‘It is time. Believe me, it is time for change.’

Three of Australia’s most experienced senior fire service leaders have spoken out strongly in favour of reforming Victoria’s fire services. This week, the parliamentary select committee heard evidence from Greg Mullins, Craig Lapsley and Steve Warrington. All three provided convincing arguments that reform is essential, and that the proposed model is better than any alternative that has been suggested.

Image credit: Vimeo/Paul Bishop

The significance of this testimony cannot be understated. All three witnesses are very highly respected industry leaders. All three delivered testimony with a passion that proves they were expressing their considered professional judgement, and not simply toeing the government line. None of the three can rightly be seen as union adherents, and all three are volunteer firefighters or have been in the past. If the message wasn’t made clear from over 1,000 supportive submissions from firefighters and fire officers, it surely is clear now: this change must happen.

Any MP who continues to oppose this bill now finds herself or himself in the position of claiming to know better than the former President of the Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council, the Emergency Management Commissioner and the Chief Officer of the Country Fire Authority.

Chances are you didn’t hear about any of this in the media. Because this evidence breaks the conflict framing the media have adopted regarding fire service reform, it seems they didn’t know what to do with the emergence of consensus between the government, senior leaders, career firefighters, the union and a sizable fraction of volunteers. The Herald Sun made only passing reference to it after leading with an administrative error affecting an appendix to the CFA submission. The Age and ABC ignored it altogether. The only coverage in any detail came from AAP.

For that reason it’s worth looking at some of the highlights of this evidence. I will quote passages in full for those wanting context, and highlight key statements in yellow for the skimmers. (NB, I am using excerpts from the proof transcripts. These will be replaced after the final versions are published.)

Greg Mullins, ex-Commissioner, F&RNSW

The first to appear was Greg Mullins, who recently retired after concluding his 39-year career with 13 years as Commissioner of Fire & Rescue New South Wales. Mullins began as volunteer in 1972, and resumed volunteering after retiring. He has been awarded an Australian Fire Services Medal, and from 2013 to 2016 was President of the Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council. In January this year, Mullins agreed to become a member of an expert advisory panel to assist the Victorian Government with formulating its fire service reform strategy, and has been appointed chair of the operational implementation committee.

The transcript of Greg Mullins’ appearance before the select committee demonstrates his genuine support for the reform. His opening statement emphasised the public interest motivations that led him to accept his role in the reform, which he hopes will put an end to the toxic disputation that mars the Victorian fire services, and quickly dismissed criticism about the way the reform has been approached:

Mullins later reaffirmed that supporting the reform was his a decision born of his extensive expertise and experience:

In 1997, Greg Mullins sat on a committee that restructured the NSW fire services into a volunteer-based Rural Fire Service (merging 142 local government bushfire brigades) and a career-firefighter-based Fire & Rescue NSW. When asked about the implementation of that reform, Mullins explained why the committee opted for a two-agency model, instead of the single fire service the union wanted:

(Notably, for decades the United Firefighters Union Victorian Branch also advocated for amalgamation into a single fire service in Victoria. Peter Marshall has remarked on record on a number of occasions that the present reform is not the union’s preferred model, but it would work under current circumstances.)

Prompted by Shooters, Fishers & Farmers MLC Daniel Young to speak more about the single fire service model, Greg Mullins argued in no uncertain terms that such a model is impractical and problematic:

Again prompted by Mr Young, in response to concerns about a potential loss of surge capacity, Mullins explained how he expected the vast majority of volunteers would not let passion and emotion get in the way of serving the community:

This point was reinforced in response to questioning from Greens MLC Colleen Hartland:

From here, Mullins went on to affirm his belief that if this reform is not implemented, the community will be put at risk:

Clearly Greg Mullins feels this reform is essential, and in fact urgent: later, he noted that “the longer this process takes, the harder it is going to be.”

