Ms SHING Eastern Victoria



Second reading


Tuesday, 27 March 2018


Second reading

Ms SHING (Eastern Victoria) (16:14:20) — I rise today to speak in relation to the Firefighters’ Presumptive Rights Compensation and Fire Services Legislation Amendment (Reform) Bill 2017, which is before the chamber. I note that it has had a lengthy genesis and lengthy debate in the other place. I note that it has been the subject of dozens of front pages. I note that it has been the subject of many, many interviews with the Minister for Emergency Services, Mr Merlino, and of discussions around the country, including the politicisation of the issue when we saw the current Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, and Michaelia Cash attend volunteer stations and talk about presumptive rights and volunteer firefighters protections.

In this regard, and to quell any of the perhaps confected concerns which have been raised by those around the chamber, I do wish to foreshadow the tabling and circulation of amendments, which for avoidance of any doubt have been provided to the opposition not just this morning — after they were ticked off by the table office — but some six months ago. In this regard, and to pick up what Ms Symes was discussing in her contribution, I note that the changes that have been incorporated into the version of amendments that is proposed to be circulated now are minor in nature and reflect the passage of time between the debate in the Legislative Assembly on the one hand and the time at which we now debate this bill in the Legislative Council on the other. Examples of these changes include, but are not limited to, clauses 26 through 29, which change the years in question, and a reference to ‘open’ in relation to practices, which is changed to ‘equitable’.

To give the opposition some succour in relation to the amendments which they have been complaining about not having seen, I note that those are the changes that create the differences between the two versions of the amendments. It is unfortunate that yet again we see a cheap, tacky, lowest common denominator politicisation of the issue come into play at the expense of the opposition taking the time to get across the issues. On that basis, I would seek that this version of the amendments now be provided, with the indulgence of the chamber, to any of those members who have not yet seen them.

Government amendments circulated by Ms SHING (Eastern Victoria) pursuant to standing orders.

Ms SHING — In relation to the amendments which are now being circulated, I note that there were some earlier contributions from those around the chamber about briefings on the amendments, and in this regard I am advised that at the opposition briefing the hard copies of these amendments were brought back to the meeting some 10 or 15 minutes after it had begun, thus not occasioning any inconvenience to those opposite. However, Mr Battin in the Assembly and two of his parliamentary colleagues had in fact ended the meeting and left. So it speaks volumes to —

Mr Ramsay — On a point of order, Acting President, that is absolutely outrageous. I was in attendance, as was Mr O’Donohue, and there were no staff in that meeting room when I was there. We waited for 15 minutes for a scheduled 3.30 meeting, Ms Shing, so do not stand there and lie to this house.

Honourable members interjecting.

The ACTING PRESIDENT (Ms Dunn) — Order! There is no point of order.

Mr O’Donohue — Further to Mr Ramsay’s point of order —

The ACTING PRESIDENT (Ms Dunn) — I have ruled on Mr Ramsay’s point of order. There is no point of order.

Ms SHING — As I indicated, it is unfortunate that those opposite have not invested the time to understand the substance of the amendments as they have been circulated, and I note in this regard that if they had looked at the amendments they would have a greater appreciation for what the amendments are trying to achieve — namely, to strike an appropriate balance between the rights of volunteer firefighters and the importance of supporting them to do their work across the state, particularly in circumstances which are often incredibly difficult and traumatic, on the one hand and dealing with the increase in population and the growth in the number of Victorians in peri‑urban and regional areas on the other.

In this regard I note the Fire Services Statement, which has been talked about expansively and extensively, was developed in consultation with numerous experts, including those from New South Wales. Mr Mullins was part of this process, as was Mr Steve Warrington and Mr Lapsley and various other heads and senior officers of agencies who are responsible for providing frontline responses in the event of emergencies, whether they are structural fires or whether they are the sorts of bushfires that we saw around Terang or those in the steep terrain in West Gippsland around Ellinbank a couple of weeks ago. If those opposite had read the amendments, they would have seen that there are in fact numerous clarifications that deal with new procedures for a fire district review panel in conducting a review of the Fire Rescue Victoria fire districts and changes to the way in which the panel may suspend its review for a period of up to 12 months to allow for support and advice to be provided.

