUR: Minister, given that you have told us that South Australia and Tasmania have not got it wrong, did you look at how Tasmania and South Australia have addressed this issue, and what did you discover from them? Why is it different here? I know you have gone into the reasons of costings and so on, but if it is good enough for those two states to go down this path, why is it not good enough for Victoria?

Mr JENNINGS: No, the Victorian government’s view is that the best option that is available to Victorian firefighters is the model that we have adopted. Because of the cumulative effects of access to the scheme and the way in which the scheme would be administered, we have confidence that it provides better recourse and better opportunities than other schemes. Victoria does not have any interest in criticising any other jurisdiction in relation to the scheme that they have adopted that they believe best suits their needs.

20 June 2019