‘We won’t lay down’
By Mel Jefferies
THIS is the message Country Fire Authority volunteers are sending to the Andrews Government as they continue to fight for their rights against a draft Enterprise Agreement which reportedly contravenes Victorian laws.
Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria district 17 president Ron Zanker said a large number of volunteers from the district met at Horsham on Sunday to discuss their plan of action against the current government.
“VFBV state president Neville Jones addressed the meeting and made clear the VFBV’s stance on the matter and the parameters district 17 could use in their fight,” Mr Zanker said.
Member for Lowan Emma Kealy also attended the meeting in an unofficial capacity to show her support for the volunteers and to advise on parliamentary matters.
VFBV executive officer Adam Barnett said the Victorian State Government Cabinet met at 10am Friday and unanimously voted to accept the draft EA, directing the CFA board to sign it.
“The government have said they have included protections for volunteers and have worked hard to reach a deal fair to both career staff and volunteers,” Mr Barnett said.
“However, at no time has VFBV been contacted by the government to discuss what volunteer concerns are, or if the proposed solutions fix the problem. In fact we have not even seen the proposed re-write,” he said.
“Then Minister for Emergency Services Jane Garrett was asked to accept the position of cabinet and force CFA to sign it.”
“As she has previously advised, she is in receipt of government solicitors advice that it would be unlawful to direct the board to sign a document that contains unlawful terms, and she had no choice but to resign.”
“At about lunchtime on Friday, Premier Daniel Andrews and Deputy Premier James Merlino issued the CFA board with an ultimatum, via the media, to ‘either sign the EA today before 5pm or be sacked’,” Mr Barnett said.
Earlier Friday morning the CFA released detailed legal advice, sought from the government’s senior Crown Counsel, that confirmed parts of the agreement remain unlawful.
And, despite clear legal advice that the CFA board is obligated to follow, State Government continued to direct the CFA board to sign the Agreement, or be sacked.
“Having explored all options, including applying to be heard at the Fair Work Commission, and being denied, VFBV was left with no choice but to take separate legal action to ensure volunteer concerns were being heard and considered, as is our right under the CFA Act, and the Volunteer Charter,” Mr Barnett said.
“And at 2.30pm on Friday the VFBV lodged an application in the Supreme Court to injunct, or prevent, the CFA board from being forced to sign the agreement,” he said.
Supreme Court Justice Michael McDonald granted the injunction and ordered the CFA board not to vote on the proposed agreement.
“A couple of hours later, the court reconvened with Justice McDonald advising he was satisfied there were ‘serious questions’ about whether or not there was a statutory duty to consult with volunteers and, if that duty existed, whether it had been breached,” Mr Barnett said.
“As a result, the court ordered that the CFA must now engage with genuine consultation with VFBV, and CFA have been barred from approving the draft agreement before June 22,” he said.
Mr Barnett said, despite the court relief, VFBV was advised by the CFA that State Government had started proceedings to remove the CFA board.
“We are now exploring the obvious legal questions that arise from this action,” he said.
“Volunteers have a right under Victorian Law to be genuinely consulted on any decision that may impact them, before decisions are made, and we have every right to enforce that obligation,” Mr Barnett said.
He said the VFBV has constantly requested pay and conditions be decoupled from the Agreement to ensure the parts which should form a Workplace EA can be granted and settled quickly, and to remove everything else that has no place in a modern day award and has the potential to impact on volunteers and the CFA’s statutory obligations.
These include the powers of the chief officer to manage and direct his workforce and make operational decisions, and the right of volunteers to be protected from any effects.
“But, despite requesting in writing, on a number of occasions, the State Government has not had any conversations with VFBV as to our concerns, nor made any effort to meet and understand the concerns in order to discuss solutions, despite their public comments that they were talking to ‘everyone’ involved,” Mr Barnett said.
“Further, despite the claim that the Agreement was being negotiated over 1000 days, VFBV and volunteers are yet to be given a single day to discuss their concerns,” he said.
“We are not asking for anything more or less than genuine consultation. Not all paid staff share the United Firefighters Union’s goals of dismantling a volunteer and fully integrated CFA, with career staff and volunteers working together side by side as equals for the benefit of our communities,” Mr Barnett said.
“Volunteers have legal and moral rights to be consulted and have a voice in all matters that affect us and the VFBV is acting to protect those rights,” he said.
“The CFA is a volunteer based fire and emergency service and its small core of paid staff work with its 60,000 volunteers in a fully integrated manner to deliver a unique, world renowned service to Victoria, one of the most fire prone areas in the world.”
“There must be no arbitrary or industrial limits on volunteers performing current and new roles and being equipped and trained for those roles.”
“The VFBV is acting to maintain CFA’s effective community based structure to serve Victorians and our communities and grow volunteer capacity to meet ongoing and future needs including the recognition that growing urbanisation and climate change will increase the risk we must respond to on behalf of the people we serve.”
“As the representative organisation of Victoria’s CFA volunteers, comprising 97 per cent of the CFA’s total workforce, VFBV is required to be separately consulted by State Government and CFA on any matter that may affect volunteers before relevant decisions are made by them. This is a key guarantee contained in the CFA Volunteer Charter”.
“Watch this space,” Mr Zanker said.
“We have other plans going on across district 17 and it will be an ongoing fight,” he said.
“This is the first time volunteers have been placed in a position where they have to fight for their rights and we are not going to lie down”.
A copy of a petition, created by Ms Kealy, which asks Premier Andrews to not hand control of the CFA to the UFU and to “keep your hands off the CFA” is available at the Warracknabeal Herald office.