Firefighters’ Presumptive Rights Compensation and Fire Services Legislation Amendment (Reform) Bill 2019

June 05, 2019
I rise to speak briefly on this bill because I have spoken at length on it before in a sense. Most people will remember that I voted in favour of this bill when it was last before the Parliament, in the previous Parliament. I set out my reasons for doing so at that time, and many of them remain the same. I spoke yesterday about how disappointed I am at the way the bill is being handled this week in this house, the way it has been forced on and will be guillotined tomorrow night.
The bill was really only made available to members yesterday, and I think it is a situation that is really disappointing in terms of giving members the chance to read through it, check and understand the incorporation of the amendments that were hard fought for and achieved in the upper house and which I believe now make the bill a better bill than it was previously. It does seem to incorporate all of those amendments. I have had a look through it, and I have to say that I think it is a better bill than the one that passed through the house last time. But haven’t we seen so much go on in this place and outside in our electorates in relation to this bill? I have seen politicians standing with CFA volunteers for a number of years now. It is all about 'Don’t destroy the CFA’. I personally do not think this legislation will destroy the CFA, and if there is one thing I have heard out there loud and clear from volunteers, it is that they are over this. They want to move on. They want this dispute settled, and they want to be able to get some clarity about what their situation will be in the future.
I can tell you that I will be one of the first people knocking on the minister’s door if volunteers in my electorate are disadvantaged in some way, if they do not get the training they need, if they are not getting the resources they need or if they are being in some way marginalised or treated with disrespect. I think this whole thing comes down to a need to change the culture right across both organisations and to ensure that there is a lot more respect in the debate. In the Shepparton district we have one integrated station, so for all of those other CFA units out there business will be as usual. But for the integrated station, there is no doubt that there are some challenges around the integration. But it has been coming for quite a long time now. I am pleased to say that at their most recent meeting the volunteers voted 17 to 1 to stay with the paid firefighters together in the new station, when it is built. They will be provided with the facilities they need to house their equipment and to make provision for female firefighters. 

There are a number of things that were raised with the minister, and we will continue to raise them to ensure that the new Shepparton fire station is a state-of-the-art building with all the resources it needs, but that it also incorporates the volunteers. Shepparton is the size of city that needs volunteers as well. The paid firefighters in the Shepparton district are not able to do everything, so they will be called out when there is a fire. They are relied on constantly, and their trucks, their equipment and their volunteers will be used as needed. They have been able to work through that for quite a long time, and I have trust that they will continue to do so. As I say, if problems arise, then I will be the first to be knocking on the minister’s door about it. I have to also say that this Andrews Labor government won the election with a resounding victory, and this was an issue at the election. I cannot see that they have anything but a mandate to do what they are doing here, and that is what they are doing. In the upper house they have also got an increased majority, and they will be doing what they want to do. That is the reality of it. They have the mandate to do it.

It is my position to take a much more collaborative approach and to try to achieve better outcomes than to try to whip up angst and anxiety in our CFA stations around the region, which has been happening now for years and which has served no good purpose, because here we are: the bill will be passed, it will become law and we will need to look after and protect our volunteers. One of the other things I would really like to see in the Shepparton district is much more diversity introduced into the CFA to achieve opportunities for many in our multicultural community and other members of the community, because let us face it, it has been a long-term male-dominated volunteer force, and there is great opportunity for more diversity, for more women coming in, and of course to incorporate more of our multicultural community. I am sure there is an appetite for that, and indeed our volunteers would welcome recruiting any new volunteers. That is always something that is on the agenda. We know that throughout regional Victoria, and probably in the cities as well, volunteerism is not growing. It is very difficult to achieve the number of volunteers you need across a whole range of areas, and the CFA will be no different. So for them to open their arms more broadly to embrace a bit more diversity may well lead to a situation where people feel that they will be welcome to act as volunteers and join in.

The presumptive rights aspect of this legislation is also a critical issue and one that has now been delayed for so long, and while it has been backdated—and that is terrific—there have been so many people who have waited with, I do not doubt, major health issues and again a lot of anxiety around where they might stand. So it will be a welcome passage of that aspect of the legislation. I have spoken about the Shepparton district and its position. I say no more at this time other than that I am concerned about the way the bill is being handled in this house. I am concerned that people should have the ability to speak on it. This is a representative democracy. Everyone should have the right to have their say and, ideally, more time to take this back to their electorates.

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