Minister stumbles over protection of volunteers measure – September 2016
Legislation for the federal intervention – promised during the election campaign – in the dispute involving the Country Fire Authority in Victoria has been introduced in the House of Representatives by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
He said the Fair Work Amendment (Respect for Emergency Services Volunteers) Bill “honours our commitment to doing all we can to protect Australia's emergency services from a union takeover”.
The Federal legislation, which has been controversial since the Coalition backed the volunteer firefighters against the United Firefighters Union and the Andrews Victorian Labor Government during the election campaign, was the centre of renewed controversy when Industrial Relations Minister Michaelia Cash struggled to explain exactly how the CFA is being subjected to a “hostile union takeover” in a new pay deal struck by the state Labor government.
In the same interview she was also unable to say how an individual volunteer firefighter in Victoria will be affected by the deal, despite the Turnbull government’s vehement opposition to it.
Mr Turnbull said the actions of the United Firefighters Union had placed the Victorian CFA in the position of having to choose between “the best interests of its brave volunteers and conceding to the demands of the union”.
“Unfortunately for the proud volunteers of the CFA, the Victorian government has taken sides against them,” he said.
“For this reason, it is of paramount importance that the Commonwealth Parliament steps in to protect them. This is not a decision we take lightly.
“Obviously, there is a place for unions fairly to represent their members in Australia's workplace relations system.
“However, the UFU continues to demand an unreasonable degree of control over the CFA and its volunteers.
“The former CFA board repeatedly stated it was willing to reach a fair and reasonable agreement, but this call was ignored and the Victorian government demanded that the CFA accede to the union's demands.
“The Victorian emergency services minister in the Labor government in Victoria resigned in protest. The CFA board was then sacked by the Victorian government.
“The CFA chief executive and the chief fire officer resigned in protest.
“The Victorian government has now hand-picked new appointments to the board to wave the agreement through.
“The Victorian government's new board reached agreement with the union, having made some cosmetic changes to the agreement while not addressing the fundamental concerns of the volunteers.
“The agreement still contains discriminatory terms and still interferes with the capacity of the CFA to manage its volunteers in a range of areas.
“This bill will ensure that enterprise agreements cannot be used in a way that permits unions to exert power over the valuable contributions of volunteers.”
Mr Turnbull said the amendments had been carefully drafted to only apply to firefighting and state emergency service bodies that are established under a statute, use volunteers and are covered by the Fair Work Act. They would not affect other volunteering organisations.