Turnbull plans attack on firefighters

July 15, 2016
PM Malcolm Turnbull at a Save CFA rally in Melbourne on June 4.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said he will amend the Fair Work Act to make it possible for the federal government to block the proposed new enterprise agreement for firefighters employed by Victoria's Country Fire Authority (CFA).

Turnbull said he will introduce legislation in the first sitting week of the new parliament to expand the list of "objectionable terms" that cannot be included in enterprise agreements.

The proposed agreement is supported by the United Firefighters Union (UFU), which covers professional firefighters employed by the CFA. The Victorian Labor government has come around to supporting it, after a long delay. It has been nearly three years since the previous enterprise agreement expired.

The union carried out a campaign of rallies and other actions to pressure the government to reach a new agreement. The former minister for emergency services, Jane Garrett, resigned rather than accept the agreement.

Opponents claim that the new enterprise agreement gives the UFU a veto over the decisions of the CFA. This is not the case. The agreement requires that consultation occurs on matters relating to the employment of career firefighters. If no agreement is reached, the issue can be referred to the Fair Work Commission.

This does not amount to a union veto over management actions, but it does give the union a certain amount of influence. Such provisions are common in enterprise agreements, but supporters of unrestricted management prerogative do not like unions to have any say at all.

Opponents of the agreement include the Liberal Party, the former board of the CFA (which was sacked by the state government for refusing to sign the agreement), the Herald Sun and the Age. These forces have cultivated fears among volunteer firefighters that the agreement would adversely affect them.

There have been some rallies by volunteer firefighters against the agreement, but other volunteers have spoken out in support of the union's position.

Turbull's proposed amendment to the Fair Work Act is likely to face a constitutional challenge in the High Court, on the grounds that it would amount to federal government interference in a state government matter.

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