The Senate voted on October 10 to pass legislation aimed at blocking the Victorian Country Fire Authority (CFA) enterprise agreement.
Those voting for the law were the Coalition, Pauline Hanson's One Nation, the Nick Xenophon Team and right-wing independents David Leyonhjelm and Derryn Hinch. Labor, the Greens and independent Jacqui Lambie opposed the bill.
The legislation amends the Fair Work Act to ban the inclusion of certain "objectionable terms" in enterprise agreements covering workers employed by a "designated emergency management body" (such as the CFA). Clauses requiring management to consult with the relevant union are considered "objectionable".
The proposed CFA agreement includes consultation requirements and specifies minimum staffing levels and safe working procedures.
More than three years have passed since the previous CFA enterprise agreement expired. The CFA board, which was extremely anti-union, obstructed the adoption of a new agreement, even refusing to accept a draft agreement proposed by Fair Work Commissioner Julius Roe.
The Victorian Labor government, elected in 2014, allowed this situation to continue for a long time, but eventually, under pressure from protests over the delay by the United Firefighters Union (UFU), it sacked the CFA board. The new CFA board quickly reached agreement on a draft acceptable to the union, and intended to put it to a vote of CFA employees.
However this was blocked by court action taken by Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria (VFBV), an organisation claiming to represent volunteer firefighters.
VFBV had worked closely with the Liberal Party to campaign against the agreement. With the help of the media, particularly the Herald-Sun, VFBV has frightened many volunteers with the alleged threat of a "union takeover" of the CFA.
However, some volunteer firefighters have spoken out against the VFBV's scare campaign. At hearings on the new law held by the Senate Education and Employment Committee, several volunteers said they disagreed with VFBV. Raj Faour, a volunteer firefighter from the Hallam CFA station, said the VFBV did not represent him, adding that: "There is a lot of misinformation that is being pushed onto many volunteers".
UFU state secretary Peter Marshall told the hearing that when he was able to talk to volunteers, he was often able to reassure them: "For example, the allegation that was on the front page of the Herald-Sun and also on the VFBV's website that for every fire in country Victoria you will have to wait until seven career firefighters turn up [before volunteers can start fighting the fire] was just not true, and the agreement never said that. So when we take people through that they say ‘We did not know that’.”