In Australia’s liberal democracy, we like to think that policy is formulated in the fairest and smartest way due to it our pluralist nature.
We like to believe that passionate people, who develop expertise in their area of concern shaped by historical experience, are respected and incorporated effectively into policy development to deliver the best possible outcome.
An important issue is how Australia addresses bushfire, which requires both full-time employees and volunteers in order to cover Australia’s large land mass that includes vast rural areas urban areas.
This article focuses on recent legislative changes to Victoria’s fire service sector, effective from July 2020, and how they have adversely impacted upon Victoria’s Country Fire Authority (CFA) given that the latter’s concerns were virtually ignored by government legislation.
Prior to the new legislation, concern had been evident that paid and volunteer firefighters would be split into two separate services as negotiations broke down in 2016 with regard to Enterprise Bargaining Agreement involving the CFA, Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB) and the United Firefighters Union (UFU).
In 2016, after the Emergency Minister Jane Garrett resigned after strongly opposing the UFU’s demands, the CFA chief executive at the time, Lucinda Nolan, stated the union's claims were unaffordable, prohibitive and divisive, while Andrew Ford from Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria (VFBV) said so-called “veto clauses" would give the union too much power over operational decisions given the requirement that seven paid firefighters be dispatched to every fire which would undermine volunteers.
Tensions emerged despite some CFA support for reform to enhance Victoria’s capacity to address fires.
For example, in 2017, Peter Flinn, recently retired after 44 years’ service with the CFA and a Life Member of Dunkeld Rural Fire Brigade in western Victoria, noted that reform was needed given that the boundaries between the CFA and Melbourne’s Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB) of career fire-fighters had not changed since 1945 despite Melbourne’s huge population expansion which meant that CFA volunteers now routinely operated in suburbia as well as in rural areas and country towns.
Flinn expressed a hope that the CFA would return to its roots and focus totally on providing a “country” fire service with a correspondingly smaller, more supportive and less bureaucratic organisational wing”, and that the Fire Services Levy (implemented in 2013) would accord the CFA its fair share of funding to maintain and improve its equipment and buildings.
But, by May 2017, the Labor government had already decided that it would submit legislation to Parliament to merge the CFA’s integrated stations with the MFB to form a new body, Fire Rescue Victoria (FRV), with Premier Andrews stating “We will facilitate the CFA being what it should have always been — a purely volunteer service”.
In response, the VFBV’s Andrew Ford stressed that the move would “both undermine community safety and cost taxpayers and their households an arm and a leg”, as integrated stations were the most cost-effective way to deliver services.
The heated nature of the fire services issue was evident by two Liberal Opposition MPs, who had indicated they did not want to vote on Good Friday 2018 for religious reasons, reneging on a parliamentary convention of pairing which refers to an arrangement where a parliamentarian agrees to abstain from voting while a member of the opposing party is unavailable due to illness or other serious commitments. They voted while the paired Labor MPs were absent.
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