If those opposite had read the material set out in the amendments, which have changed in a minor and contextual nature only since they were provided to the opposition some six months ago, they would have seen that changes proposed around the implementation monitor and around secondment agreements are designed to ensure processes for secondments are able to be met in a more collegiate and collaborative way to assist in growing the inclusive culture that we need across our fire services as the population grows and to assist in developing a culture within our paid and volunteer firefighting services that recognises the input of numerous people throughout our communities who give their time and energy, often at great personal cost, in order to keep their communities safe, to keep life protected and to protect property and livestock in the same instance.

We also see that the amendments contain components to deal with a firefighters registration board and a very strong recognition of volunteers. Those are amendments 1, 9, 19 and 25 and also 20. These amendments again, as those opposite would know if they had actually bothered to sit down and read them, provide the benefit of consultation that has been taking place extensively, as we said we would do, with those stakeholders in firefighting and emergency response who see every day the challenges and the divisions and the difficulty and the disunity that is caused by pitting career firefighters against volunteers and volunteers against career firefighters, which is compromising the way in which people can work together in situations where lives are at risk.

We saw through the parliamentary inquiry that over 2000 submissions indicated the need for this issue to be addressed, and yet after eight reviews in 10 years — it is now around 10 — we have those opposite saying that their next step if elected would be to have a royal commission. The only thing that those opposite want to do is kick the can along the street rather than do the hard work associated with fire services reform. This is an issue which has been requiring attention and support ever since the 1950s and 1960s when boundaries were first defined.

Unlike those opposite, who may wish to deny that we live in a different world now, things have changed fundamentally. The technology has changed fundamentally; the basis upon which our communities operate has changed significantly. People no longer live as close to where they work as they once did and vice versa. We have corridor suburbs and we have dormitory suburbs, which are again about making sure that when we invest in infrastructure the people there have the same right to safety in an emergency response as the people who live in the middle of Melbourne do. Unfortunately, and not through any fault of our volunteer firefighting contingent, this is not the case. We know through the publication of the response time data that firefighting responses are faster from integrated stations and in areas where career firefighters are at the hub of a hub‑and‑spoke model working alongside volunteer firefighters or indeed in areas which are serviced by the Metropolitan Fire Brigade.

We know from all of the evidence to the parliamentary inquiry into this particular reform and we know from all of the evidence in relation to bushfire preparedness as part of the inquiry that was conducted by the Environment, Natural Resources and Regional Development Committee that every single second counts, and yet despite the fact that we have very clear differences in the response times, despite the fact that we need to make sure that volunteers are given more of what they need to do the work to keep their communities safe throughout the year and as our population grows, those opposite are living in denial. To those opposite I would say, ‘Wake up’, because it is no longer the 1950s. Wake up, because the state is changing in relation to the number of people who require our care and support, and those people deserve exactly the same response if their house is on fire in the outer suburbs or within our inner suburban brackets.

We are hearing time and time again that people have a legitimate expectation that their safety will be taken care of, and it is not too much to expect a fire service that is adequately supported and is given the right sort of cultural and resource‑based prompts to do its work well and to do its work in an inclusive way, in a way that in fact encourages diversity and in a way that is underpinned by the right sorts of plans and equipment and the right sort of training. We see those opposite doing every single thing they can, everything that is available to them as a cheap political trick, to drag this out.

We have done the hard work over many, many months. We have listened to firefighters and community members. We have watched as reports on response time data came out and showed us that people are at a disadvantage where their firefighters do not have the resources that they need. Again, the only responses that we hear from those opposite are that this must be a sort of union beat‑up. What an absolute disgrace, that Victorians are being hung out to dry because those opposite are unable to see that we need to have this conversation about fundamental reforms.

Those opposite are allergic to the hard work associated with this cultural change, this resource change, this important change in funding and infrastructure that has been much needed for so long. Those opposite will have no‑one to blame but themselves when we see that this trend in relation to response time data continues, that those firefighting resources, not due to the fault of any hardworking volunteer who wants to participate, are not available to them because people live in denial about what it is that regional growth area communities and rural communities need.

I have listened to countless numbers of firefighters throughout the state, from the volunteer cohort to those who live and work within their communities and help out on an ancillary basis to those who have made firefighting their profession, their career and their life. I have listened to all of those people and do you know what? It is not actually unusual that those opposite have listened as well. We have taken very different things out of this, however. Hard work is hard. Reform is necessarily hard. It took us decades, nay, over a century, to get into this position of arch rivalry, discontent and an inability to work together and collaboratively. The only ones to suffer in this are the ones who seek to provide a frontline emergency response and the people in our community who expect a reasonable response when their house or their property is on fire and they are threatened — and they deserve more. I commend this bill with amendments to the house.