I rise today to speak on the Fair Work Amendment (Respect for Emergency Services Volunteers) Bill 2016. Once again we see the government seeking to exploit workers for their own benefit, but be aware that those opposite do not actually care about volunteer firefighters. While this bill may be called the ‘respect for emergency services volunteers’ bill, be assured that those opposite do not actually care about the rights of any workers, and they certainly have misused the term ‘respect’ here. As I heard Senator Marshall say earlier, it is actually about disrespect, and I will go into the reasons I agree with Senator Marshall later on in my contribution. If those opposite truly respected emergency services volunteers, they would not be turning this issue into their own political plaything to undermine states’ rights and workers’ rights.
The government found political advantage in exploiting the CFA dispute, and this is something that I want everyone to remember. They even set up a website in April 2016, Hands Off the CFA, authorised by the Victorian Liberal Party to exploit the issue for their own benefit. The website has no Liberal logo or anything other than a small authorisation. Members of the public registered their interest in the website, and that personal information was later used to solicit financial support for the campaign, which was a Liberal Party campaign. That is right: people thought they were donating to volunteer firefighters, but the money was going to the Liberals. To me, that is just grubby.
Firefighting services is clearly an area that is the concern of the states, and the federal government should not be intervening in this area. The Labor Party has said all along that—whatever differences there are between the volunteers and the CFA and the United Firefighters Union, or any parties that are fighting fires in Victoria—we would like to see leadership and we would like to see an effort to reconcile differences, not to inflame tension.
These differences have resulted in Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria bringing an action in the Supreme Court of Victoria. This case is expected to commence on 17 October and is expected to take 10 days. The listing of this matter was expedited, and the opposition is hopeful that the court will determine the matter quickly. This case will determine whether the proposed agreement between the CFA and the paid firefighters is consistent with the CFA’s obligation under the CFA act. As the court case makes clear, this is a dispute which is not between parties to an enterprise agreement under the Fair Work Act but between Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria and the CFA. Yet this government has brought this bill to this parliament even before the Supreme Court has made its decision. Labor’s view is that this has always been and remains a state issue. It is our firm belief that, as this may be resolved in the Supreme Court of Victoria, this federal parliament should stay out of the way, at the very least, to exercise the precautionary principle. Those members of the government opposite only want to exploit this issue for their own political benefit, and truly they should be ashamed of themselves.
This government has spent most of this year attacking workers, their rights and the unions that represent them. A large chunk of this year has been used on a double dissolution election and what the government considered the very important piece of legislation regarding the Australian Building and Construction Commission, the ABCC. But where has that gone? It was such an urgent piece of legislation we had to have an election on it, and what have we seen since then? Absolutely nothing. It has been over three months since 2 July, we have had three sitting weeks in this place, and the government has not availed itself of the joint sitting that the double dissolution afforded it. It could have organised for the House and the Senate to have a joint sitting to pass the legislation, but it has not. It is as if the Building and Construction Commission bill was just an excuse for Mr Turnbull to try to clear out the crossbench, having done a grubby deal with the Greens to change Senate voting, and it was just an opportunity to vilify hardworking union officials and their members, just like the bill we are debating today. Those opposite are attacking unions and unionists because they fight for workers’ rights, and that goes against Mr Turnbull’s big business mates. They are seeking to make political capital out of a complex and sensitive issue. Quite frankly, I find it appalling.
We are debating this bill today about the current Victorian Country Fire Authority dispute because the Turnbull government opportunistically and dishonestly have been misleading Victorians, volunteer firefighters and the parliament about the dispute. The legislation we are seeing today is drafted in broad terms, but the government has not thought about the implications, other than to further its politically motivated intervention in this Victorian issue. The legislation has potential consequences that are broader than the CFA and will create considerable uncertainty for emergency service organisations throughout the country. Exactly who will be affected by this bill is currently unknown. The Department of Employment advised the shadow minister, Brendan O’Connor: ‘This bill only applies to emergency services in Victoria, the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory, and the Commonwealth has no constitutional power to intervene in respect of emergency services that currently exist in other states. However, it should be noted that, if any emergency services were deemed to be corporations, they could be captured and, in a recent court case, the Country Fire Authority was found to be a trading corporation. It is entirely unclear whether any other fire authorities or other emergency management bodies in Australia are captured by this legislation, and this will only be able to be determined through litigation.’ The government almost seems to have accepted this uncertainty, giving itself power to both exclude and include bodies to be captured by the legislation.
