Despite claims by Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews that the long-running conflict between the state Labor Government and volunteer firefighters over the direction of the Country Fire Authority (CFA) had “no impact” on the federal election, Labor numbers men know that the dispute helped the Liberals hold almost all their Victorian seats and win one from Labor.
The union at the centre of the dispute, the United Firefighters Union (UFU), is generally dismissive of volunteer firefighters, who comprise the overwhelming strength of the CFA.
The newsletter of the volunteer firefighters’ organisation – Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria (VFBV) – said: “Although some people are saying this is a state issue, it is both a federal and state issue because the UFU deal is using federal industrial legislation to take control of and override CFA state legislation.
“The links will become clearer as the federal debate proceeds in the new Parliament.
“As this edition goes to print, there is a solution on the table from Malcolm Turnbull, we are still hoping for help with a solution from Bill Shorten, and we will continue to pursue support for the necessary changes from all members of Parliament. VFBV and volunteers have remained non-party political throughout this dispute and will remain so.”
Gay Alcorn, writing in left-wing publication The Guardian, said: “Labor didn’t win a single extra seat in Victoria, was put under huge pressure by the Greens in Batman and may lose one seat, Chisholm, to the Liberal party.
“The Andrews’ Government mishandling of the CFA dispute – it was daily news through the campaign – cannot have helped. Indeed, Shorten seemed to avoid the state in the final weeks of the campaign, and whenever he turned up, he was asked about the CFA.”
She said that on election night, “the party’s supporters gave the hometown boy a huge welcome, cheering him as though he had won the election outright.
“It did not go unnoticed that Andrews was not there to celebrate a local hero. Shorten had almost pulled off an improbable victory, with so little help from Victoria.”
Earlier casualties of the dispute, in which the Premier intervened to force the Country Fire Authority to agree to a deal that gives the United Firefighters Union a veto over CFA operations, include Emergency Services Minister Jane Garrett, who was forced to resign, the entire CFA board, which the Premier sacked, and both the chief executive and chief officer of the Country Fire Authority, who later tendered their resignations.
The Andrews Government moved quickly to fill five of the nine vacancies on the CFA board.
Under the CFA Act, the other four positions must be nominated by VFBV, the organisation that by law represents Victoria’s 60,000 volunteer firefighters.
Throughout the course of the dispute, the volunteer firefighters and their organisation have been in the forefront of opposition to the takeover of the CFA. This is a direct reflection of community concern over the issue. The 10 members of the board of VFBV have all spent decades as local volunteers, before being elected to the board.
A measure of their indignation at the Government’s actions is seen in the media release issued following the resignation of the CFA’s chief officer, Joe Buffone.
The volunteer firefighters said: “CFA chief officer Joe Buffone has become the latest casualty of the industrial/political interference in the CFA by the Andrews Government and the United Firefighters Union in Victoria.
“Because of the deal which gives the union and its boss Peter Marshall significant power over critical CFA organisational and operational matters, including volunteers, Joe Buffone had no option other than to resign.”
VFBV has called for nominations from its members for the four vacant positions on the board, signalling that it intends to nominate members to the Government. In light of all that has been said, it is inconceivable that the volunteers nominated will be happy to see the CFA subordinated to the union.
The government will then face a dilemma. If it appoints the members recommended by the volunteers, the CFA board will be deeply divided. If it refuses to appoint qualified people nominated by VFBV, as envisaged by the act, it will deepen the divide between volunteers and the State Government even further.
During the recent election campaign, federal Liberal politicians, including Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, joined protesting volunteer firefighters, and promised to override the Enterprise Bargaining Agreement that empowers the Firefighters’ union.
The Firefighters’ union responded by distributing leaflets through marginal electorates calling for voters to “put the Liberals last”.
Unless the issue is resolved before spring, there is a danger that the dispute will add to the risk of more uncontrolled bushfires in the state.