Liberals block fire service changes

Victorian Liberal MPs Bernie Finn and Craig Ondarchie in Parliament.

The Coalition opposition has blocked legislation introduced by the Victorian Labor government to restructure Victoria's fire services.

The legislation aims at changing the current situation where cities such as Geelong and Ballarat, and many Melbourne suburbs are covered by the Country Fire Authority (CFA) rather than the Metropolitan Fire Brigade.

In these urban areas the CFA uses both professional firefighters and volunteers. CFA response times have often been too slow because volunteers may live or work a considerable distance from the fire station. The legislation is important for community safety. It is also important for the industrial rights of firefighters.

The problem is that a law passed by the federal government in 2016 gives organisations claiming to represent volunteers in emergency service organisations (such as the CFA) the ability to obstruct enterprise agreements for paid workers in the same organisations. Thus the reactionary leadership of Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria (VFBV) has been able to block the enterprise agreement for professional firefighters employed by the CFA.

The new law would bring all professional firefighters under a new body, Fire Rescue Victoria, which would cover all urban areas. Volunteers would continue to be organised by the CFA.

This organisational separation would prevent VFBV from obstructing the enterprise agreement for paid firefighters. The legislation also includes a provision making it easier for firefighters to get compensation for work-related cancer.

To block the legislation, the Liberals used trickery. The bill was being debated in the upper house on Thursday, March 29. Debate continued into Friday morning.

Two Liberal MPs, Bernie Finn and Craig Ondarchie, claimed their religious beliefs prevented them from attending parliament on Good Friday. They were granted "pairs", meaning that when they left the building two Labor MPs also left. But the two Liberal MPs came back in time for the vote, defeating the bill.

The government has said it will reintroduce the bill at a later date.

In a message to members, United Firefighters Union state secretary Peter Marshall said: "Today community protection was traded off for a political coup. But it will be a temporary victory for the unscrupulous opposition."

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