With questions from Nationals MLC Luke O’Sullivan, the discussion turned to industrial relations. In response to complaints about the contents of fire service EBAs, Greg Mullins showed why he is well suited to the challenge set by the Fire Services Review, to reset the hostile relationship between management of staff. The following responses illustrate that whilst Mullins is not shy of disagreement with unions (the issue of fire station closures being a prime example), he accepts the legitimacy of consultation and dispute resolution, he understands the origin of prescriptive EBAs in the collapse of trust, and he aspires to rebuild that trust as part of the reform process:

To sum up, among other things, the evidence given by Greg Mullins shows he believes:

  • There is a pattern of animosity, with firefighters pitched against firefighters, means our fire services have become dysfunctional;
  • Change is needed;
  • This is the best model anyone has come up with;
  • A single fire service model is a perilous route that creates more problems than it is worth;
  • Separation of volunteers and career firefighters is key to harmony;
  • There will be no significant impact upon surge capacity;
  • Relations between management and firefighters must be improved by building trust and respect; and,
  • Not going forward with this legislation would put the community at risk.

Craig Lapsley, Victorian Emergency Management Commissioner

The following day saw Craig Lapsley give evidence. Lapsley is the Emergency Management Commissioner, and is responsible at the highest level for the coordination of response to major emergencies in Victoria. This is a role that stems from the recommendations of the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission, which Lapsley has filled since the position was enacted in 2010. Craig Lapsley has decades of experience in senior emergency management roles. He attained the rank of Deputy Chief Officer of the CFA, leaving in 2007 to become Director Emergency Management for the Department of Health and Human Services. He is also a long-serving CFA volunteer.

As the transcript demonstrates, Craig Lapsley gave a rousing call to action to the select committee. Firefighters who attended the hearing reported to me that it was as if Lapsley had transformed, from jargon-focussed bureaucrat to passionate advocate and leader for reform. The latter came to the fore in Lapsley’s evidence after he dealt with a fairly procedural opening statement and a series of muck-raking questions from the opposition.

A question from Gordon Rich-Phillips (Liberal) opened the door for Lapsley to explain how he became convinced that, because of the breakdown of various relationships within the fire services, the best way forward was to rationalise the two-agency model, rather than move towards his long-term preference of a single fire service:

Mr Lapsley emphasised that the reform is not just about quarantining warring parties but about improving operational effectiveness by reinvigorating each service, particularly CFA:

By this stage, clearly Lapsley’s passion for the reform was beginning to come to the fore. “It is time. Believe me, it is time for change.” Could the message be any clearer?

Like Greg Mullins had the said previous day, Lapsley warned of dire consequences if the reform did not occur. In response to a question from Dr Rachel Carling-Jenkins (Australian Conservatives), he said it would be extremely difficult to recover from that outcome:

Time and time again, Lapsley tried to impress upon the select committee the importance of this reform:

Earlier in the day, the committee heard evidence from Jack Rush QC, who has been engaged by Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria as legal counsel. Asked to explain why his evidence strongly contradicted Rush’s position, Lapsley made a tactful appeal to his vastly superior experience and expertise:

After being verballed by Luke O’Sullivan — “Mr Lapsley, I agree. You are both right” — Lapsley went on to argue in the strongest possible terms why this reform is imperative:

In response to fear-mongering about the placement of all career firefighters under a single Enterprise Bargaining Agreement, Mr Lapsley explained the benefits of this, and more broadly the benefits of having breathing space between conflicting parties, concluding with an extraordinarily emphatic call to action:

Apparently even the opposition MLCs present could not deny the weight behind Craig Lapsley’s appeal, because Simon Ramsay (Liberals) followed up by acknowledging that reform is necessary. Ramsay’s attempt to suggest the proposed reform was not the right model was summarily dismissed by Lapsley:

Ramsay went on to push the EBA issue again, to which Lapsley responded by pointing to these reforms as both too important to let anything get in the way of, and as a potential opportunity to fix the combative culture that exists between management and firefighters:

To sum up, Craig Lapsley was emphatic about the need for change. He expressed a view that, although a single fire service is his long term preference, the right model for now is to separate volunteer and career fire services. To do so would take the heat out of conflicts that have marred the fire services in recent years, and allow CFA to rebuild its strength as a volunteer fire service. Lapsley was unmistakble about this, noting:

