The Age’s Parallel Universe

Throughout the CFA dispute, The Age has taken a more measured but equally slanted approach to the Herald Sun. Today’s editorial strays so far from reality that it is worth unpicking in detail. (Added 7th March 2017: the link above no longer provides the original text. See the addendum below for the original article.)

The central premise of this editorial is entirely false. The argument begins like this:

To recap, the Premier intervened after three years — and just as a settlement appeared within reach — by backing the United Firefighters Union’s demands after he and, in particular, the then essential services minister, Jane Garrett, had long maintained that the union’s position was inappropriate and even outrageous.

And, after trawling through a tedious political soap opera, the editorial concludes with:

We again urge that this sorry saga be referred to the Fair Work Commission. Politicians harming themselves is merely gormless; risking harm to innocent citizens is unconscionable.

This is a complete misrepresentation of how the dispute unfolded. The only truth here is that Jane Garrett had long opposed the union’s position. The rest is nonsense. What actually happened was documented by the media, including The Age. Let’s unpack the untruths.

Lie: Settlement appeared within reach
Fact: The CFA and Jane Garrett were in a stand-off with the UFU, neither willing to give ground on several key issues

Lie: The dispute has not been referred to the Fair Work Commission
Fact: The dispute had been referred to the Fair Work Commission, twice. The CFA and Garrett were refusing to accept the FWC recommendations.

Lie: Andrews backed the union’s demands
Fact: Andrews insisted the recommendations of the Fair Work Commission be implemented

Lie: The EBA risks harm to innocent citizens
Fact: The EBA will deliver clear improvements to the safety of firefighters and the public

More lies appear elsewhere in the editorial:

Lie: The CFA feels the UFU is trying to exert undue control over volunteers
Fact: The CFA supports the EBA in its current form, noting that it does not affect the role of volunteers.

Lie: The Chief Officer “says the deal has the potential to undermine public safety”
Fact: The Chief Officer has reassured the public that safety will not be affected

Lie: The EBA gives the union veto
Fact: The Fair Work Commission found there was no veto

Lie: The UFU is a “rogue union”
Fact: The UFU is career firefighters. Career firefighters — public safety professionals — have not gone on strike or engaged in any unprotected industrial action. In comparison, Fairfax journalists have recently been investigated for illegal striking.

Lies: The UFU is “1000-strong” while there are “60,000 volunteer firefighters”
 Facts: The UFU has ~2500 members while there are 35569 operational volunteer firefighters

The worst of it is this: The Age wants the Fair Work Commission to decide, but they already have! The Age attacks Daniel Andrews, when Daniel Andrews is trying to do exactly what The Age asks him to: resolve the dispute according to the determination of the Fair Work Commission.

The central premise of this editorial is factually incorrect. The conclusions it draws are therefore entirely without value.

How could The Age make such a basic error of fact? Whoever penned this piece is either wantonly ill-informed, or fatally compromised by bias. Either way, journalists of The Age should be ashamed to be associated with this rubbish, and the public should be informed that The Age is not reliable as a source of information or analysis.

But there’s more. The editorial contains significant errors of omission. Unlike the lies examined above, which are clearly disproven by articles published in The Age itself, these omissions have been an ongoing feature of the coverage of this dispute by The Age. I am one of presumably many people who have tried to fill in for these omissions with letters to the editor and opinion article submissions, but The Age consistently declines to publish them.

To build an informed opinion on this topic, you need to know the at least the following:

1. A campaign of anti-union ideology underpins opposition to the EBA. A key finding of the report of the Victorian Fire Services Review was that there had been a collapse in morale, due to the fact that firefighters were constantly embroiled in “industrial war” with senior management. The report indicated that senior management were encouraged to go to war on account of the previous government’s “deliberately ideological attack on the UFU”. The war was waged in ways that were “clearly inflammatory and designed to portray firefighters in a poor light.” That is, it was (and remains) a PR war. Issues were pursued politically in ways which sought to control pubic opinion by manipulating the content of media articles. Journalists and the public alike need to be alert to this and refrain from taking the messaging of those on the anti-firefighter side at face value.

