I rise today to speak on the Firefighters’ Presumptive Rights Compensation and Fire Services Legislation Amendment (Reform) Bill 2019, and I do so on behalf of countless constituents across Western Victoria Region, who are overwhelmingly grateful for the decades of service provided by Country Fire Authority firefighters. This government seeks to dissolve CFA fire stations in Western Victoria Region, including in Ballarat, Portland, Warrnambool, Lara, Geelong, Corio, Belmont, Ocean Grove and Melton, by subjecting them to the control of the United Firefighters Union (UFU) in the formation of the new quango Fire Rescue Victoria (FRV).

This bill once again demonstrates the Labor Party’s ideological resentment of volunteerism, non-unionism, self-determination and responsibility of rural and regional communities. At every turn this government chooses to tear down the institutions and way of life that have ensured the safety of Victorians living beyond the tram tracks of Melbourne for generations. I call on my colleagues on the crossbench in Western Victoria Region to reject this bill. I say particularly to Mr Meddick, do not stand in this place and talk about the rights of animals when many thousands, if not millions, will be lost in the next raging fire across our region due to the inability of paid staff to effectively fight our grass and forest fires.

 Since this Premier took office in 2014, the CFA has lost 3534 operational volunteers, which is 9 per cent of its active firefighting force. Since 2011 the CFA has seen a drop in volunteers of 4300 from 38 895 to 34 595. Clearly CFA volunteers are in decline—and no wonder. They know their services are not appreciated, not supported and not respected. But this is of course what this government wants. Our volunteer brigades recently told me they expect to lose 50 per cent of their brigades with all the new requirements and regulations inflicted on the volunteers.

This government only wants paid service providers everywhere. Daniel Andrews is a recruitment agency for Mr Marshall. Those opposite just want new members of Mr Marshall’s union. This government now seeks to serve the final blow on this most amazing volunteer service. Thirty-six integrated five stations will be stripped from the CFA to be merged with the Metropolitan Fire Brigade in the formation of Fire Rescue Victoria.

The results will be catastrophic for this institution, which has competently and reliably served this state for more than 70 years. The CFA carve-up will leave rural brigades struggling for access to training and support and a lack of clarity about who is in control. Actually, it will probably become quite clear as to who is in control in a fire station: it will be paid UFU unionists. However, my observations of the St Patrick’s Day fires were of paid MFB firefighters stepping out of huge, sparkly clean buses in their shiny black boots, which for the period of the fire never seemed to reach the fire front. Meanwhile the volunteers and CFA officers had left their own properties and risked their own safety and lives to spend hours protecting the property, livestock and lives of others. They did it for hours without respite. They often slept on the staging ground while the paid officers had booked out every motel bed in town. There was even a situation where the food provided at one ground ran out because the food reserved for the volunteers had already been consumed by the paid visiting forces. 

Recruitment will also become a significant issue given that the CFA will not be able to force FRV staff to work in more remote locations without union agreement, depriving our rural communities of the services they need more than anyone else. All rural firefighting brigades will be controlled by the union’s career firefighters, and all new employees, including those seconded to the CFA, will be required to be accredited by a new Firefighters Registration Board dominated by the UFU. These consequences will be extremely harmful for rural and regional communities that have depended on the CFA. 

The government must face two fundamental realities: that bushfires are an unavoidable part of Victorian life and we must always be vigilant in our preparedness to address them at any given time; and that due to the remoteness and size of Victorian communities, while most affected by bushfires, we cannot entirely depend on paid firefighters. This bill risks losing those volunteers. The vital surge capacity that volunteer firefighters are able to provide during bushfire emergencies is unparalleled by career firefighters without imposing an enormous financial burden on this state. The changes made by the bill clearly do little to further ensure the safety of rural and regional communities, instead risking endangering them. 

There are many questions that this government must address, but instead they rushed it through the other place by cutting debate short. This mirrored the government’s failure to consult the CFA, MFB or the emergency management commissioner on the drafting of the bill, which was originally done in secret. In a similar manner the government has not released any analysis of any modelling to demonstrate how community safety will be enhanced through the tearing apart of the CFA. These reforms are baseless, dubious in their motives and destructive and were conjured without collaboration or transparency. For five years now the Andrews Labor government has tried its best to do whatever possible to downscale, destroy and demoralise the CFA. Already under this government there has been a major reduction in cold burning in state-controlled forests and parks. Mr Davis mentioned Mr Packham and his significant contribution to an understanding of better fire prevention and control on this continent. My husband chaired the Stretton Group, of which Mr Packham was a member, and they worked assiduously to provide world-breaking research and knowledge in the area of fire, forests and better park management.

I have grown up in rural Victoria, and the CFA is part of our world, our life. My grandfather died in a western Victoria bushfire. I know many who have been so adversely affected by fire and are so grateful to our CFA volunteer firefighters, and they will be horrified to think that this great organisation will be no more. At the same time as this government seeks to destroy our skilful, experienced volunteer service, they have hiked up the fire services levy, which particularly impacts rural landowners, who are often the volunteer firefighters. This levy is obviously needed to fund the extraordinary pay levels demanded by union boss Marshall but will not do anything to provide the necessary equipment and supplies required to effectively fight a fire. In western Victoria volunteer Lieutenant Andrew Lawrence said his brigade was still waiting for a portable toilet to arrive. The tanker is 25 years old. The budget has cut CFA funding for new projects from $60.7 million in 2018–19 to $22 million in 2019–20. New fleet funding has been cut from $12.38 million to $6.4 million. New station funding has been cut from $13.6 million to $5.54 million. This begs the question: what is this huge hike in the fire services levy, up to 10 per cent and a further later increase to 20 per cent in 2022–23, going to be spent on? Well, we know what it is going to be spent on. It is going to be spent on all those increased wages.

This bill is a disgrace. It ought to be opposed, and it also has had many casualties. In 2016 the Premier extraordinarily sacked the entire CFA board alongside former Minister for Emergency Services Jane Garrett. The next month the CFA chief executive, Lucinda Nolan, quit after being provided with an ultimatum to sign the enterprise bargaining agreement or resign. MFB chief officer Peter Rau resigned after alleged bullying by the UFU, with MFB chief executive Jim Higgins having resigned prematurely. CFA chief officer Joe Buffone and deputy chief officer Bruce Byatt also quit after this brutal attempt to destroy one of Victoria’s proudest institutions.

This government will stop at nothing in their lengthy vendetta against volunteers in favour of their 3700 union mates who seem to rule them. I oppose this bill. It is a disgrace, and all those supporting it should hang their head in shame.

18 June 2019