Firefighters' Presumptive Rights Compensation and Fire Services Legislation Amendment (Reform) Bill 2017

It gives me much pleasure this afternoon to rise on behalf of The Nationals and speak on the Firefighters' Presumptive Rights Compensation and Fire Services Legislation Amendment (Reform) Bill 2017. I had the pleasure of being asked to participate in the select committee that was established by this chamber to examine the piece of legislation that is before us today. As a part of that inquiry we went to all parts of the state to hear firsthand how the legislation would impact on fire services, volunteers and communities around the state. We also had the opportunity to have hearings in Melbourne where we heard from a whole range of people as well.

I learned a lot through this inquiry and through the report process, and I am very grateful I was given the opportunity to be a part of it. What I can say in relation to this piece of legislation is that the government has mucked this up from day one. There is no doubt, having been through this process, that there is some reform required within the fire services of Victoria. I think that is something that everyone who was a part of this inquiry has agreed to, and I think anyone who has got some sort of understanding of the fire services would also agree that there is reform required.

What is unfortunate is the way the government has gone about undertaking a reform that is so much needed in this space. Let us look at the start. When forming legislation in terms of something as important as our fire services, which keep our communities safe, this government started in the wrong place and started with the wrong idea. Unfortunately it was too stubborn to realise that it had got it wrong, had mucked it up, and continued down a bad path of public policy in this state. And that is unfortunate because there was a real opportunity for the government to actually do something that would have been worthwhile. Unfortunately what the government has done is create division. They have created a division between the Country Fire Authority (CFA), its volunteers, the community, paid firefighters, members of this chamber and Victoria itself — all of which have an interest in this piece of legislation.

This reform was undertaken in secrecy, and that is not a good place to start. A small subcommittee of the cabinet was put together to come up with some ideas, and that progressed through to a small committee within the Department of Premier and Cabinet (DPC) that came up with a set of ideas as to the way it thought the fire services should be reformed. At no stage, while they were coming up with this idea, did they consider what would be in the best interests of the CFA, what would be in the best interests of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB) or what would be in the best interests of country Victoria and metropolitan Melbourne.

It took me a while to figure out why this piece of legislation was conceived so poorly to start with. I will take the house back a little while to get some history on why this was the case. This is not a piece of reform that is designed around what is going to be the best future operation of the fire services in Victoria — if only it was. This piece of legislation is very political — very political indeed — and I will tell members the reason why it is so political.

On April 2015 the secretary of the United Firefighters Union (UFU) Victoria branch, Peter Marshall, wrote an email to every Labor government MP who sits in this chamber and also in the other chamber. I will read a couple of paragraphs from the email that was sent to all government members:

I write on behalf of the United Firefighters Union to seek your commitment in honouring the agreement your government made with … firefighters. Firefighters campaigned hard against the Napthine government: participating in 23 days of doorknocking in strategic seats; had 40 000 one-on-one conversations with the public; handed out … 125 000 pamphlets at train stations and street stalls — 

one hundred and twenty five thousand, Mr O'Donohue; that is a lot —

protested outside 36 separate Liberal Party media events and fundraisers;

appeared alongside ALP members at media events;

and filled the Collingwood town hall and cheered as Daniel Andrews promised them that life after the election would be different.

The email continues:

On election day:

700 firefighters stood outside 109 polling booths and 9 marginal electorates and asked the public to put the Liberals last …

internal polling conservatively estimates a 4.5 per cent swing in seats where there was a firefighter presence — and up to 7 per cent in some marginal seats;

in seats where there was not a firefighter presence the swing was as low as 1.75 per cent.

Your own electorate probably benefited from this swing.

This information is taken from an email that the UFU secretary, Peter Marshall, sent to all government members. The email goes on to say:

The UFU has never broken an agreement — this is a core value of the union. But the ALP Andrews government is not honouring its pre-election and post-election agreements with firefighters.

Mr O'Donohue — What were those agreements?

Mr O'SULLIVAN — That is a very good question, Mr O'Donohue. What were those agreements? That is an interesting starting point in understanding where this legislation has been conceived from. Peter Marshall and the Labor government — the Premier — made some sort of a deal prior to the election which would see the UFU campaign on behalf of the government against many Liberal MPs and Liberal candidates, and in exchange for that support at election time the UFU demanded that there would be a reform of the fire services which would suit them. That is where this legislation has been conceived. Do not get that wrong for one second; that is where it has come from.

I have got some more evidence as to how we know that to be the case. Because what we know — and everyone acknowledges, even the government members that were part of the consultation, and the Greens have acknowledged it as well — is that the consultation on this piece of reform was atrocious. The government did not speak to the CFA, did not speak to the MFB, did not speak to the emergency management commissioner and did not speak to volunteers about anything that was going on, and they certainly did not speak to the Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria. They were not consulted at all.

So you ask the question: who did they consult with? Obviously there was a sub-cabinet out of cabinet and there was a small group that was put together as part of the DPC, of which one of the members was Simon Crean. Obviously he had expertise in the industrial relations area. But during the inquiry we understood as a part of that process —

Mr Melhem — What about the other experts?

