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Matter of Public Importance – CFA

I rise to join the debate on this matter of public importance (MPI) and support the member for Gembrook’s matter of public importance, which highlights the disrespect that the Andrews government has shown to volunteers and its caving in to the United Firefighters Union (UFU). It also seeks to highlight the dangers that the government’s policy will inflict on particularly those who live in our rural areas but also those in areas such as my own electorate of Warrandyte.

For a very long time — almost 11 years — I have been in this place, and I have seen a number of matters of public importance debates. There have been MPIs of varying degrees of importance. I would rate this one as one of the most important MPIs that has been raised in this place, because this MPI deals with the breaking up of an organisation that has been around for over 70 years — an organisation that has protected communities right across the length and breadth of this state, has saved lives and has been at the forefront of making sure that property and life is protected. The fact that this government seeks to undermine and break up this organisation is testament to how indebted this Premier and this government are to Peter Marshall and the UFU.

I just want to begin by talking about a case study that was put out by Emergency Management Victoria — a case study that was endorsed by the Country Fire Authority (CFA), the Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB), the then Department of Environment and Primary Industries, Victoria Police and the State Emergency Service.

This case study talks about a fire that happened in my own electorate on 9 February 2014. It was a big day for fires. There were a number of fires. I believe there were up to 900 around the state that day. This particular case study talks about the fire that began in Flannery Court in Warrandyte, and the fact that the Warrandyte Country Fire Authority captain — a volunteer CFA captain — was the first to get there. He took an assessment of the situation, and was joined shortly afterwards by two deputy group officers who were also Warrandyte volunteers. Knowing the area very well, they took it on themselves to establish a control point up on a hill just near Tindals Road, which gave them an excellent view of the fireground and also dealt with a number of the blackspot areas to enhance their communication.

Twenty minutes after the fire started there was a wind change which pushed the fire towards houses off Amersham Drive. Volunteer crews from Warrandyte came in very quickly, along with several other crews, but the Warrandyte volunteers were in a vehicle that was able to access areas that the larger trucks could not. Indeed in the course of their duty they extinguished several spot fires which, if the Warrandyte volunteers had not been there, would have claimed more houses. By the time the fires were extinguished we had had over 300 firefighters there, and over 70 vehicles and two aircraft had helped contain that fire.

I go to page 4 of this particular case study, which says, and I quote:

The early and significant escalation of resources based on the local knowledge of the Warrandyte captain and his situational awareness ensured both an immediate weight of attack and integration of MFB resources he knew were available.

It goes on to say that the local Warrandyte police had helped significantly because there had been a great integration between the CFA and local police, and also that:

The decision to locate the control point in Tindals Road —

as I mentioned earlier —

provided an effective overview of the fireground, allowed the reception and deployment of resources as they arrived, and eliminated communication black spots (based on the local knowledge of the personnel involved).

It goes on to say towards the end:

The key people involved in decision-making during the early stages of this fire were all from the area and have extensive local knowledge. The two DGOs, in addition to being Warrandyte firefighters, are former brigade captains. These two people in conjunction with the current captain have built strong relationships during the many years they have worked together.

My point in talking about this case study is that this is an example of how local knowledge can help protect communities to an enormous degree. This case study talks about the expertise of the local volunteer firefighters, their commitment to the communities and the importance of their local knowledge.

Why is this important, Deputy Speaker? The reason this is important is that when government members were questioned about their plans for the CFA, when we question government members about the possibility of moving boundaries to remove volunteers from integrated stations, replacing them with career firefighters who do not live in the area, who do not have local knowledge, that is enough to send fear up the spine of every person who lives in Warrandyte, North Warrandyte, South Warrandyte and Wonga Park. It is only through local knowledge and expertise that the community has been protected for so long. If there is a move from this government — which the Premier has refused to deny at every opportunity — then the outcome of this will be a less protected community.

