FIREFIGHTERS’ PRESUMPTIVE RIGHTS COMPENSATION AND FIRE SERVICES LEGISLATION AMENDMENT (REFORM) BILL 2017 – Second Reading

Second reading

Ms SYMES (Northern Victoria) (15:59:09) — It is a pleasure to make a contribution on the Firefighters’ Presumptive Rights Compensation and Fire Services Legislation Amendment (Reform) Bill 2017. It is a couple of hours later than I would have liked, but let us just get on with it and then I can go and get something to eat. I would like to begin by putting on the record this house’s utmost respect for the events that have occurred in south‑west Victoria in recent weeks. I know that for those of us in northern Victoria our hearts were with those who were losing property, livestock and homes. As fellow country people we had our eyes on them last week. So thank you to all of those involved, and good luck with the recovery for those that have been affected. Many of our country electorates have been in that position, and it is not a position that we envy, the one that they are in right now.

There are many, many reasons that this bill should pass: community safety, a larger pool of firefighters, better training opportunities, targeted support and resources for brigades and the opportunity to reset, move forward and simply focus on what our firefighters do best, and that is protect our communities. The Labor government has been a big supporter of fire services.

Honourable members interjecting.

The ACTING PRESIDENT (Ms Dunn) — Order! I cannot hear Ms Symes’s contribution. I am sure she is keen to make that contribution. Can I ask for the level of interjections to go right down, please.

Ms SYMES — It seems many missed the solemn start to my contribution, but I will just get on with the fact that the Labor government is a big supporter of our fire services. The opposition spend a lot of time trying to deny that it happened, but they cut $66 million from their fire services budget, placing immense pressure on the ability of our fire services —

Honourable members interjecting.

The ACTING PRESIDENT (Ms Dunn) — Order! I am not sure if my direction to the chamber was clear when I last got on my feet less than 1 minute ago. Can I ask members for the level of interjections to go right down so we can hear Ms Symes’s contribution, please.

Ms SYMES — Thank you, Acting President, and I was just referring to the efforts of the Labor government to replace, over and above, the $66 million worth of cuts to the fire services that occurred under the previous government. I am proud to say that we have, over and above, restored these cuts. We have been investing in services, recruiting more firefighters and funding more equipment than ever before.

I have spoken with overjoyed brigade captains over the past couple of years upon hearing they are receiving a grant to pay for a long‑awaited building upgrade or that all‑important new red truck. I am blessed to have an amazing local brigade at Broadford. Lucky for me they have only had one reason to visit my property in recent times and that is to bring Santa along to deliver lollies to my kids. I see them at every local community event, and they regularly welcome locals to open days. They are a fantastic group of people.

Honourable members interjecting.

Ms SYMES — Allen’s lollies from Broadford. They are a fantastic group of people, with lots of female volunteers, I am very proud to say, and they are providing a fantastic service. I am also pleased to say that very soon, because of the Labor government, they will have a brand‑new station, purpose‑built for their brigade and for our growing community.

The feedback from many of the volunteer brigades I have spoken to about this legislation has been that, ‘Regardless of the politics, we will do what we have always done — we will be out there fighting fires, responding to emergencies and supporting our communities’.

No‑one forgets that the Baillieu‑Napthine governments hid behind the so‑called science and failed to move on progressing presumptive rights when they had the opportunity to do so. It was a Labor election commitment that we would not dawdle and we would not hide behind science; we would get on with it. We had to pick it up from scratch, but I am proud to say that the hard work has been done and the important rights‑based reform is now on its way for all firefighters, and it is welcomed.

Of course there is no denying that due to the history, the misinformation and the personal agendas there have been reservations from many volunteers about the reform, but in general the concept of career staff moving to Fire Rescue Victoria has been met with an open mind and a positive response. One of my Broadford brigade members said that they just want to ensure that they do not become a second‑class fire service with second‑rate equipment, vehicles and stations. They just want to get on with it.

There certainly was value in the fire services inquiry being able to put to bed some myths, fears and points of clarification. One matter that I was particularly interested in as a member of the committee was surge capacity. Surge capacity is the ability of the Country Fire Authority (CFA) to draw upon the significant number of volunteer firefighters, particularly those based in outer metropolitan regions, and to deploy them across the state where needed in the event of a large‑scale fire.

