COVER STORY CFA dispute may end up burning Victorian Labor electorally
by Peter Westmore
News Weekly, July 2, 2016
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews faces a massive backlash over the sacking of the board of the Country Fire Authority (CFA) after it refused to sign off on his plan to subordinate it to the United Firefighters Union, led by Andrews’ Labor ally, Peter Marshall.
Malcolm fights with CFA firies
Mr Andrews had earlier forced the resignation of the Emergency Services Minister, Jane Garrett, over the CFA takeover. The Premier agreed to the plan to resolve a three-year dispute between the union and the Government over the union’s claims. The union is affiliated with the ALP.
The CFA is an iconic organisation in Victoria with an unrivalled reputation for protecting the community from the devastating bushfires that periodically occur in the state. Its reputation stems from the fact that it is overwhelmingly a volunteer organisation of 60,000 members, with strong local leadership that has developed a high level of expertise in fighting bushfires.
A little more than two weeks before the federal election, the chief executive of the CFA also resigned, prompting furious attacks from volunteers and the media on the Labor Party’s attempt to destroy the independence of the CFA.
CFA chief executive Lucinda Nolan quit two hours after the old board was formally sacked, and five handpicked appointees – none with firefighting experience – took their place. Ms Nolan had been in the job for only a year. She previously served for 30 years in the Victoria Police, rising to the rank of deputy commissioner.
In light of the fact that both the sacked minister and the CFA chief executive are women, it was scarcely credible for the incoming Emergency Services Minister to claim that the Government was committed to promoting women to senior positions in government agencies.
Nor was it credible to claim that the new CFA board would be united. Under the law, the minister appoints five of the nine CFA board members (which he has done), but the other four are nominated by volunteer firefighters who belong to the organisation, Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria.
The volunteer firefighters are vehemently opposed to the Government’s takeover of the CFA, and supported the old board. They have 30 days in which to nominate four members to the CFA board. The Government may accept or reject their nominations, but it would signify a virtual state of war if the Government rejected the volunteers recommended by their organisation.
Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria has publicly attacked the United Firefighters Union log of claims, saying its acceptance will give the union control over the CFA, erode the position of volunteers by making them subservient to the union, and ultimately, threaten the safety of thousands of Victorians living in fire-prone areas.
It said recently that the union claims, embraced by Mr Andrews, “include numerous interrelated clauses that seek to give the UFU control and power of veto over CFA operational and resource decision making, direct how volunteer support is provided in CFA, sideline and diminish the role of volunteers, and dismantle the CFA’s current volunteer and integrated model.”
It goes without saying that if the volunteers’ position is not upheld, many of them will simply resign, leaving Victoria unprepared in the face of a mounting risk of bushfires, caused in part by the lack of fuel-reduction burning conducted by the Government.
This issue will undoubtedly play into the federal election, because Federal Labor leader Bill Shorten, who comes from Victoria, has been silent and therefore complicit in the Victorian Government’s actions against the CFA.
On the other hand, the Liberal Opposition in Victoria has publicly announced that it will revoke the Government’s acceptance of the deal if elected, and the Deputy Leader of the federal Liberal Party, Julie Bishop, attended protests against the sacking of the CFA board and supporting voluntary firefighters.
The political consequences of the deal between the Premier and the union were spelled out in an article in the Melbourne Age, a strong supporter of the Andrews Government.
Under the headline, “Decision on firefighters could cost Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews his job”, political correspondent Richard Willingham wrote that the decision “could cost the Premier his job if disenfranchised CFA volunteers in marginal city fringes and regional electorates maintain their rage for the next two years”.
“And if volunteers, often the lifeblood of country towns, are angry, you can bet their friends and family will be too.”
Willingham added: “There are a handful of Labor seats in the regions and outer suburbia that may be hit by mass volunteer resignations and a political scare campaign. These seats are critical for Labor.” (June 1, 2016)
Affected federal seats include McEwan, the most marginal Labor seat in Victoria, and other marginals such as Indi and Corangamite. It will be ironical if the main victim of the Andrews Government’s support for the firefighters’ union is … Bill Shorten.