No matter how broad or narrow the implications of this bill turn out to be, it is clear that it is the government’s response to an industrial dispute between the Victorian Country Fire Authority and the CFA employees represented by the United Firefighters Union. So what is clear is that this bill will not address the concerns raised by the Victorian board of volunteer firefighters, the VFBV. What is also extremely disappointing is that, even if it is only to apply to two territories and Victoria, the government has failed to provide a briefing to the ACT government and the newly elected Northern Territory government. The Liberal-National government is rushing in and impacting the emergency services sectors of these territories, and it has not even bothered to brief those governments on the changes.
This matter will still be determined by the Fair Work Commission, and it is very likely to be appealed. All this legislation will do is make it harder for volunteer and career firefighters to work together to protect the Victorian community. The government clearly has no regard to the interests of career firefighters in ensuring the safety of career and volunteer firefighters through the proposed agreement. Labor is concerned that, in its unseemly and unnecessary rush to play politics, the government will ignore the unforeseen or undisclosed effects of this legislation on a range of organisations. Labor is particularly worried given the fact that the employment minister does not seem to understand, or to have read, the enterprise agreement she is trying to decimate. We saw that in an absolutely atrocious interview the minister had with David Speers on Sky News recently. To be honest, it was like watching a train wreck in slow motion. It was painful. I was quite embarrassed for her. It clearly exposed the government’s political gaming and the minister’s complete incompetence. Rarely have we seen a minister so badly out of their depth on the detail of their portfolio—and I must admit that I was quite surprised to see it of that minister.
Asked on multiple occasions how the EBA would negatively affect volunteer firefighters the minister entered into what could have been mistaken for a comedy script riddled with errors. The minister was clearly briefed to say the EBA would undermine volunteer firefighters. She managed to get that part out, but that is where the detail ended. Mr Speers asked more than 10 times about the details of how the agreement would undermine volunteers. He even had to point the minister to the details of the legislation, which she obviously was not across despite using it as a prop. He was met with a more than inadequate response. Perhaps most embarrassing for the minister was when she introduced us to a case study whom she suggested would be adversely affected by the proposed EBA. When David Speers asked the minister what would happen to the individual if the agreement went through—if I remember correctly, the individual’s name was Don—she was left red-faced and floundering in search of an answer. The best she could muster was to say that she hoped there were no resignations. Even though she said this was going to adversely affect poor old Don, she could not give us one example of how that was going to work. And finally, when pressed on what the impact would be, she conceded ‘You’d need to ask that person.’
It was quite excruciating watching the minister trying to avoid these questions, and she was unable to clear up her previous assertions in an error riddled opinion piece either. She made a number of incorrect statements in that opinion piece, and I would just like to outline a couple of them. The minister incorrectly asserted that the volunteers cannot fight fires until seven paid firefighters are present, when the agreement only requires that seven firefighters be sent to the fire. She incorrectly asserted that paid firefighters report only to other paid firefighters when incident controllers, whether paid or volunteer, will continue to direct paid firefighters. And she incorrectly asserted that the CFA must get the union’s approval for changes in policy when consultation is already an integral part of such agreements to ensure the safety of firefighters and the community. These mistakes by the minister were not off the cuff; they were carefully scripted, and they were just plain wrong.
