SPEAKING ON A BILL | FIREFIGHTERS PRESUMPTIVE RIGHTS COMPENSATION AND FIRE SERVICES LEGISLATION AMENDMENT (REFORM) BILL 2017

Mr MELHEM (Western Metropolitan) — I also rise to speak on the fire legislation. I was listening to Mr O’Donohue yesterday and Mr O’Sullivan today. Between them, Mr O’Donohue went on for 50 minutes and Mr O’Sullivan for 58 minutes. I did not hear anything about content in relation to this legislation; what I heard was just about politics. It was just hatred for career firefighters and the United Firefighters Union (UFU). What I understood Mr O’Sullivan was saying was that because the UFU and career firefighters were campaigning for Labor in the last election — they did not campaign for the Liberal Party — they should attack them and oppose the legislation.

I have not heard anything about public safety, why this legislation does not stack up in relation to public safety or how it is going to diminish the Country Fire Authority (CFA) role, the Fire Rescue Victoria role, the Metropolitan Fire Brigade or firefighting services, how we are going to protect Victoria or how the legislation will undermine that. I did not hear any of that. The only thing I heard was politics. It was basically an attack on the government and an attack on the very people we are talking about.

Ms Shing — It’s the Tony Abbott technique on policy.

Mr MELHEM — Tony Abbott? It is the whole Liberal Party. They have not got over how they lost the election in 2014, and therefore basically —

Honourable members interjecting.

Mr MELHEM — You were against presumptive legislation in the last Parliament. I was just googling earlier. It was not that hard. In the Age of 21 August 2013 your then minister, Kim Wells, basically came out in public and said there was no evidence that firefighting actually contributed to the types of cancers we have been talking about. He was backed up by the Premier of the time.

Honourable members interjecting.

Mr MELHEM — Go and read the Age of 21 August 2013. What else did you do? You cut $66 million out of the CFA budget, so you do not care about public safety. You only care about politics. In contrast, we added 450 additional full‑time firefighters to the service. We are putting in millions of dollars in new equipment. Part of the reform under this bill will be a further $100 million invested to support volunteers and for additional equipment and additional services so we can actually protect Victorians.

I was fortunate to attend a number of the hearings, and let us get it straight that this legislation only deals with the 35 integrated stations; the other 1200 are not affected. All the evidence we actually heard from these integrated stations, both from volunteers and from full‑time career firefighters, was supportive of the proposed legislation. Not a single one of these integrated stations, which are actually the subject of this legislation — they are the ones that are going to be affected, not the 1200 other stations that are not going to be affected — was not in support, both volunteers and career firefighters.

I am not going to be lectured to by political operators or by Mr Ford, who is far removed. He may as well declare he is running for the Liberal Party and actually call it what it is. I want to pay attention and listen to people like the emergency services commissioner, Mr Lapsley, who comes out —

Mr O’Sullivan — Peter Marshall?

Mr MELHEM — No, I do not even want to listen to Peter Marshall. I do not care what Peter Marshall thinks, to be frank. I do not care what Peter Marshall or Mr Ford think. But let me tell you, one thing I will say about Peter Marshall is that he does care about his members, and good on him for representing his members. But I think Mr Ford should start representing his members instead of playing Liberal Party politics.

I would rather pay attention to Mr Lapsley, for example. He took the Fire Services Bill Select Committee through what the proposal was actually all about, and he actually was very supportive.

Mr Ramsay interjected.

Mr MELHEM — Mr Ramsay, you were at the briefing, and he was very supportive of the proposed legislation.

Let us go to the select committee. Both Mr O’Sullivan and Mr Ramsay were on the committee. The committee put out a number of recommendations in relation to the proposed legislation — let us go through them — and yesterday the government tabled its response to the select committee’s recommendations. I will not read it all because I have only got 9½ minutes.

The first recommendation is that the government is to ensure compliance with consultation obligations et cetera, and the government said, ‘We’ll support your recommendation’. That was the decision of the committee — which had a Liberal Party majority. That was your recommendation. That was accepted.

Mr Ramsay — After the fact.

Mr MELHEM — Before the fact, after the fact — at least we are listening. We agreed with you. Make your mind up. We agreed with you — take it; accept it. You are running out of arguments. The second one is:

The government undertake meaningful and balanced consultation with Emergency Management Victoria, the Country Fire Authority, the Metropolitan Fire Brigade … and volunteer representatives …

It supports that, and the government made various comments about putting things in place to do that.

The third recommendation:

… develop and publish a detailed implementation plan in parallel with any further fire services reform proposal.

That was supported. Let us keep going. The fourth:

CFA staff should continue to be employed directly by the CFA, and solely within the CFA chain of command. Secondment should only be used for staff exchange/development opportunities, not as a default employment mechanism.

It was supported in principle. The government supports the role of the CFA to:

… continue to employ a large number of staff that will support volunteer brigades …

et cetera. The fifth one:

The government and its agencies not endorse any enterprise agreement, instrument or accord, which has the effect of limiting the exercise of statutory powers of the chief officer(s) of the fire service(s).

