The United Firefighters Union (UFU) has commissioned a survey of bullying, harassment and discrimination within Victoria's Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB) and Country Fire Authority (CFA). The survey is being conducted by researchers from the University of Newcastle.
Meanwhile, the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission (VEOHRC) is carrying out a survey commissioned by MFB and CFA management. The UFU has advised its members not to participate in the VEOHRC survey.
The union distrusts the VEOHRC because of previous experience. Last year CFA management commissioned the VEOHRC to look at the draft enterprise agreement covering CFA employees. The VEOHRC produced a report in December criticising aspects of the draft agreement. The report was not published, but the draft agreement was subsequently amended to take into account these objections.
Yet CFA management continued to refer to the report as a reason for refusing to sign the agreement. The VEOHRC failed to challenge this misuse of its report. UFU state secretary Peter Marshall has said there is a “perception of bias” on the part of the VEOHRC.
The draft CFA agreement has been the subject of an intense scare campaign by the media —particularly the Herald Sun — the Liberal Party and the former CFA board, which has now been replaced. Now the scare campaign has spread to the MFB.
MFB chief officer Peter Rau has claimed that the draft enterprise agreements for the CFA and MFB would undermine management's ability to run the fire services. Deputy Premier James Merlino described Rau's comments as “alarmist”, “irresponsible” and “reckless”.
However, the relentless media campaign seems to be causing some Labor members of parliament to take fright. According to Age journalists Benjamin Preiss and Henrietta Cook, many Labor MPs are “worried the issue will cause more political pain for the government”.
There is a danger that nervous MPs may pressure the government to capitulate to the media campaign and reject the draft agreements.
The agreements include provisions for minimum staffing levels, rules about rostering, and a range of other working conditions for firefighters. Opponents of the agreements do not like the fact that they limit the absolute power of management to do whatever it likes.
The need for change in the management practices of the CFA and MFB was highlighted by the Fire Services Review, an enquiry established by the Victorian government in July last year, whose report, published in March, criticised the “aggressive approach ... taken by the MFB to industrial relations”, and spoke of an “enormous divide” between senior management and firefighters.
It said: “With the current state of morale and strategic and operational leadership, the fire services appear to be in an extremely unhealthy state, a situation that must not be allowed to continue.”