PROTECT CFA: Member for Western Victoria Simon Ramsay.

VICTORIA’S State Government proposed changes to the State fire service are still in doubt after the parliamentary inquiry recommended that the bill be scrapped.

The report was scathing of the government’s behaviour across both the changes in respect to the restructuring of the service and the Presumptive Rights Compensation reforms.

The report recommendations include dumping the bill and reintroducing sections on special presumptive cancer compensation rules for firefighters as a separate bill.
The special presumptive cancer compensation rules were met with considerable anger when introduced by the government.

Inconsistent

The report said it was clear that United Firefighters Union was consulted heavily in the plans, while others were not consulted until the last minute. It was also found that the restructure of the Country Fire Authority and the Metropolitan Fire Brigade as proposed in the bill was not included among
recommendations of fire services reviews undertaken over the last decade.

In addition the inquiry found that the policy development process for the restructure did not involve representatives from Emergency Management Victoria, the Country Fire Authority or the Metropolitan Fire Brigade.

Failure to consult

The government’s failure to consult with the Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria as required by the Volunteer Charter and the Country Fire Authority Act 1958 has caused considerable concern to Country Fire Authority volunteers, reinforced the perception of a bias towards the United Firefighters Union, and undermined confidence in the restructure proposal.

The first of the recommendations handed down by the Inquiry is the Government ensure compliance with its consultation obligations under the Volunteer Charter and the Country Fire Authority Act 1958 prior to proceeding with any further reform of the fire services.

Member for Lowan, Emma Kealy MP, said

“the report clearly stated Daniel Andrews had failed to properly consult emergency service organisations, staff and volunteers on its plan to split the Country Fire Authority.”

Errors

In another finding the inquiry found the government’s original written submission to the committee contained substantial errors relating to its claimed level of consultation.

Its failure to acknowledge and correct those errors until prompted by the committee undermines confidence in the claimed consultation process.  Therefore this inquiry recommended the government undertake meaningful and balanced consultation with Emergency Management Victoria, the Country Fire Authority, the Metropolitan Fire Brigade, staff and volunteer representatives prior to proposing any further reform of the fire services.

Uncertainty

Another finding of the inquiry determined the government had failed to undertake implementation planning in parallel with developing the restructure proposal had caused substantial and unnecessary uncertainty in the community as to the impact of the proposed changes on the fire services. It was also found that the government had taken the unusual step of 'including implementing the Victorian government’s fire and emergency services priorities’ as a statutory function of Fire Rescue Victoria alongside fire prevention and suppression, and emergency prevention and response.

In the report it stated “the impact of the restructure on firefighting surge capacity is disputed and will not be known until after the restructure is bedded down.’

Impact

It was found the impact is important and that surge capacity not be diminished through changes to the fire services.

Ms Kealy said Daniel Andrews had treated CFA volunteers with contempt throughout the whole process.

“Daniel Andrews claims to be listening to our Lowan communities, but he’s stone deaf when community concerns don’t suit his own agenda,” she said.

“Daniel Andrews is playing politics with the safety of Victorians,” Ms Kealy said.

Interference

The report was highly critical of the government’s interference with the inquiry, directing MFB members to put all their submission of the inquiry through the Department of Cabinet.

The committee claimed the government was vetting the submissions before the inquiry had a chance to view them.

MFB members were informed they were in breach of the Public Service Act if they contributed to the inquiry.

Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commissioner Ms Kristen Hilton came under attack for failing to provide her report ‘Independent Equity and Diversity Review of the  Country Fire Authority and the Metropolitan Fire Brigade.’

Excuses

The commissioner was summoned on three occasions to provide the report in which she gave three different excuses on why she could not give the inquiry the report.

  • The document does not exist
  • The Commissioner is prevented by statutory secrecy from complying with the summons
  • The document may be the subject of a claim for executive privilege.

The government’s claim of executive privilege over the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission report is inconsistent with the commission’s stated intention of publicly releasing its report in mid- 2017.

The committee regarded the changing explanations provided by the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commissioner for her failure to comply with the summons, along with the government’s claim of executive privilege were designed to frustrate the committee’s inquiry.

Consideration

Minister for Emergency Services James Merlino said  “the committee makes a number of recommendations that we will closely consider in coming days.”

“These reforms will modernise our fire services, provide more support for volunteers and most importantly keep Victorian safe,” he said.

“I want to thank everyone who has contributed to the inquiry, particularly our firefighters and other emergency services personnel who work every single day to help keep Victorians safe,” said Mr
Melino.

The committee received close to two thousand written submissions, including hundreds from people involved in CFA.

Welcomes release

Many groups and organisations welcomed the release of the report including Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria.

The VFBV believes it is critically important that a proper and transparent process of community, agency, volunteer and union engagement and consultation is part of any process in developing and considering reform policy and legislation well before any decisions to proceed are made.

Recommendations

  1. The government ensure compliance with its consultation obligations under the Volunteer Charter and the Country Fire Authority Act 1958 prior to proceeding with any further reform of the fire services
  2. The government undertake meaningful and balanced consultation with Emergency Management Victoria, the Country Fire Authority, the Metropolitan Fire Brigade, staff and volunteer representatives prior to proposing any further reform of the fire services.
  3. The Government develop and publish a detailed implementation plan in parallel with any further fire services reform proposal.
  4. Country Fire Authority staff should continue to be employed directly by the Country Fire Authority, and solely within the Country Fire Authority chain of command. Secondment should
    only be used for staff exchange/development opportunities, not as a default employment mechanism.
  5. The Government and its agencies not endorse any enterprise agreement, instrument or accord, which has the effect of limiting the exercise of statutory powers of the chief offcer(s) of the fire service(s).
  6. Due to the lack of implementation, operational and funding certainty; failure to undertake consultation; and consequential polarisation of fire services volunteers and staff, the Bill should be withdrawn. If not withdrawn, the Legislative Council should reject the Bill.
  7. Part 2 of the bill, ‘Fire fighters’ Presumptive Rights Compensation’ should be reintroduced to Parliament as a stand-alone bill to be considered on its merits.
  8. The government ensure adequate infrastructure funding for the fire services independently of the restructure.
  9. The government develop and publish a detailed funding plan in parallel with any further fire services structural reform proposal. The funding plan should identify and address the
    impact of:
    (a) resource and asset transfers between the Country Fire Authority and Fire Rescue Victoria
    (b) the creation of the Fire Rescue Victoria fire district on the Fire Services Property Levy revenue base beyond the two year freeze period; and
    (c) any changes to the differential charging rates for the Fire Services Property Levy beyond the two year freeze period.
  10. The Legislative Council refer the Department of Premier and Cabinet to the Legislative Council Privileges Committee for investigation of its interference with the Committee’s inquiry.