Mr O'SULLIVAN — Yes, there were other people that were a part of that — there were four other people — but what we learned during the process in terms of the consultation was that DPC confirmed that the UFU were consulted on somewhere between 10 and 15 times. That is what they said during hearings. That is not exactly right; it was less than that. It was only about nine times. When the DPC came back, as a part of the process they said that the consultation was only in relation to presumptive legislation, and we took that at face value, although I had my suspicions that that was not the case. I got criticised by other members of the committee because I said that there were probably occasions when it was more than just discussing the presumptive legislation.

On 7 August the DPC secretary, Chris Eccles, wrote to the chair of the committee, Mr Gordon Rich-Phillips, with some information in terms of answers in relation to the questions that were asked at the hearings — providing information as to what the actual results were — that they took on notice. That letter indicated that the UFU were consulted in relation to this piece of legislation on 7 February, 16 March, 20 March, 22 March, 23 March, 29 March, 4 April, 11 April, 13 April and 28 April, so that is quite a few times. We were led to believe that it was all on the presumptive legislation. The same letter goes on to say:

In regards to structural reform, the first meeting was held —

with the UFU —

on 20 March 2017.

The first two meetings were about presumptive legislation, but as early as the third meeting the UFU were consulted on the actual reform itself, not just presumptive legislation.

Mr O'Donohue interjected.

Mr O'SULLIVAN — Mr O'Donohue asks me when the other people — the experts — were involved in this consultation. Craig Lapsley, the emergency management commissioner, heard about something for the first time on 20 April, some two or three months after the UFU were consulted in relation to the legislation. He heard about it on 20 April and was more formally informed on 24 April. The CFA were briefed in late April, and the MFB were first briefed or, in the words of Mr Stacchino, made aware of the proposal on 19 May. So again, what we see here in terms of the consultation is that the government did not consult with the CFA, did not consult with the emergency management commissioner and did not consult with the MFB until after 20 April, but in the meantime they consulted with the UFU nine times — before they consulted with anyone else in terms of the experts. We should understand very clearly why this legislation is the way it is: it is because of the union payback that was required by this government in terms of the support that they gave ahead of the election.

Mr O'Donohue interjected.

Mr O'SULLIVAN — Mr O'Donohue asks me what happens to those people who do not actually agree with this reform on the way through, and there are many people who do not agree with this reform. It is fair enough that you have a piece of legislation such as this, which is a bit controversial and not everyone is going to agree with it — some people will, some people will not. You would think that in this sort of a society it is fair to have an open and reasonable discussion in terms of whether you do support it or you do not support it.

Ms Bath interjected.

Mr O'SULLIVAN — Ms Bath asks about the key stakeholders involved, and that is true, Ms Bath — that is very true. What happens to those key stakeholders who have a slightly different view as to whether this is a good piece of legislation or not? I will tell you what happens to them. They get sacked. First of all Jane Garrett, the then Minister for Emergency Services, came up with a couple of questions, and she found herself no longer the Minister for Emergency Services. She disagreed with it; she got sacked. The list goes on.

The board of the CFA was sacked because they had a different view and would not sign up to this poor piece of public policy. The CFA chief officer, Joe Buffone, got sacked because he disagreed. The CFA CEO, Lucinda Nolan, got sacked because she disagreed. The MFB chief officer, Peter Rau, got sacked because he disagreed. Deputy chief officer David Youssef disagreed; he got sacked. Jim Higgins did not agree; he was the MFB CEO, and he got sacked. Even just recently the MFB chief acting officer, Paul Stacchino, left as well. So what happens? If you disagree on anything with this government in terms of this piece of legislation, you are removed from your position, and what they do is bring in yes-men and yes-women who will do whatever the government wants in this space.

I am not sure what Mr Marshall has got over this government, but it is very, very good, because the amount of baggage that this government is prepared to take on in terms of this piece of legislation is outrageous. It is a bad piece of legislation, and that is why The Nationals under no circumstances could support this piece of legislation that is going to have a bad outcome for volunteers. It is going to have a bad outcome for the community, and it is going to have a bad outcome for the very thing that people on the other side of this chamber were talking about yesterday in terms of community safety. This is not about community safety; this is about paying back Peter Marshall and about paying back the UFU for the support that they gave this government ahead of the last election.

This piece of legislation has created division, and that is disgraceful — that a government would use underhanded tactics to bring about division such as this piece of legislation. Like no other piece of legislation or issue I have seen, we have got such a divide in terms of people who either support or absolutely detest this piece of legislation. Under no circumstances can this piece of legislation be supported, because it is bad public policy, and our job in this chamber is to ensure bad pieces of reform, bad pieces of public policy and bad legislation are voted down.

Reform is needed in this state. This reform model is the wrong model. This government should withdraw this piece of legislation and come back with something that is absolutely something that we want to support, but under no circumstances will we support this piece of legislation.

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