2. Jane Garrett took up the mantle of the anti-union cause and sought to manipulate public reception of the Fire Services Review to this end. The FSR contained many strongly-worded complaints about the breakdown in morale that had been caused by the ideological war on firefighters. None of this was available to the public at the time the report was handed down, because the government with Jane Garrett as Minister, refused to release the report. For a period of five months, Garrett withheld it. Throughout this period, Garrett made a number of media appearances in which she implied that there was widespread bullying of firefighters by other firefighters, and that firefighters were to blame for the failure of the firefighting workforce to reflect the diversity of the community.

Garrett referred to the unreleased report in making those claims, but the report does not support them, noting that it “did not receive sufficient information to comment on the prevalence” of a culture of bullying. In contrast, although it did not use the label bullying in this instance, the report found ample evidence for firefighters being “treated badly” by senior management, noting that “to have the negativity and dissatisfaction so widespread and felt so consistently by old and new employees alike indicates to the Review that the situation has reached an unacceptable level.”

Clearly the FSR found that firefighters were the victims, while Garrett was trying to portray them as the perpetrators. In so doing, Garrett only served to compound the problem. Firefighters (including female firefighters) strongly felt they were being bullied by Jane Garrett. The fact that Garrett brought in the Victorian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission in the context of her bullying smear campaign should be borne in mind when considering the reasons why the UFU advised its members against participating in a VHREOC review, on the basis of their perception of bias.

It seems clear from this that Jane Garrett was on board the PR war on firefighters and the UFU. Garrett suppressed the report and then used it in order to do exactly what the report had complained of: waging industrial war in ways that were “clearly inflammatory and designed to portray firefighters in a poor light.”

3. The key outlet for the PR war against firefighters is James Campbell (state politics editor of the Herald Sun), to whom Garrett has been accused of leaking. Numerous articles of Campbell’s refer to an anonymous source in order to make claims that strongly damage the public perception of firefighters, through the use of misleading information and “downright lies”. The clear implication is that the Labor MPs who are accusing Garrett of leaking believe that Garrett is engaged in a deliberate, unfair and misleading PR war against firefighters, continuing the campaign found by the FSR to have been set in motion by the coalition. (The sooner they come out and spell that out, the better!)

4. The Fiskville debacle presents ample justification for many of the actions criticised by The Age, including the sacking of the CFA Board, and the provision in the EBA of genuine consultation with robust dispute resolution. The damning findings of the Parliamentary Inquiry into the CFA Training College at Fiskville ought to have been front page news for many days and should have demanded a clear response from government. Instead, they barely rated a mention. The report clearly shows why union input plays a central role in improving the safety of firefighters, and why the ability of the union to influence matters of safety must be insisted upon, against the tendency of fire service management to ignore it. The report made dozens of shocking findings. To choose an illustrative one:

FINDING 47: That the CFA ignored concerns raised by the United Firefighters Union and withheld important information from trainees and others. This was in breach of the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 and resulted in ongoing exposure to contaminated water.

If The Age wants to distinguish itself from the Herald Sun, as the home of serious journalism in contrast to a propaganda outlet for the right wing, it will need to take on board these concerns.

Addendum, 7th March 2017

I have discovered that the text of the online version of The Age’s editorial has been altered. Here is the original editorial as printed:

The modified online article (as at 7th March 2017) omits the text highlighted above, and adds the following, inserted at the point marked in pink above:

As we have stated previously, the best way to resolve this situation is to refer it to the full bench of the Fair Work Commission for a decision that would be binding on all parties.

The modified article still displays the original date, despite having been altered.

We can only speculate as to why those changes were made. However, it must be noticed that as modified, the editorial still admits to mention the fact that the dispute had already been referred to the Fair Work Commission, and that by “intervening”, Andrews was seeking to implement nothing more than the Commissioner’s recommendations. The modified version is hardly an improvement: in relation to one of the many problems I have identified above, the ignorance of the editorial’s author is no longer overtly displayed, but it still persists in the negative space of omitted information.

This article is provided anonymously. It is not represented as the work of an employee of any Victorian Fire Service.