June 6, 2017  |  Second reading

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

Mr HOWARD (Buninyong) — I am certainly very pleased to speak in support of the Firefighters’ Presumptive Rights Compensation and Fire Services Legislation Amendment (Reform) Bill 2017, which is a very sound and sensible bill. We know the bill does two major things. One is that it provides presumptive rights legislation for all of our firefighters, not just career firefighters but volunteer firefighters too, something that they have been calling for for a number of years, including during the term of the last state government. We know that the last Liberal state government simply said, ‘No, we’re not prepared to move this legislation’, and of course it did not progress under the last government. But ahead of the last election, as you would know, Acting Speaker Carbines, the Labor Party in opposition said that if it were to be elected, it would introduce presumptive rights legislation.

At the time we said we would be looking at the Tasmanian model, but after further consultation we decided to go even further than that and instead take up the Queensland model, which provides greater support for volunteers as well as career firefighters in terms of the way presumptive rights legislation will work for them. This is because we recognise that in past years our firefighters have been involved in fires where carcinogens have been present, which has increased their chances of getting cancer at a later date. We have seen the sad circumstances where many firefighters have been diagnosed with cancer and have died as a result. We have seen them trying to get appropriate support and compensation from the government and having to go through long-winded legal procedures to get recognition. When you are dying of cancer time is of the essence. Bringing in presumptive rights legislation means that the reasons firefighters contract cancer will be recognised and that they will be able access appropriate support and compensation.

Clearly this is a bill that is going to benefit all firefighters. We do not want to see any of our firefighters contracting cancer as a result of their experiences, and of course our government has been very active in evaluating the issues associated with this bill and all other issues associated with fighting fires to try and make sure our firefighters are kept as safe as possible. But we recognise there is still a possibility that some firefighters who have been out there fighting fires over a long period of time in the past, or even future firefighters, still have to fight fires where they experience chemicals that you would not want to experience and they may succumb to cancer as a result, in which case we want to see them appropriately supported.

That is clearly a key component of this bill, but we know this bill has several other directions to it. We recognise that over a long period of time we have not reviewed the Country Fire Authority (CFA) and looked at how we get the appropriate support for them. When you have a volunteer organisation, as of course it has been historically, in urbanised areas, where it is harder to attract volunteers sometimes or of course you are fighting a different sort of a fire than a bushfire or a grassfire, you are fighting urbanised fire situations and you need greater expertise.

We have had a system where we have had an arrangement to have career firefighters as part of the CFA at designated fire stations. Across my electorate in fact there are no career firefighter stations — there are only volunteer brigades. There is something in the order of 40 brigades in my electorate, although I have not counted them lately — all terrific volunteer brigades that I have been pleased to work with over a long period of time in supporting them in my role as a government representative and in helping them to get firefighting program funding, which has enabled them to get new fire tankers, new equipment much more quickly than their fundraising would have allowed and new fire stations in so many cases, and I have been pleased to see them being upgraded by our government and to support that work.

I have been pleased to be out there with our fire services ministers on numerous occasions, most recently when the current Minister for Emergency Services first announced this proposed change to separate out our services, having CFA as a volunteer-only organisation and Fire Rescue Victoria as a career firefighting unit. The next week the minister came to Ballarat city fire station — the only integrated fire station in my region, not in my electorate but in the Ballarat region — and I was able to join him there where he met with volunteers and career firefighters from across the region to explain this proposed legislation, to explain the changes.

And I have to say that periodically CFA firefighters have been in touch with me to complain about different things, to express their concerns or ask me to support them for funding, but since we announced this change, I have had just one firefighter email me — one whom I know has been concerned about changes for some period of time. The remainder of my CFA firefighters are pleased to see that at last something is progressing. They are frustrated to see that over the last two years there has been so much talk about what is happening, especially ahead of the last federal election when the Liberal-Nationals opposition used this issue to try and inflame the issues within the CFA, to misrepresent issues, to try and use this issue to the political advantage of the Liberal and National parties. We heard so much misinformation come from Liberals and Nationals at that time.

The volunteer firefighters in my electorate are just looking forward to seeing us get on with it. They understand that nothing is going to change significantly for them. They each will continue on in their volunteer firefighting brigades; they just know that the career firefighters will be supporting them as need be under the different banner of Fire Rescue Victoria. The other thing about this legislation is it finally enacts an issue outlined in the report of the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission: their recommendation 63 in which they said that we need to have in place the ability to review boundaries between the CFA and the Metropolitan Fire Brigade.

This allows us to move forward to recognise that those boundaries do need to be reviewed to look at the capacity of the volunteers in an area to meet the needs of that area, and we have to look at it honestly in order to support our firefighters as we will continue to do with this additional $100 million we are providing to them. But where do we need to see our career firefighters in this? That is, under the new legislation, the Fire Rescue Victoria firefighters. Where do we need greater support from them to come in and deal with providing ongoing support in areas where the volunteer brigades are no longer able to meet those call-out times that need to be met, and so on, to ensure we have a well-coordinated fire service?

I congratulate Craig Lapsley, the emergency services commissioner, on the work that he has done to ensure that wherever we have large fires — where we have career firefighters coming out, volunteer firefighters coming out, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) firefighters coming out and other emergency services personnel on the same scene — we have good coordination. We continue to work on the best models to ensure that good coordination takes place.

With this government’s new model of having the CFA, an organisation staffed entirely by volunteers, under Fire Rescue Victoria, we will still have that sound coordination because we are still going to have DELWP fire officers in Crown land areas supporting firefighters when they go between those boundaries of private land and Crown land. We do need well-coordinated fire areas. This legislation enables us to deal with the realities of the world — to say that paid firefighters are in a different group when you are dealing with enterprise bargaining agreements. Of course Malcolm Turnbull’s intervention has not helped, but this is very sound legislation.