There were opponents of the reform before the inquiry, claiming that this legislation would impact volunteers turning out for other communities in need. However, I can confirm that the overwhelming weight of evidence that we received by those most affected by this issue led to the conclusion that the impacts on surge capacity are likely to be minimal, if any at all, and even perhaps the complete opposite — an increased surge capacity. The concern is largely grounded in speculation about volunteer motives for participating in their local brigades and concern that if morale is damaged, then there will be a lack of surge capacity to fight campaign fires. Much of this speculation is centred on evidence from those claiming that volunteers in integrated brigades will not turn out. However, those who put those positions in the public arena admitted under oath that they actually had not consulted with those in integrated brigades; they had not visited an integrated brigade, but they were pretty much happy to say what they thought those volunteers would or would not do.

Fire services leaders strongly refuted these suggestions. The evidence on this subject of Steve Warrington, CFA chief officer, was compelling:

I have heard the debate about a lack of surge capacity or there will be an erosion of volunteers. I almost take that as a bit of an insult to our volunteers. The reality is that most of our volunteers are there to support their local community.

A significant number of paid and volunteer firefighters confirmed the views put forward by the leaders of our fire services. The overwhelming majority of volunteers are absolutely committed and prepared to assist communities beyond their borders and across any number of different circumstances. A volunteer from Maiden Gully said:

I am certain employing all career firefighters in one organisation will not affect volunteer turnouts or surge capacity. I as a volunteer look forward to this new service as a great step forward for a great fire service here in Victoria to protect the community.

Paula Sutton, a CFA volunteer for 22 years from Mansfield, said:

I’ve read the facts of the government’s proposed reforms. Everyone wins! No volunteers displaced. Surge capacity stays as it is. There is a clear process for new permanent stations to be assigned.

I could spend my whole contribution going through supportive comments from volunteers, but I do not have very many —

Mr Ondarchie — Two from 60 000.

Ms SYMES — Read the report that was put to the Parliament over six months ago, Mr Ondarchie. As I said, some firefighters actually believe that surge capacity will be enhanced. Trevor Logan, officer in charge at Wangaratta CFA, said:

I have many people who have come to me since this reform has been announced and say that, if we separate, they will re‑engage with the volunteer brigade because it gives them a more fulfilling role as a volunteer.

I am very comfortable that surge capacity will not be negatively impacted, and I urge those who have a different view to look at the evidence. We received over 2000 written applications and we had many, many firefighters — paid, volunteer, management and non‑management — give evidence to the committee.

The inquiry process provided a valuable opportunity for interested parties and the community to hear from the experts on this legislation. Following the extensive inquiry there is now a greater understanding of this proposed legislation. Many of course will be dealt with through amendments to this bill. Just picking up on Mr O’Donohue’s attempted point of order before the start of this debate, the 29 pages of amendments are six months old. There are minor, minor changes to those amendments that have been provided to all parties, that it has been —

Honourable members interjecting.

The ACTING PRESIDENT (Ms Dunn) — Order!

Honourable members interjecting.

Ms SYMES — I actually can’t hear. I can’t even respond to the interjections because I can’t understand the muffled ranting that is going on over there.

Ms Crozier — Twenty‑nine pages of non‑minor amendments.

Ms SYMES — They are a replication of what was delivered to Mr Battin in the other house six months ago, with minor, minor changes, so if he has not distributed his amendments as the shadow minister, then that is a matter for your party, not ours. The evidence was compelling. As I said, I felt it was a privilege to sit on this inquiry. The need for reform was clearly spelt out. We heard loud and clear, ‘No more reviews, no more inquiries’. Frankly, the experts just want us politicians to clear the way for them to deliver the changes that will bring our community safety standards up to where they should be in 2018.

The bill that I really hope will pass through this house this week provides a framework for modern fire services that will adapt to change and keep Victorians safe. We continue to hear that our state is operating a fire services system that has been unable to mature or respond to our drastically different society from when it was first implemented. Senior leaders in Victoria’s fire services have made clear the challenges of operating contemporary fire services under outdated structures. Steve Warrington stated:

There is no doubt this sector needs reform. We are living in the 1950s here.