This volunteer community is a huge part of Warrandyte, so much so that the local community has raised tens of thousands of dollars for their local community. Just a few years ago the Warrandyte community held what they called a fire ball, a fundraiser where 300 people came, celebrated the work of the CFA and raised thousands of dollars — $57 000 — which was spent on a new tanker for the North Warrandyte CFA station. This event is held every two years. The subsequent event had over 400 people and had to be moved out of Warrandyte because the demand from people wanting to come along and support the CFA was so great. There was not a place in Warrandyte that could have held that, so we held it at a venue in the city and raised over $80 000. This goes to show what an integral part of the community the CFA is.

The Warrandyte CFA brigade, the North Warrandyte CFA brigade, the South Warrandyte CFA brigade and the Wonga Park CFA brigade are such an important part of our community, and it is a place that our community wishes those volunteers to hold. I have noted that in her contribution the member for Eltham again refused point blank to guarantee that her volunteers at Eltham station would be guaranteed their position there — refused to guarantee that those people who had proudly served that brigade would remain there. All the member for Eltham or indeed the Premier or Minister for Emergency Services needs to do is get up and say, ‘Every volunteer who proudly serves in their station will continue to serve there’, and not one of them has been able to do that.

We asked the Premier yesterday on several occasions to guarantee that he would not change boundaries, to guarantee that he would not remove volunteer firefighters from their brigades. We have had no answer, which should be enough to set alarm bells ringing. I hear from those opposite, ‘We’re in this situation because of Liberal lies’, ‘Liberal lies have caused this problem’.

I ask those opposite: was it Liberal lies that made the member for Brunswick resign as Minister for Emergency Services? Was it Liberal lies that caused a decorated police officer, Lucinda Nolan, who had been hand-picked by the Premier to take charge of the organisation, to resign in protest? Was Liberal lies that caused a board to resign en masse because of what had happened? Was it Liberal lies that led Jack Rush, a man intimately involved in the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission, to comment that the proposed enterprise bargaining agreement was unjust?

The fact of the matter is that those opposite can scream about Liberal and National Party lies all they want. The fact of the matter is that there are people on their own side that the Premier has hand-picked who do not want a bar of what the Premier has got on the table — not one bit of it. So say all you want that it is a political football, but the fact of the matter is Labor’s own people have backed away from this in droves, and those backbenchers who have CFA brigades in their electorates know. You can say all you want in this chamber, but we know what it is like. We have been out to your electorates. We have spoken to your people. You know you are burning on this issue 100 per cent.

Those opposite also want to talk about how the former coalition government apparently slashed $66 million from the budget. You might be able to read the Labor Party handout, but I invite you to read the budget from that year and I invite you to read the bushfires royal commission report, which recommended a one-off payment of $66 million to boost resources in CFA stations. The coalition government duly delivered on the $66 million one-off payment as recommended by the bushfires royal commission, boosted resources as the royal commission recommended and got on with the job.

If those opposite want to keep reading the Labor handout and ignore the facts, then that is fine, but they also should get up and talk about the $47 million that this government has cut from their own budget this year. So I invite you, in addition to reading the Labor Party handout, to read the budget of the former coalition government, to read the recommendations of the bushfires royal commission and read your own budget of today.

Acting Speaker, I have to say that it is time for volunteers to stand up — to stand up to the weak minister that they have, to the bullying Premier that they have and to the arrogant union that is causing grief to an organisation of 70 years that protects this state. Stand up to them and make sure they do not do what they are planning to do.

Your emergency services minister must go to bed every night racked with guilt. If he does not, he is a hollow, empty man who has not a skerrick of integrity left. It amazes me that he is able to come in here and talk about supporting volunteers when he clearly does not. There is no way that this man supports volunteers. He is trying to break them up. He is taking away our surge capacity, and this lack of respect by the minister and by the Premier indeed is only overshadowed by the mess that Labor has made over the last two years in trying to hand control of our proud organisation — the CFA, with its 70 years of integrity — over to the union.

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