  • This reform is ‘absolutely’ an ‘opportunity for CFA to refocus itself, refresh itself, rebuild itself.’
  • ‘It is time. Believe me, it is time for change, and the model … does do all those things.’
  • ‘I say it is time. It is time to go to a new structure.’
  • ‘It is too simple to say leaving it together is okay; it is not okay. It is time for change. Believe me, it is time for change, and my heart comes out of CFA because I grew up in CFA. I am telling you, and I will tell this committee very clearly, it is time for change.’
  • Animosity has ‘got worse in the last 18 months than I have ever seen before; this is the worst I have ever seen it.’
  • ‘Victorian fire services as they are currently structured are the worst in Australia. Hence why we need change.’

For Parliament to block the passage of this reform would be a disaster, according to Lapsley:

  • ‘it will be extremely difficult to get these organisations back to where they are.’
  • ‘it is a missed opportunity to reform two fire services that need to be reformed. They both need to be reformed.’
  • ‘it is an absolutely volatile position of how we manage out of this issue without significant change.’
  • ‘very dangerous, extremely dangerous position.’
  • ‘these organisations as we know them could even collapse.’
  • ‘CFA could even disappear… That is my worst fear.’

Steve Warrington, CFA Chief Officer

Steve Warrington is the senior operational officer of the CFA. He started with CFA as a volunteer in 1978, continuing to volunteer for a further 14 years after commencing a paid role in 1983. Warrington attained the rank of Deputy Chief Officer in 2008, became Acting Chief Officer in 2016 and Chief Officer in 2017.

The transcript of Warrington’s evidence reveals him as a strong supporter of the reform. From Warrington’s perspective — echoing the complaints of the Hands Off CFA! campaign in terms less pejorative towards career firefighters — removing career firefighters from CFA would reduce the likelihood of decision-making being mired in dispute:

At this point Warrington was interrupted by Gordon Rich-Phillips (Liberal), asking his eighth consecutive question suggesting a likelihood of industrial disputation continuing after the reform. Like Craig Lapsley, Warringon’s evidence grew progressively more impassioned as it went on:

Still fired up, when asked about surge capacity, Mr Warrington dismissed the possibility that it would be diminished, and went on to explain that the desperately needed reform would strengthen CFA, not weaken it:

Like Lapsley before him, Warrington was asked to explain why supported the reform while Jack Rush did not:

One must wonder how “number of players in this space” might have been worded differently absent the constraints of the expectations placed upon a senior public servant concerning public commentary.

Accused of being disingenuous, Warrington again fired up, laying it down why this reform must proceed:

Questioned by Simon Ramsay (Liberal) about whether or not the reforms were necessary to improve response standards, Steve Warrington confirmed that the provided an ‘opportunity to do exactly that, which we have not been able to do for quite some time’.

Confronted with Warrington’s clear support for the reforms, Ramsay then tried the same tack he took with Greg Mullins, asking whether a different reform model could be better (verballing Mullins and Lapsley in the process). Apparently unconcerned by the fact that a single fire service has been the long-standing preference of his nemesis, the UFU, and consistently opposed by the VFBV, Ramsay suggested a single fire service model. Like Mullins and Lapsley, Warrington pointed out that a single fire service would not be a viable option in the current climate:

Pushed to clarify that the committee should not recommend a single fire service, Warrington responded emphatically:

After this exchange, Luke O’Sullivan (Nationals) decided to follow Daniel Young’s lead, suggesting that Warrington was being ‘asked to sell something that is not sellable’. Warrington rebutted this assertion strongly:

Asked again to talk about surge capacity, Steve Warrington argued that fears it would be lost stemmed from earlier false rumours of a reform model whereby parts of the CFA area would simply be moved to MFB, displacing volunteers:

The final line of questioning Mr Warrington faced was whether he would like to see another review (‘no’), and whether he wanted the bill to pass.

Mr Warrington’s concluding answer bears repeating. Would it be his preference that the bill would pass?

Yes, it would. Yes, the answer is yes. It needs reform, and this is the journey. The answer is yes.
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