A Suppressed Senate Inquiry Submission
The Senate Committee declined to publish my submission to the Senate Inquiry into the “What About Don?” Bill. No reason was given. And they waited until after the conclusion of the Inquiry to tell me this. Not impressed.
So I’m publishing it here. I have changed just a couple of words because publishing here does not afford me the protections of parliamentary privilege.
This is an anonymous submission. It need not be confidential. It may be published.
Note: Employees of the CFA and MFB have been threatened with disciplinary action for making ‘political’ comment while representing themselves as employees. The committee needs to be aware that these threats may have impacted upon the ability of the victims of this legislation to provide submissions to the committee.
To the members of the Committee,
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to raise some issues with the Fair Work Amendment (Respect for Emergency Services Volunteers) Bill 2016.
I will be expanding on the following points:
1. The bill appears intended to strip emergency service workers of the rights to consultation to which they are otherwise entitled under the Fair Work Act.
2. The nature of emergency service work means that emergency service workers need more extensive consultation rights than other workers, not less. The bill would negatively impact upon workplace safety and community safety.
3. The bill will not help volunteers and is designed to attack emergency services workers, for the purposes of political gain and anti-union ideology.
1. Loss of rights to consultation
The bill seeks to prohibit any term in an EBA that requires the body to consult with any other person or body (including employees and their union) before engaging, deploying, or providing support or equipment to its volunteers.
In most emergency services bodies, including the CFA, for the purposes of practicality, equipment of the same design and specifications is used by volunteers and employees alike. A body could plausibly argue on the basis of this bill that it cannot be required to consult about the choice of equipment used by employees, because that would need to happen before providing (the same) equipment to volunteers.
Volunteers and employees generally work closely together. In the case of the CFA, it is stated in legislation (CFA Act 1958 as amended) that volunteers and employees work together in an “integrated manner”. Virtually every decision that relates to engaging, deploying or providing support for employees would also interact with decisions made about the same actions in relation to volunteers. A body could plausibly argue that it cannot be required to consult with employees about any of these things, because in that case the consultation would have to happen before CFA can know the parameters within which it can engage, deploy, or provide support or equipment to its volunteers.
As a result, this bill could effectively ban any consultation with employees over a wide range of matters, including equipment and procedures. Potentially any matter over which employees might otherwise have a right to be consulted, could be excluded from that requirement by this bill.
2. Emergency service workers need more extensive consultation rights than other workers
The work of emergency service workers is inherently risky. Because they are despatched to situations that are emergencies, by definition those situations involve uncontrolled hazards. None of the methods of hazard control preferred in ordinary workplaces (elimination, substitution, engineering controls) are possible with regards to the primary hazards at emergency situation. Emergency services workers therefore are forced rely on the least effective methods of hazard control: procedures (training, work organisation, etc.) and protective equipment.
Because emergency service workers risk serious harms (death, long-term and short-term injuries, physiological and mental health harms) and have only very limited controls available to reduce the risk of such harm, it is essential that they have the most effective possible procedures and equipment.
It is well recognised that the best safety outcomes come from extensive, meaningful consultation with workers. That is one of the reasons why consultation is required under the Fair Work Act. The recent case of the exposure of firefighters to known health hazards at the Fiskville training ground is a dramatic and thoroughly relevant example of the dangers that result when a negligent senior management is allowed to ignore the concerns of its workforce.
Because emergency service workers face greater risks with fewer safety controls than most workers, they have a greater need for consultation rights. The consequence and in fact the aim of this bill is to reduce the consultation rights of emergency services workers. This bill will damage the workplace safety of emergency services workers, and consequently the public. That is unacceptable.
3. The bill will not help volunteers and is designed to attack emergency service workers
Neither the bill nor the explanatory note give any examples of when volunteers have been adversely impacted by the requirement of emergency services bodies to consult with employees. In statements made to the media, ministers have pointed to the CFA as the primary target for this bill, and have claimed that volunteers in the CFA will be impacted by the EBA that is presently in dispute. Essentially the bill is an attempt to thwart the EBA.
How will the EBA impact volunteers? Currently, CFA employ career firefighters to crew trucks at the 35 busiest CFA ‘integrated’ urban fire stations. These are located in metropolitan Melbourne and in regional cities and major towns. Under the EBA, there will be extra staff stationed at many of these locations, meeting a very significant firefighter safety need and also improving public safety (see Attachment 1). Volunteers at those stations will notice more staff around. The social dynamic might change. They might also find it happening more often that emergency incidents have already been brought under control by the time they arrive on scene (because volunteer response takes an extra 5+ minutes longer than staff response). At minor incidents (false alarms, small fires, etc.) there may be nothing left to do by the time they arrive.