When the minister in charge cannot accurately represent the bill and the current situation to the people, the volunteers and firefighters, and to this chamber we need to seriously ask ourselves whether it is right that this exercise should be passed into law. The Liberal government is not interested in helping volunteers or ending the CFA dispute. Senator Marshall, in his contribution earlier, went into that in some detail, so I will not take up too much extra time in regard to that—I thought Senator Marshall put it very well. The Liberal government is simply interested in the political opportunity that the dispute has presented for them. Those opposite are not friends of workers and never have been. Mention the word ‘union’ and they just about have hysterics over there; sometimes it is quite funny to watch actually. If they were supportive of workers, they would support Labor’s call for a royal commission into banking, for example. Instead, we are seeing the farce of the House inquiry, controlled by the government, which gave the banks a free pass to spin their dodgy deals and shonky schemes. And we have heard how they were approached to suggest a tribunal. What an absolute joke! As Mr Shorten said, with all of these bank CEOs saying ‘We’re sorry, we’ve stuffed up. We’ve got it wrong. We’ve caused problems for thousands of our customers’ haven’t they just made the final argument to have a banking royal commission? I think so. Instead, this government wants to give the same big four banks a $7 billion tax cut.
But getting back to the bill we are debating today: the opposition has grave concerns that this is just another example of the government deciding to overturn the decision of an independent tribunal it does not like. It did not like the decisions of the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal, so it abolished the tribunal. In this case, the government does not like the Fair Work Commission’s recommended resolution of a longstanding dispute between the CFA and its paid firefighters, so it seeks to impose itself in this matter by legislating. If the government, or some future Labor government, were to legislate every time they were unhappy with an agreement reached between an employer and unions, or its employees, there would be utter chaos in the system. It would create chaos in workplaces right across Australia. That is why there are grave concerns about the proposed legislation.
A number of important groups came out against this legislation during the Senate inquiry process. For example, the Police Federation of Australia has made submissions against the enactment of this legislation, as has the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation. Ambulance Employees Association Victoria has also made submissions against this proposed legislation. But this government has not listened to the concerns of those groups—because they do not really care about the policy outcome of this bill, just the politics. This bill will not speedily resolve this issue. If the government’s legislation is passed before the agreement is submitted to the Fair Work Commission for approval, having been agreed between the CFA and its employees, then the Fair Work Commission must consider whether any term of the agreement is an ‘objectionable emergency management term’. In doing so, the Fair Work Commission will hear from the CFA, the United Firefighters Union, any other employee bargaining representatives and Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria. Ultimately, it does not matter what the government thinks is objectionable or even what Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria thinks is objectionable; it only matters what the Fair Work Commission determines is objectionable. In the event that the Fair Work Commission determines that these or other clauses in the agreement are objectionable, the commission can choose not to approve the agreement or can approve the agreement subject to undertakings about those clauses. If the Country Fire Authority, or any other employee’s bargaining representative, disagrees with the decision of the Fair Work Commission, they could appeal to the full bench of the Fair Work Commission and from there to the Federal Court. Further, given the views of respected academics, including Professor Andrew Stewart, that the bill may be unconstitutional, one could expect that the legislation itself will be challenged. In his submission to the Senate inquiry, Professor Stewart said:
In summary, I am concerned that the amendments proposed in the bill would be difficult to apply and potentially subject to a constitutional challenge. They are intended to help resolve a single dispute at a single state agency, yet the uncertainty they would create would likely serve to exacerbate that dispute and delay its resolution. Furthermore, at least some of the issues raised by that dispute can be addressed through legal mechanisms that already exist.
The enactment of this bill does not guarantee any speedy resolution to this matter. In the meantime, there is nothing but uncertainty for the workforce of the CFA, and all the CFA volunteers, and no foundation for mending the fences that have been broken in the course of this dispute. Compare this to the current Supreme Court case, which will be resolved shortly. So this bill, rather than solving the issue quickly, will just result in it dragging on and on and on.
In closing, I would like to state what an utterly disastrous approach the government has taken on this issue. As I said earlier, the minister failed to publicly explain or demonstrate an understanding of this bill. She absolutely failed in explaining this bill at all. The issue is currently being decided by the Supreme Court and this bill does not even wait for the court’s decision to be handed down. The government are stepping into areas that are the domain of the states and violates their rights, all because they dislike unions. If passed, the bill may end up being challenged in the High Court and ruled unconstitutional, delaying the resolution of this issue even further. On all accounts, this government seems to be deliberately dishonest and woefully incompetent. It is my suggestion that the Turnbull government should just stop playing politics with the CFA.