Assistant chief officer Trevor Owen pointed out the challenges faced by the CFA in dealing with growth:

You add in the complexity too of growth — the CFA has worn all the growth. Unlike the MFB, the CFA has had to wear all that. We were never built and designed to wear all that growth as an organisation. What I mean by that is that structurally we have not been able to meet the growth from a strategic perspective.

This was a view that was supported by frontline —

Mr Ondarchie — Why don’t you just table the document?

Ms SYMES — I am quoting important quotes, Mr Ondarchie. You could show a bit more respect to the experts in this field. Frontline firefighter from Ballarat city fire brigade Mr Anthony Pearce, who came to our committee to give evidence, said:

I sit here today because the changes have not happened to address the developments in our community. CFA in my opinion is being held back by the current legislation —

Honourable members interjecting.

Ms SYMES — You want to get up and say something about your captain who runs the brigade in Ballarat, do you?

Mr Morris interjected.

Ms SYMES — Why don’t you make a point of order? Do you want to say something on the record about how you are discrediting Mr Anthony Pearce’s character?

Mr Morris — I am not discrediting him at all.

Ms SYMES — I am sure your community probably has a bit more respect for Mr Pearce than you do.

Mr Morris — Corruption will do that.

The ACTING PRESIDENT (Ms Dunn) — Order! Ms Symes, can I remind you to direct your contribution through the Chair, please. I ask for the level of interjections to be lowered.

Ms SYMES — On a point of order, Acting President, I would also like the member to withdraw the inference. He referred to me as ‘corrupt’.

The ACTING PRESIDENT (Ms Dunn) — I ask the member to withdraw.

Mr Morris — Sorry, Acting President, I am just seeking clarification on what I am being asked to withdraw.

Honourable members interjecting.

The ACTING PRESIDENT (Ms Dunn) — Order! Thank you, everyone, for your assistance. In relation to your interjection making allegations around corruption, Mr Morris, I ask you to withdraw without qualification.

Mr Morris — I withdraw.

Ms SYMES — Thank you, Acting President. I was just referring to the evidence given to our committee by Mr Anthony Pearce, the officer in charge at Ballarat, and I commend him for the hard work that he does. He appeared before our committee because he wanted to say:

I sit here today because the changes have not happened to address the developments in our community. CFA in my opinion is being held back by the current legislation, structures and culture. History has made us; however, it should not define our future. Change is hard to implement due to cultural and historical issues. Ultimately our structure has contributed to a lack of evolution.

It is a good thing that this government is getting on with proposing to modernise our fire services. We are using this opportunity to also give volunteers more support, more funding and more independence.

The legislation will reset the culture and operations of the career fire services through the creation of Fire Rescue Victoria. Steve Warrington shared this view:

For me this is probably the only opportunity we have to change the culture of the services in the state …

You cannot look at this through the lens of the current culture of the CFA and the current culture of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade. This is an opportunity to reset that whole balance.

I have had a lot of interjections during my contribution, so I did want to refer to some of the amendments that have been available to members of the house for about six months. The table office has prepared them formally, and what we have arranged to do —

Mr O’Donohue — On a point of order, Acting President, I note that Ms Symes is now speaking to the amendments, but no‑one from the government has actually bothered to move the amendments. Given that the briefing by the department scheduled for 3.30 did not take place, I would ask that either Ms Symes or the next —

Honourable members interjecting.

The ACTING PRESIDENT (Ms Dunn) — Order! I cannot hear Mr O’Donohue’s point of order. It might be straying into debate, but I am willing to let Mr O’Donohue continue.

Mr O’Donohue — I would ask Ms Symes or the next government speaker to, without wasting further time, move the amendments so that we can actually know what the government is talking about.

The ACTING PRESIDENT (Ms Dunn) — There is no point of order.

Ms SYMES — Just before I got interrupted by Mr O’Donohue, I was going to say that I sent the finalised amendments, which were a rehash of the six‑month‑old amendments, to every whip in this chamber at 11.00 a.m. I can confirm that they have been checked off by the table office, and Ms Shing will formally circulate them during her contribution, which is about 5 seconds away.

I commend the bill to the house, and I urge others to do the same.