The media's war on firefighters

March 11, 2018

Both of Victoria's daily newspapers, The Age and the Herald-Sun, had front page articles on March 6 attacking the proposed enterprise agreement covering firefighters employed by the Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB). This agreement is currently being voted on by MFB staff.

The Herald-Sun article focused on stirring up envy towards firefighters. It talked of the 19% pay rise, not mentioning that this is spread over four years. It cited various allowances, such as trench rescue allowance and drone operator allowance, as if there is something wrong with firefighters being paid extra for special skills or special tasks.

The Herald-Sun claimed that firefighters are entitled to "up to 196 days of holiday, sick, personal and recreational leave". In response, a Facebook user commented: "To have 196 days off during the year a MFB firefighter would need to:
Take all their annual leave;
Have a baby;
Adopt a baby;
Care for a seriously ill loved one;
Enrol in the army reserve;
Become a union delegate;
Have a death in the family;
Go on 10 days jury duty;
Engage as a volunteer during a natural disaster;
Be a victim of family violence;
Commence study approved by the MFB;
And identify as an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander."

The Age took a different approach. Its article was ostensibly about the problems of sexism and discrimination against women in the fire services. It claimed that the new enterprise agreement would prevent these problems being dealt with.

The article cited "leaked MFB files" based on briefings to the MFB by Equal Opportunity Commissioner Kristen Hilton, who is said to have claimed that the enterprise agreement "entrenches discrimination". The Age cites an MFB memo claiming that Hilton was concerned about "limitations on part-time and flexible work conditions" in the agreement.

She was also said to be concerned that the agreement limits management's ability to take disciplinary action and its ability to look at workers' emails to see if they are distributing pornography.

However it is unclear to what extent the "leaked MFB files" accurately represent Hilton's views. The March 7 Age has an article stating: "Ms Hilton said she regretted that notes from the confidential briefings to the MFB appeared to have been leaked and said they did not necessarily represent the final report."

The articles represent the continuation of the media campaign against the United Firefighters Union (UFU).

In a March 6 message to union members, UFU state secretary Peter Marshall said: "The UFU has no doubt that this is simply part of the ongoing attack on career firefighters to lower your standing in the community and seek to vilify you".

The media object to the MFB agreement because it supposedly gives too much power to the UFU. In fact it gives the union the right to be consulted on a range of issues, including equipment and uniforms, rostering and health and safety policy. It also specifies workers' rights, limiting the arbitrary power of management.

The Herald-Sun claims that the UFU has a "veto" on all MFB policies. In reality, if disagreements between the union and management cannot be resolved through consultation, they can be referred to the Fair Work Commission for conciliation and arbitration.

The proposed MFB agreement and the similar proposed CFA agreement, have been denounced vehemently by the Liberal-National Coalition. The federal Coalition government passed a law designed to prevent the CFA agreement from being adopted and up to now it remains blocked.

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