Back our CFA volunteers | May 04, 2016

Country Fire Authority EBA

Ms BATH (Eastern Victoria) — It is with sincerity that I rise this afternoon to speak on Mr O'Donohue's very good motion, which acknowledges the selfless and courageous work of the brave men and women of the Victorian Country Fire Authority (CFA), one of the most remarkable volunteer organisations in the world. I would like to bring up some of the historical aspects of the CFA. CFA volunteers, as we have heard today, have a proud history of standing up for Victorians against great adversity, often at their own personal risk. A royal commission into the 1939 bushfires, which were a disaster, really, back then, recommended that a single firefighting authority for Victoria be established, bringing together the then bushfire brigades — the country fire brigades and the Forests Commission.

This was the birth of the Country Fire Authority, which came into existence in 1945. Over the years, through technology improvements and capacity improvements, the equipment has become more specialised and there has been greater effect in terms of capacity of the CFA.

In terms of my own experience, growing up on a dairy farm 5 kilometres outside of Fish Creek we actually had an outside toilet, and when one went out there and it happened to be 7.15 on a Monday night one could hear crystal clear across the paddocks the siren of the Fish Creek CFA brigade, led by Mr Pulham, practising to make sure that all was in readiness in case of an emergency. That continues on and has continued across various small country towns' Country Fire Authority brigades practising and getting ready for an emergency. That has occurred since 1945, although I was not there at the time.

One of the other terrible experiences that I can recall was in 1983 when the Ash Wednesday fires occurred on 16 February and swept through much of Victoria killing 75 people, including 13 firefighters. We had family friends who lived at Beaconsfield Upper, and I can still remember the shock and horror of them saying how their house was protected by the CFA, which was tremendous, but also how houses around them were lost and a CFA volunteer perished at the house beside theirs, and the shock and horror that they had to live through to survive.

The next experience in relation to fires on my behalf was as a teacher at Mirboo North Secondary College. On the Friday before the Black Saturday fires in 2009 we all went to school. We were able to access the school, and I remember standing in the auditorium of that school with the community members of Mirboo North standing in there and people crying. The CFA was up the front supporting, giving directions, giving hope and giving commands as to how people should respond, which meant in many cases packing up their goods and removing themselves to safety. They were the guiding light, along with the police force and the State Emergency Service, supporting people in those towns in Gippsland.

From the 2009 Black Saturday tragedy many lessons were learnt, and I note that there was great bipartisan acceptance of the Black Saturday royal commission recommendations to improve the work done in relation to firefighting following that disaster. In 2011 the latest volunteer charter was signed by the then Premier, the Honourable Ted Baillieu; the then Minister for Police and Emergency Services, the Honourable Peter Ryan; the then president of Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria (VFBV), Mr van Hamond; and the then CFA chair, Mr Murphy.

I have a photocopy of it with small writing before me, and I would just like to read a couple of little passages out of the volunteer charter. The volunteer charter says that it:

… is an agreed commitment by the state of Victoria, CFA and VFBV on behalf of CFA volunteers —

and ensures that —

… the state of Victoria and CFA will commit to consultation with volunteers about all matters which might reasonably be expected to affect volunteers;

provides the framework for the three-way relationship between the parties, requiring the success of the relationship and the outcomes from the charter to be judged against the following principles:

Is it fair?

Is it just?

Is it reasonable?

Does it discriminate against volunteers?

Is the outcome practicable …

Is it in the best interest of the safety of the Victorian community?

That is in the charter of the CFA. The last comment from the charter I would like to read is:

The government of Victoria recognises and acknowledges the volunteers' commitment. The state of Victoria will provide support to the volunteers subject to the following principles …

The one principle that I will read is:

Consult with the elected representatives of volunteers on all matters which may impact upon volunteers including proposed legislation and the adequacy of resources to enable volunteers in CFA to deliver the agreed services.

We have heard today that the CFA has 60 000 strong volunteers. We have heard that there are approximately 1800 career firefighters, there are community educators and support staff, and there are 20 districts and approximately 8 regions across Victoria. In my electorate within Gippsland, there are roughly 160 fire stations.

We know that the CFA is the backbone of many of our small communities. It is comprised of men and women, mums and dads, who are working to support their communities. They are embedded in their communities for the good of their communities. This brings a special entity for each individual fire station and brigade, because each group of people provides its own expertise. There could be the builder who understands in a house fire how that house collapses and understands the structural mechanism by which a fire may attack a house. There will be a chemist there or someone working in industry who will have an in-depth understanding around chemicals, as well as the comprehensive training that is undertaken throughout their operations within the CFA.

The other comment I would like to make in relation to the second part of Mr O'Donohue's motion is that both personally and I have heard it across the board today the coalition and The Nationals support career firefighters and support people getting a fair day's pay for a fair day's work. We support good working conditions, and the enterprise bargaining agreement is an important part of securing a good workplace and job security.

In my role as a member for Eastern Victoria Region it is my job to listen to constituents within my electorate. I have had many, many face-to-face discussions and I have been contacted through emails and by telephone. I would like to read a couple of items because they encapsulate the feelings of many constituents. One wrote:

Two years ago my house and farm burned down while I was trying to protect my district from a bushfire in my role as a CFA volunteer. While I was on the tanker fighting the fire my family lost everything — our house, possessions, sheds, pets, yards, livestock, pasture and about 30 kilometres of fencing. Fortunately my wife and daughter escaped. We are still slowly rebuilding the house while trying to restore the farm.

The fire that so dramatically impacted my family went from a plume of smoke to a conflagration which caused spot fires over 10 kilometres away within 30 minutes. In under 2 hours the fire devoured 6500 hectares, three homes and countless livestock, fences and pasture.

The nearest paid firefighters to my district are over 2 hours away. If our district had had to wait for paid firefighters to turn up two years ago, most of East Gippsland's towns would have been destroyed.

I will drop down a little bit:

The VFBV talks about the volunteers providing 'surge capability' in fighting fires — that's rubbish.

So says my constituent.

Throughout most of Victoria volunteers provide the only firefighting capability!

The paid firefighters comprise only a tiny fraction of a percentage of the firefighting capacity of the CFA, but they are holding the entire state of Victoria to ransom. You can be certain that even if the log of claims is negotiated down on this occasion, the UFU will use the same tactic every time it wants more money, a seat in Parliament, unlimited budget, more opulent conditions.

That is a quote from my constituent. The constituent finishes with:

I request that you look after your electorate's … interests and oppose the UFU's childish and unreasonable demands. It is time for our political 'leaders' to show some bottle. In the worst possible scenario there are plenty of volunteers who could do the UFU members' jobs if they quit or went on strike.

That was one contribution from a constituent, and I will finish with another:

I am a proud volunteer firefighter with almost 40 years experience with the CFA …

I have no issues with paid firefighters getting appropriate remuneration and working conditions but have grave concerns when EBA conditions have any negative impact on volunteer rights and conditions or the way they work with their career firefighter colleagues. The CFA is a volunteer emergency service that is supported by paid staff.

This person goes on, then finishes with:

Pay the permanent staff well and ensure they have good working conditions. Do not allow the UFU to affect volunteer capacity. If you do, this will be at the peril of the state.

In conclusion, and I will not continue on too far longer, in reiterating the charter — 'Is it fair? Is it just? Is it reasonable?' — I hope that the Premier, I hope that the minister and I hope that the particular elements and parties can come to a sensible EBA agreement that respects and supports the Country Fire Authority and that keeps it remaining as an independent and autonomous body so that the CFA in turn can do what it does best, which is protecting our lives, protecting our homes and protecting our communities, and long may it do so into the future.

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