The dispute between Victoria’s 60,000 volunteer firefighters and the State Labor Government over the terms of a new enterprise bargaining agreement (EBA) which delivers operational control over volunteers to the United Firefighters Union (UFU), has gone to court as News Weekly goes to press.
The volunteers have said that the agreement will radically undermine the ability of the Country Fire Authority (CFA), which consists overwhelmingly of volunteer firefighters, to fight bushfires in the state.
The CFA, manned almost totally by volunteers, is an iconic organisation in Victoria, and its members are regarded throughout rural Victoria as both natural leaders and as the salt of the community.
The UFU has long resented the role of volunteers in the CFA, and ideally would like to replace them with paid firefighters. It also regards the CFA’s activities as no different from those of a trading corporation, rather than an organisation of volunteers.
It therefore believes that employed firefighters should have authority over the CFA’s 60,000 volunteers, a proposition completely rejected by the volunteers, who have always done the bulk of the firefighting in the state.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews forced the EBA on the CFA after the dispute between the CFA and the union had dragged on for two years.
There have been numerous casualties of Mr Andrews’ intervention in this dispute. The Minister for Emergency Services in his government, Jane Garrett, who opposed the EBA, resigned. The Premier sacked the board of the CFA and nominated a new board.
The chief executive and the chief fire officer of the CFA then resigned.
Eventually, the new CFA board endorsed the agreement, by majority vote.
However, the volunteer firefighters have announced that they will take action to overturn the agreement in the Supreme Court of Victoria.
Separately, Federal Minister for Employment Michaelia Cash has said that the Government will introduce legislation to protect the rights of volunteers affected by federally registered agreements, and override the EBA. And it will support proceedings in the Federal Court if the Fair Work Commission approves any agreement that contains “unlawful or discriminatory terms”.
Under the Fair Work Act, once an enterprise bargaining agreement is approved by the Fair Work Commission, it is given the force and effect of Commonwealth law.
Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria (VFBV), which represents the CFA volunteers, effectively accused the new CEO of the CFA, Frances Diver, of lying about negotiations between the new board and the volunteers.
Ms Diver was formerly a senior executive in the Victorian Department of Health before her sudden appoint ment as CEO of the CFA, so has no knowledge of firefighting.
The volunteers said: “In repeated statements to the media, CFA CEO Frances Diver has said that as part of the VFBV-CFA consultations, the CFA had provided VFBV with ‘extensive documentation’. This is simply untrue and we are disappointed that Ms Diver would try to rewrite the truth.”
VFBV documented the limited information it had received from the CFA about the proposed EBA, and what was provided to the organisation had subsequently been posted on the CFA website.
It said the volunteers had repeatedly attempted to engage the new CFA board on specific matters raised in the EBA, as provided by the CFA Act, but had received no response.
VFBV chief executive Andrew Ford said: “The information provided to VFBV was negligible and can hardly be said to meet anybody’s definition of ‘extensive documentation’.
“The CFA’s failure to provide important and relevant information to us during the consultation process and in the period thereafter when we were still daring to hope that we could come to a settlement with the new CFA board that met the obligations and intent of the CFA Act, is a bitter disappointment.”
He documented the range of issues that the volunteers had raised with the CFA board. These included:
What is the full extent of proposed protection for volunteers from alteration of their rights, roles and operations by the proposed EBA?
How will the provision that seven professional firefighters “must be dispatched before commencement of safe firefighting operations” affect volunteer units?
What process will CFA be using to ensure VFBV and volunteers are genuinely consulted on matters arising from the EBA’s Consultation and Dispute Resolution processes?
The volunteers got no answers on these and many other questions.
As things stand at the moment, the Victorian Premier is hell-bent on forcing the union-backed workplace agreement on Victoria’s 60,000 volunteer firefighters, and they are determined to oppose an agreement that gives the union unprecedented power over CFA operations in Victoria.
The media, not the Opposition, has held the government to account on the issue.