That has been supported. Number six was not supported, but let me go through it:

Due to lack of implementation, operational, and funding certainty; failure to undertake consultation, and consequential polarisation of fire services volunteers and staff, the bill should be withdrawn. If not withdrawn, the Legislative Council should reject the bill.

Obviously we do not support that. You did not even give reasons. You just said, ‘We’ve got heaps of recommendations. If you accept all these recommendations we are putting to you, we might support the bill’. We are saying, ‘Yes, we’re going to actually do all that stuff you’re talking about’, but you still want us to withdraw the bill. You are still going to vote against the bill. Basically to me this is not about fire services, it is not about fire safety and it is not about protecting Victoria in the coming season; it is about politics. Well, grow some balls and say, ‘It is about politics’, and stop hiding.

An honourable member interjected.

Mr MELHEM — Stop hiding and pretending that you care — you do not. You do not even care about volunteers. You do not care about the CFA. You are just playing grubby politics; that is what you are doing. You have been doing that for the last two years.

Mr Ramsay interjected.

Mr MELHEM — You have not yet provided a single argument for why this bill should not be endorsed. You have created obstacle after obstacle in the last two years to prevent an enterprise agreement to be negotiated between the Country Fire Authority and its employees. You have used the federal legislation to prevent that. You keep doing that because you say ‘This organisation and its members supported the Labor Party at the last election, so we’re going to do everything to destroy the organisation’.

Honourable members interjecting.

Mr MELHEM — Call it what it is. If tomorrow Peter Marshall says, ‘Look, I’m going to vote for you at the next election’, you would probably support the legislation. I do not know. Maybe you should ask him the question. He might come to your aid.

Ms Shing — Response times — let’s talk about response times.

Mr MELHEM — Response times? They are not interested in that. Number seven is that the firefighters’ presumptive rights compensation actually be separated.

Honourable members interjecting.

Mr MELHEM — Well, let us talk about response times.

Honourable members interjecting.

The ACTING PRESIDENT (Ms Dunn) — Order!

Ms Hartland — They ignore the evidence.

Mr MELHEM — Exactly. They do not care about the evidence. That is no reflection on the volunteers.

Ms Hartland — They do not care about those communities.

Mr MELHEM — No, they do not. It is all about politics. Recommendation 8 is:

The government ensure adequate infrastructure funding …

We support that. Number 9:

Government develop and publish a detailed funding plan in parallel with any further fire services structural reform proposal …

and it goes on. We support that recommendation.

On number 10, I do not know. Maybe they want to send the Secretary of the Department of Premier and Cabinet (DPC) to jail because the government decided that it is important for all agencies within government to actually coordinate their responses to be efficient about the whole thing, which has been the practice for all governments in the past. We need to possibly launch a royal commission into the DPC for that. Obviously we did not support that, but I do not see that it is relevant to this.

Ms Shing — The government has responded to the inquiry.

Mr MELHEM — That is right. The government have responded to the inquiry and have provided a detailed response and evidence from the various agencies.

The question here is this. I think it is important that parties and members on the other side — particularly Mr O’Sullivan as a member of the National Party representing regional Victoria —

Ms Shing — No, they don’t represent regional Victoria.

Mr MELHEM — Well, trying to. Part of it is to basically stop playing politics and start supporting the additional investment that is going to go to the CFA.

Honourable members interjecting.

Mr MELHEM — Well, I have gone into the evidence. You did not in your time provide a shred of evidence for why this bill is not in the best interests of the fire services.

Mr O’Sullivan — Yes, I did.

Mr MELHEM — No, you did not. Even through the evidence we had when the public hearings were conducted, you were not interested.

Mr O’Sullivan — I went to every meeting. Did you?

Mr MELHEM — You did.

Honourable members interjecting.

Mr MELHEM — Well, Ms Shing read the transcript. The challenge for the other side is this. We have a bill which talks about presumptive legislation and doing the right thing by firefighters — volunteers and career firefighters — who are unfortunately suffering from cancer.

Mr Ondarchie — When did you ever care about volunteers?

Mr MELHEM — We care about the volunteers far more than you do. You cut $66 million for volunteers when you were in government. That is a fact.

Mr Ramsay — That’s rubbish.

Mr MELHEM — Rubbish? Go and look at the budget papers. We have invested more money in volunteers. There is another $100 million going in.

Mr O’Sullivan did not talk about much at all. He talked about all these people being sacked, even though it was before the legislation was contemplated.

Let me say this: this bill, this reform, is long overdue. It is 60 years overdue. Volunteers have to go to work in the morning or at night — whatever shift they work — and come home from work, and then we abuse their generosity by expecting them to respond to fires rather than ask for the same service from paid, full‑time firefighters. There are 35 integrated stations in metropolitan Melbourne. The volunteers still can respond to fires, but I think the focus should be on the fact that we are paying taxes so we expect service, and we expect full‑time people in these areas to respond. Stop your hatred, because one day one of these career firefighters may be attending a fire and saving your life.

I think it is time we showed respect for our firefighters. Whether they are volunteers or career firefighters, they should be treated equally. Stop your discrimination and hatred towards paid firefighters. The only crime they have committed, in your eyes, is that they hold a union ticket. That is what you have got against them — that they are union members, and that is disgraceful.

Mr Jennings interjected.

8 September 2017