Today, my government gets on with the job of delivering on important commitments we made to Australians at the election.
We are acting on the mandate we received from the Australian people.
And we ask the parliament and expect the parliament to respect that mandate.
We are at a critical juncture; the decisions we take today, the decisions of this parliament, will determine whether we enable our children and grandchildren to enjoy the same standard of living that we do ourselves.
I said during the election that we are focused on creating more and better jobs.
We are committed to ensuring our workplace relations system delivers the best outcome for jobs, investment and growth, stops unions from abusing their power, and allows Australians to go to safe workplaces, without fear of intimidation or coercion.
Today, I am implementing a vital legislative agenda, two elements of which were the very reason we went to the double dissolution election.
This agenda advances our economic plan while protecting people’s rights.
This first bill the government is introducing is this bill, the Fair Work Amendment (Respect for Emergency Services Volunteers) Bill 2016. It honours our commitment to doing all we can to protect Australia’s emergency services from a union takeover.
Australia’s proud tradition of volunteer firefighting is under threat.
The actions of the United Firefighters Union have placed the Victorian Country Fire Authority 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.
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.
Even advice from the Chief Executive of Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria that the proposed agreement will significantly impede fire season operations has not altered the Andrews government’s intransigence.
We will not allow selfless Australian volunteers to be undermined in this way.
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.
For example, the agreement mandates that a minimum of seven paid firefighters are dispatched before volunteer firefighters commence firefighting operations.
Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria advise that this will have flow-on effects for workload, operational and fire ground safety implications for volunteers.
Other concerning terms in the agreement include:
- providing that paid firefighters can only report to another paid firefighter with the exception of the incident controller;
- requiring union agreement at integrated stations to cross-crewing of fire trucks by volunteers and paid firefighters;
- requiring union agreement to workplace changes through the consultation term, including matters that may impact on the use of volunteers;
- requiring union agreement on the structure of any volunteer support programs; and
- requiring that uniforms of volunteers cannot be the same as those provided to paid firefighters.
I note that the agreement is seeking these changes despite the Victorian Country Fire Authority Act stating that:
The Parliament recognises that the Authority is first and foremost a volunteer-based organisation, in which volunteer officers and members are supported by employees in a fully integrated manner.
I also note that the CFA Volunteer Charter commits the Victorian government to:
- recognise, value, respect and promote CFA Volunteers, their families and employers for their contributions to the well-being and safety of the people of Victoria …
Given that the government of Victoria has abdicated its authority on this matter and capitulated to the union, it is our duty to intervene to protect the efforts of our volunteers.
The CFA volunteers are the heroes of our regional communities.
They are everyday mums and dads committed to sacrificing their time to protect life and property.
The union is jeopardising this selfless goodwill.
It is an outrage.
Volunteers are the lifeblood of organisations like the CFA.
We simply cannot allow their hard work to be undermined.
There is a lot at stake if we do not protect our volunteers.
As the Chief Executive of Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria, Andrew Ford, has pointed out, if we allow the role of the volunteers to be eroded and demeaned, volunteers will walk away and the CFA will be destroyed.
This is why the government, my government, announced during the election campaign that we will amend the Fair Work Act to stop this happening.
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.
To do this, the bill expands the definition of unlawful term in the Fair Work Act to include an ‘objectionable emergency management term’.
The new objectionable emergency management term will prohibit terms in enterprise agreements that:
- restrict or limit the ability of certain firefighting or state emergency service bodies to engage, deploy, provide support or equipment to its volunteers, or manage its operations in relation to its volunteers, or
- require a body to consult, or reach agreement with, any other person or body in relation to managing its volunteers, or
- restrict or limit a body’s ability to recognise, value, respect or promote the contribution of its volunteers to the well-being and safety of the community, or
- require or permit a body to act other than in accordance with a law of a state or territory that imposes a duty, power or function on the body that could affect its volunteers.
The Fair Work Commission will not be able to approve agreements that include such terms.
Any such terms in an existing agreement will be legally ineffective from the day that the legislation commences operation.
Actions taken under existing agreements before this time will not be affected.
The amendments will also give volunteer organisations a voice, by providing them the right to make submissions to the Fair Work Commission about enterprise agreements covering certain emergency services bodies that could affect the volunteers that they represent.
The amendments have 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 will not impact other volunteering organisations such as Surf Life Saving Australia or the Salvation Army.
The government has of course received the best expert legal advice to confirm the constitutional validity of these reforms, as we do for all bills we bring to the parliament.
The amendments are simple, targeted measures and it is vital that we implement this solution quickly.
We cannot afford to wait any longer.
We must act to safeguard the tens of thousands of volunteers who protect our communities.
I commend the bill to the House.
31 August 2016