Fire services speech
21st June 2017- Mr O'Sullivan- I wish to continue speaking to the select committee motion that is before the house and some of the things that need to be looked at right across this particular subject matter in relation to the impacts on fire service delivery across the whole of Victoria. In terms of what the changes are and the bill that has been brought to the house, I do not think we have a clear understanding of exactly what the bill encompasses at this point. There is no doubt that we have had some information come out in relation to what this bill is, but I think it would be fair to say that that information does not cover the whole gamut of what is in front of us in terms of what this bill is and particularly in terms of what this bill could be or might be.
We heard Ms Shing in her contribution talk about this issue being politicised. It is interesting that Ms Shing, who is from the government, said this issue has been politicised. I think there is no doubt that it has been politicised, but it is the government that has been the instigator in terms of politicising this issue. The most obvious example of that is the fact that the government brought in the presumptive rights aspect of this bill and not just the restructure of the fire services, which they talk about so often. If the government were not politicising this issue, they would have introduced separate bills — one that just dealt with the restructure of the Country Fire Authority (CFA) and another in relation to presumptive rights, which I think is generally agreed upon across both sides of the chamber.
In terms of presumptive rights legislation we have seen that CFA volunteers have had significant concerns in relation to that as well. It is clear that the presumptive rights legislation would have an impact on career firefighters, but I think that some of the aspects of the legislation that provide for presumptive rights for career firefighters do not carry across to volunteers — they do not provide the same rights or have the same impacts — so there are issues in terms of equality. There is no doubt that this issue has been politicised and should have been dealt with in separate bills, but that is another matter.
This motion will also look at the effect on volunteers' engagement and participation in fire service delivery, and there is no doubt that CFA volunteers are uncertain as to what this bill will mean for them. That is why this inquiry will be very effective. It will allow those people to come forward and put their point of view in terms of what those impacts will be. As we have seen very clearly already, there have been many people involved in the restructure of the CFA who do not agree with it. We have seen it on so many occasions that it is actually frightening; I cannot ever remember it happening before.
People who are involved in the CFA have certainly had that view. Right from the word go the former CFA minister — the then Minister for Emergency Services, Jane Garrett — felt that she could not continue in her role because she did not agree with what the legislation was going to do. She was concerned about the impact it was going to have on Victoria's fire services and emergency services. The whole membership of the CFA board have not continued in their positions. There has been a bit of conjecture about the exact circumstances of them leaving their positions en masse, but they certainly ended up leaving. In fact I think it was the new Minister for Emergency Services who asked them not to continue in their roles because of their serious concerns about the impact of this bill on fire services.
The CFA chief officer, Joe Buffone, also left his position because he obviously had some concerns, as did the new CFA CEO, Lucinda Nolan; she could not continue in her role either. That flowed on to the Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB) chief officer, Peter Rau, and to the deputy chief officer, David Youssef. The list goes on and on; it is almost endless. MFB CEO Jim Higgins is no longer there, the MFB acting chief officer has gone, the MFB deputy chief officer has gone as has the MFB board. It is a pretty distinguished list of people who have had very senior roles in these organisations. For one reason or another they decided that they could not continue in those positions as a result of what was presented to them with the restructure of the fire service.
This inquiry will certainly create the opportunity for some of those people to come forward and give some information to the committee that would benefit us all in terms of understanding some of the impacts behind the scenes. These are the people who have been involved in this from day one. Obviously they did not like what they saw, so they decided that they needed to step aside because they would not be a part of undertaking those changes.
One thing that also convinced me about the need for an inquiry was the number of significant bushfires that we have had in Victoria, and Black Saturday is the one that probably springs to mind more than others. Obviously there was a lot of work done on what happened during that fire. There was a royal commission into the fire itself, and that was headed up by Jack Rush, QC. The 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission did a lot of work in terms of understanding what was going on. It went on for months and months and looked at all aspects of fire preparedness and fire responses in this state and the regulatory framework behind all of that.
I think everyone would agree that Jack Rush is an absolute expert in this area. He was quoted in the Herald Sun of 13 June as saying:
The ability of the CFA to mobilise the tens of thousands of volunteers to meet the threat of catastrophic bushfire as was done on Black Saturday is severely threatened by this legislation.
They are not words that we should ignore or take lightly. That quote is from the pre-eminent bushfire expert in this state, Jack Rush, QC, who conducted the royal commission into the Black Saturday bushfires. Jack Rush has certainly got his doubts as to whether this legislation will bring about the best outcome in terms of fire readiness and fire preparedness and the emergency services role that our current fire services play in this state. We should not ignore people like Jack Rush. He knows what he is talking about. He might wish to have an input into the inquiry, and he could certainly pass on some of his expert knowledge to help us all understand the broader ramifications of the legislation. I think there is a whole range of people, from all sides of this debate, who could no doubt give us information that will help us draw up a report so that we can better understand this piece of legislation.
The government has proposed some amendments to this motion. They have four things they want to change. I can say that amendment 1, which proposes changing the composition of the select committee from eight members to nine members, is something that those on this side of the house will not be supporting. With amendment 2 they wish to change the reporting date for the committee from 31 August to 8 August. That is something that we do not support on this side of the house. This matter needs to be dealt with quickly, there is no doubt about that. We do not want this to drag on for too long. But at the same time we cannot rush this. We need to allow those people who wish to speak to this inquiry to have every opportunity to do so. There are also a few administrative aspects that need to be attended to before we even get to who will be on the actual inquiry: when it will start, where the hearings will be held and extending invitations to people who may wish to make a submission or appear before the inquiry. There is quite an administrative role that needs to be undertaken there, so we think the end of August is probably a reasonable time to aim for at this point. That is still probably not going to leave us much time because I am sure there will be people who wish to but who will not get an opportunity to front the committee.
With amendment 3 the government is wishing to have two crossbench members instead of the one referred to in paragraph 2 of the motion. That is something the opposition is not in a position to support. In relation to amendment 4, where the quorum for the committee would go from being one half of the members to five, that is something that the opposition will not oppose.
I have spoken to members of the Country Fire Authority from right across the northern part of Victoria, and they are pretty disillusioned in terms of the way these changes that would impact them have been brought forward. They think it has been rushed. They think they have not had an opportunity to be consulted. They do not think they have had the opportunity for their concerns to be heard, so they are very much wishing to have an opportunity where they can have their say before a parliamentary inquiry — this select committee — in terms of how this might work.
I very much look forward to the inquiry and the deliberations that it will undertake. Hopefully we will get some much better information in terms of the impact of this bill so this chamber and this Parliament can make a proper decision in relation to this matter on behalf of the Victorian community.