Victoria’s Legislative Council passed the Fire Services Reform Bill on June 20, giving firefighters who develop certain types of cancer the presumptive right to compensation. Under the new law, they will no longer have to prove that the cancer was caused by firefighting.
The bill also provides for a restructure of Victoria's firefighting services.
Many Melbourne suburbs and regional cities such as Bendigo and Ballarat are covered by the Country Fire Authority (CFA). The Metropolitan Fire Brigade only covers those Melbourne suburbs that were part of the metropolitan area many decades ago.
In rural areas, the CFA relies entirely on volunteer firefighters, but in urban areas the CFA uses a mixture of professional firefighters and volunteers.
Under the restructure, all urban areas will be covered by the newly created Fire Rescue Victoria (FRV), while the CFA will cover only rural areas. All professional firefighters will be employed by FRV, while volunteers will be organised by the CFA.
The United Firefighters Union (UFU) has supported the bill.
Apart from the efficiency benefits of having the Melbourne metropolitan area under a single organisation, the restructure will enable a common enterprise agreement for all professional firefighters. The UFU has been campaigning for a new enterprise agreement covering professional firefighters employed by the CFA for six years.
This push was resisted by the former Coalition state government and, initially, by the Daniel Andrews Labor government, leading to protests by firefighters. The Labor government eventually changed its position and an agreement was reached.
The agreement included clauses requiring management to consult the union over a range of issues, including equipment and uniforms. It also safeguards firefighters' pay, conditions and rosters, and ensures adequate staffing levels and safe work practices.
In response, the Coalition waged a scare campaign about a supposed "union takeover" of the CFA and posed as defenders of volunteer firefighters, falsely claiming that volunteers would be adversely affected by the agreement.
In 2016, the federal Coalition government passed a law giving organisations purporting to represent volunteers associated with any emergency service organisation an effective veto over enterprise agreements for paid workers employed by the same organisation. As a result of this law, Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria (VFBV), an organisation claiming to represent CFA volunteers but headed by a highly paid CEO, was able to block the CFA enterprise agreement.
The restructure of the fire services should circumvent this obstacle, as the separation between the CFA and FRV should prevent the VFBV from blocking the enterprise agreement for paid firefighters.