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Published: 05 April 2017
Author: Ryan Carlisle Thomas

Turnbull Govt's legislative interference makes CFA unworkable

The Fair Work Act and the CFA dispute

The Turnbull Government’s recent legislation amending the Fair Work Act in relation to volunteers in the CFA has created an unworkable situation that will require a major restructuring of Victoria’s fire services if they are to continue be effective.

The legislation was described by the Federal Government as necessary to protect the role of CFA volunteers. The approach is to prohibit the inclusion in an enterprise agreement of any terms that restrict or limit the CFA’s deployment or support of volunteers or otherwise limits CFA’s operations in relation to volunteers. There are other restrictions as well.

The CFA comprises both volunteers and professional firefighters. The CFA is no longer a rural based authority as its responsibilities include large swathes of built up areas with dense population and industry. Indeed the CFA boundaries extend to about 60% of Victorian metropolitan areas. Fire services to these areas are largely provided through about 35 fire stations staffed by  professional firefighters with volunteers.

In managing its relations with professional firefighters the CFA has  negotiated for many months with employee representatives for the terms of an enterprise agreement. Those terms reflect the circumstances of the work undertaken by CFA’s professional firefighters. The agreement is to replace the existing agreement that expired three and half years ago.

The new legislation will compromise operations

The problem is that the Federal Government’s new legislation by its focus on volunteers has rendered the CFA’s management of its employed firefighters unworkable.

The Federal Government was warned of this at the time it introduced the legislation.  Many enterprise agreement terms the CFA Board and its employees agree upon might impact upon the CFA’s ability to manage its volunteers, and as such are prohibited. For example, minimum staffing provisions are common features of firefighters’ industrial agreements for good occupational health and safety and industrial reasons. However, the new legislation prohibits any terms that are likely to indirectly affect the CFA’s management of its operations in relation to volunteers. Accordingly, a standard minimum staffing term would not be permitted.

The result is that because of the new provisions the CFA and its professional firefighter employees are unable to have the Fair Work Commission approve the agreement in the terms they have negotiated in good faith.

Make the CFA a volunteer-only body 

The solution is to return the CFA to being an exclusively volunteer-based fire fighting organisation and allow an employer of professional firefighters to get on with the job of managing employed firefighters in the areas where they are needed, without the restrictions and complexity imposed by volunteer focussed legislation.

The restructure of Victorian fire service boundaries called for by the Bush Fires Royal Commission has now become a pressing necessity. The establishment of a regional and rural focussed volunteer organisation and a separate professional fire fighting service for built up areas is an obvious solution. It would address the shortcomings underpinning  the Bush Fires Royal Commission recommendation as well as the disruptive impact of the Turnbull Government’s volunteer legislation. Interestingly, NSW already has such a structure.

The leader of the opposition has recently threatened  the members of the CFA Board with dismissal if they disrespect the rights of volunteers and promised to enshrine the right of volunteers to have a say on enterprise agreements that affect them. (The latter is already part of the Turnbull Government legislation in any event.)

Any such concerns would evaporate if there were to be two separate organisations, each equipped with the resources to manage their firefighters: the CFA for the volunteers and another body for all the professionals.

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