Is that a problem? In my mind, there are only two values that should really matter to firefighters: 1) public safety, 2) firefighter safety. Firefighters — both career and volunteer — do derive some secondary values, for example, the fulfilment of performing meaningful work, and the rewards of socialising. Career firefighters also derive a living wage. But these values are all secondary. I was a volunteer before I was a career firefighter and I maintained this view then as I do now. If I missed the truck as a volunteer, I was not disappointed: it meant that the community I served was getting the quickest possible response. That’s why I joined. The CFA is a public service, not a social club or a vehicle for the gratification of firefighters.
Most volunteers understand this, but a few do not. These are the suburban turf warriors who hold sway in the VFBV. They are upset that firefighter safety and public safety are being prioritised over their enjoyment of their hobby. In my view, this argument is simply beyond the pale and should be rejected in the strongest possible terms. By all means enjoy the work, but don’t forget why you’re there, that is my suggestion, and I said that when I was a volunteer, too. Be in it for the right reasons or don’t be in it at all. (Is it then wrong to take a wage? No, but safety comes first. This is why the union rejected a higher pay offer that was attached to accepting weaker safety provisions.)
Sometimes this secondary value of fulfilment takes a less legitimate form: glory or pride. Many of the emotive arguments against the EBA come down to pride, for example former CFA Chair John Peberdy claimed that the EBA was an “insult to to every volunteer in Victoria” because it increased the role of staff in the CFA’s response to urban emergencies. Such arguments should be rejected for the same reasons as above. Hysteria about a career firefighter “takeover” falls into the same category. Petty, territorial pride should never come before public safety and firefighter safety.
So, the EBA will impact volunteers in the vicinity of the 35 integrated brigades, but it’s unarguably for the greater good. What about the other 1145 volunteer brigades? Will it impact them? The short answer is, it won’t. This is what the EBA says, and those who agree include Fair Work Commissioner Julius Roe, the Victorian Government, the CFA Board, the CFA CEO and the CFA Chief Officer. Any effects on volunteer brigades will be indirect and minor. Most likely the only noticeable effect will be a flow-on of safer equipment and procedures to volunteers following gains made by the union through consultation. Examples of such benefits to volunteers already abound: the closure of Fiskville being perhaps the most dramatic.
So why are some volunteers saying the EBA will affect them adversely? To understand this you need to know:
- Many volunteers in fact support the EBA (see Attachment 2).
- Volunteer opposition is led by the VFBV, which made very similar complaints in 2006 and 2010 (see Attachment 3) about dire consequences should the EBAs under negotiation at those times be approved. Of course, the sky did not fall in. VFBV’s stance emerges out of a pride-driven territorial opposition to career firefighters that dates back to the 1880s (see Attachment 4).
- Volunteers and the public have been propagandised by a deliberate campaign of fear and misinformation, orchestrated by the Herald Sun (Attachment 5), 3AW and the Liberal Party (and potentially former Minister Jane Garrett).
The fear campaign has been based around a number of complete lies about the EBA, claiming that under the EBA:
- Volunteers would be replaced by employees, statewide
- Volunteers would have to wait for 7 employees to arrive before attacking the fire
- The above requirement would apply statewide
- Volunteers would be forced to join the United Firefighters Union
- The union would have an absolute power of veto over any decisions made in the CFA, including during the course of managing a live emergency incident
These lies are mistaken for the truth by a large proportion of the public. Most of them have been refuted numerous times, but because the lies are louder than the refutations in the media, the lies have prevailed. As a result, many volunteers and much of the public believes them, and base their opinion of the CFA dispute upon them.
These lies have been propagated not just by the tabloid media but by coalition MPs. Some prominent examples include:
- Victorian Opposition Leader Matthew Guy told the ‘7 firefighters’ untruth in his own opinion piece in the Herald Sun
- Federal Employment Minister Michaelia Cash also repeated the same untruth, in her opinion piece in the Herald Sun. (She was forced to retract it after Adam Bandt called on her to resign.)
- Acting Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce told the ‘forced to join the union’ untruth when interviewed on ABC Radio National, last week.
During the Federal election campaign, lies about the EBA were told by coalition candidates on so many occasions that I gave up trying to remember each occurrence.
If it was up to me, MPs who mislead the public would be sacked, and if they did it knowingly, they would be charged with an offence. Especially when those lies cause vast damage to cohesion and morale in an emergency service and undermine public confidence in the service.
But they’re not the rules we have. The best we can hope for is that other MPs have enough integrity to refuse to support the agenda of the liars.
What’s left of the argument against the EBA once the lies are excluded? Nothing of substance. When opponents of the EBA are asked to explain how the EBA will affect volunteers without resorting to these lies, they fail, sometimes spectacularly: see Michaelia Cash’s trainwreck interview on Sky News. “What about Don?” Hilarious.
With this in mind, it is quite obvious that this bill is part of a deliberate strategy of lies and fear aimed to generate public support for the coalition and its ideological attacks on workplace rights and safety.
There is no threat to volunteers. Supporting the bill will reduce the workplace safety of firefighters and potentially reduce public safety. I sincerely hope the Senate will reject it.
Attachment 1: A look at the safety reasons behind the CFA EBA.
EBA is about safety, not power
Safety is my job, as a firefighter. Hyped-up hero stories aside, when it comes down to it, a firefighter’s job is to make unsafe situations as safe as possible, for everyone. That means our workplace is inherently unsafe, but it doesn’t mean that to protect the public we should just give up on our own safety. Like everyone else, we deserve nothing less than all practicable efforts to protect our safety. From our perspective, that’s what the CFA and MFB Enterprise Bargaining Agreements are all about.
For example: seven-firefighter dispatch. There are specific safety reasons for this practice, which is why it is standard in the MFB, and law in the USA.
When a building is on fire, fighting it from the inside offers the best chance of rescuing anyone who is trapped, and of containing the fire to the smallest possible area. But this is risky: the building’s structure has been compromised by fire and the atmosphere inside is full of unbreathable, toxic smoke at temperatures up to 600 ºC. Any number of things could go catastrophically wrong. The best equipment and the best training can help, but when something goes wrong, firefighters need backup. This is why we work in pairs, and have a second pair of firefighters, fully kitted up, waiting outside the building, ready to come to the aid of the first. It’s called ‘two-in, two-out’, and taking into account pump operators and an officer-in-charge, requires the immediate dispatch of seven firefighters.
In busy urban areas, CFA response very effectively integrates career and volunteer firefighters. However, the nature of volunteer response is that it is delayed by the need to drive to the fire station before turning out on the truck. This means that staff are often on scene for five minutes or more, without backup, before volunteers begin arriving.
Those first five minutes are critical. This is when trapped people are rescued and the fire is knocked down. It is also when the risks to firefighters are highest. Firefighters should not have to tackle that not knowing when or if backup will come. The community, too, should not be placed at risk by having half the proper number of boots on the ground for the critical first five minutes. This is why the EBA stipulates the immediate dispatch of seven career firefighters, in areas where career firefighters are stationed.
Of course, the decisions that affect our safety go far beyond dispatch protocols. The risks we face include not just immediate injury or death, but also long-term health consequences from exposure to hazardous materials. Studies have shown that career firefighters are more likely to get cancer than the general population. Firefighters attend not just building fires but a wide variety of incidents that all present health and safety risks. We also undertake practical training that can expose us to risk if hazards are not controlled adequately.
All of these risks can be reduced by safety-focussed decision making. Unfortunately, firefighters have found that safety is only prioritised in decision-making when operational firefighters are involved in the process, through their union. Every day, career firefighters use equipment and procedures that are safer due to union involvement than they would have been without it, and for the same reasons, every day the community enjoys a superior response to emergencies, too. This is why 97% of career firefighters are members of the United Firefighters Union, and it is why the career firefighters of the CFA and MFB are insisting on the provision of genuine consultation clauses in our EBAs.
Consultation means real input. Asking our opinion then ignoring it is not real consultation. Unfortunately this is what has happened in both organisations in recent years, including with regard to the health hazards present at the CFA training ground at Fiskville. The recent Parliamentary Inquiry found that the CFA not only ignored the union’s concerns, it unlawfully failed to disclose the presence of a potential health hazard to firefighters, and knowingly exposed firefighters to unnecessary risk.
It’s cheap and easy to accuse Peter Marshall of fibbing when he says the EBA is about safety. When the Liberal Party, the VFBV and the media do that, they forget that they’re also accusing 3000 career firefighters of the same thing. When your theory makes a liar out of one person, it might seem plausible; but when your theory makes liars out of 97% of career firefighters, who have all passed a psychological screening to devote their careers to public safety, your theory starts to look a little shaky.
The reality is this: we’re not trying to take over control of the fire services and we’re not trying to disrespect volunteers. We’re trying to protect our safety, and that of the community.
Attachment 2: Statements from Greenvale CFA volunteers in support of the EBA, as published on social media. Greenvale is an integrated brigade, one of the 35 brigades directly affected by the EBA.
Attachment 3: Communications from VFBV concerning 2006 and 2010 EBA negotiations. Notice the recurrence of doomsday predictions that fail to eventuate.
Attachment 4: Excerpt from The Argus, 10th November 1888. The volunteer association resolved to “view with indignation” the creation of an association for career firefighters. Notice the similarity to John Peberdy’s complaint that the EBA is an “insult” to volunteers.
The turf warfare mentality reflected in the 1888 statement manifested in violence between firefighters on the fireground later that year, prompting the Mayor to ban volunteer brigades from operating in Melbourne, and by 1891 the Government had legislated for geographically segregated volunteer and career fire services. We may need to return to this model if the volunteer association remains offended by and refuses to tolerate the rights of career firefighters to a safe workplace.
Attachment 5: A selection of front page articles from the Herald Sun aimed at attacking career firefighters. Nearly every article includes direct lies, implied lies, or otherwise misleading passages. At least one has been the subject of Supreme Court defamation writs. Most articles were authored by ex-Liberal staffer James Campbell.
Here is the advice I received today (10th October) after repeated requests for explanation as to why my submission had not appeared on the website.