Ms PATTEN (Northern Metropolitan) (17:11): I rise to speak to the Firefighters’ Presumptive Rights Compensation and Fire Services Legislation Amendment (Reform) Bill 2019 again. Certainly this bill has been with us for quite a number of years now. I have spoken to many people over those years and also in more recent times.
I have been greatly assisted by some of the stakeholder meetings that we have had and the extensive correspondence that I have received on this issue both this year and in the previous Parliament. I have to say that a number of those letters, emails and phone calls that I have received have raised some questions about the legislation, and I will raise and explore some of those in the committee process.
Over the last few years I have received literally over 1000 emails. I have met with scores of volunteers and local firefighters. I have spoken on the phone to many of them. I appreciate and admire what they do. I do not think I could do it. I do not think I am brave enough to put my life at risk in the way that they do for the benefit of us. Their selflessness is something that I have such extraordinary admiration for, no matter what uniform they wear. They are essential to maintaining the welfare of this state. As we know, this is the state that is probably more prone to fires than any other state, not only in Australia but probably in the world.
I have been the beneficiary of volunteer firefighters, and I will talk about that in a minute. I do believe that we need reform, and I think that some reform will improve this and will promote these objectives of creating the best fire service that we can have, not only in this state but in this country.
As members know, this does propose really significant changes to fire services, but also this has been subject to, let us just say, significant parliamentary debate and also a parliamentary inquiry that led to a number of amendments. That inquiry and many of the recommendations from that inquiry resulted in these amendments, and those recommendations were bipartisan. They were supported by both.
During that inquiry we heard literally hundreds of submissions from volunteers, from volunteer organisations, from professional organisations, from local governments—from a plethora of people.
No doubt many of us in this chamber have read that report, have read many of those submissions, but as I stated in the last Parliament, I am in favour of reform to our fire services—and with reason. I note my colleague Mr Hayes said, ‘If it’s not broke, don’t fix it’. Well, it does need fixing. This legislation, our fire services legislation, needs to come into the 21st century.
I think I was reflecting the last time that we were speaking about what happened in Tathra in New South Wales, very near where my family had a farm, where the professional firefighters and the
volunteer firefighters could not communicate. Their services, their hoses, were not the same. They could not communicate. As a result of that, 69 houses were burnt unnecessarily.
Also this bill introduces a presumptive rights scheme for firefighters who suffer from various diseases—cancers that can be linked to exposure while firefighting. This is well overdue, and I am so pleased—well, I am hopeful—that today we may give many of those firefighters some certainty that they will not have to go through detailed processes—they will not have to fight for recognition that the cancer or the illnesses that they have are linked to the services and the selflessness that they have provided to our community in those inherently dangerous conditions.
When I visited the Thomastown fire station some years ago one of the firefighters there—I think he was from the A team—was suffering from cancer, and his colleagues all got together and pooled their leave so they could give it to him so he could get the treatment that he needed and could have time off and still be paid. That is why presumptive legislation is so important.
But our fire boundaries were established some 60 years ago and they do not accord with urban growth, and I do not think anyone in this chamber would disagree with that. We see suburbs like Dandenong, Frankston, Bayswater, Epping, South Morang, Caroline Springs and regional cities still seen as regional areas. These are not. These are urban areas. I think the reforms and the changes to these boundaries will ultimately lead to improved response times—and they must lead to improved response times, otherwise we are going to see lives lost.
I guess the most serious opposition to the reforms relates to possible effects on vital surge capacity during these major fire emergencies. I do not think surge capacity is really a term I like, because what it really speaks to is that there are significantly more CFA volunteer firefighters than there are professional firefighters. There are a lot more CFA fire trucks than there are MFB trucks, so it follows that in events like Black Friday it is our volunteers who are doing the lion’s share of the firefighting.
That is why CFA volunteerism is so important. Without those volunteers we do not have the capacity to deal with day-to-day urban firefighting. Particularly response times can be improved by professionalism and can be improved by changing the boundaries, but it does not necessarily enhance that surge.
As I say, I have a property outside Canberra, and it was hit by the Canberra bushfires, which were some of the worst in the country. So we had volunteer firefighters down trying to save some of the houses on our property. Unfortunately they were not able to, but every year I go down to the Australia Day barbecue and donate as much as I can to those volunteers and thank them for the work that they do to keep us safe.
But the CFA has got problems. The culture within the CFA has got problems, and I am sure many of you received a letter from Mr Fred Forrest from the Mansfield fire brigade group. I would just like to say that this man, Mr Forrest, who has been a firefighter I think for over 50 years, says that since 2009 his ability to raise brigades, his ability to man a truck, has declined. It has been a lot of the culture within the CFA. I do not know whether Mr Forrest supports this bill or does not. I suspect it may be the latter—that he does not support it. But the letter that he wrote, the reason for his resignation, is not this legislation.
It is the problems that he sees with the CFA and the problems that he sees with the outdated equipment that they have and the ability to attract volunteers. I hope that this legislation will help improve that situation and that the CFA volunteers currently serving at the state’s 38 integrated stations, some of which are in my region of Northern Metropolitan, will be able to remain at those stations, co-locating with Fire Rescue Victoria services.
Volunteers must be called out to fires; we know that, as I have said. Many people have seemed to suggest that it must be a paid firefighter that must be on the site of the fire. First on the scene will be the incident controller, whoever that is, whether that is a volunteer or a paid firefighter, so I do not accept that that amendment to clause 78 is necessary.
I am confident that the government and our departments do appreciate the risk that we are currently seeing. We are seeing volunteers leave the CFA now. We have seen a decline over the last decade. Now, that is not just because of the culture of the CFA. As I say, I have the most enormous respect for the volunteers there, but it is actually the nature of volunteerism. We are seeing volunteers decline across everything, and this is because of the lives that we lead. It is because both parents are out working. We are working longer hours, we are travelling more for work and we are doing a range of activities.
So I am hoping that this legislation and some of the injections of funding into volunteers will actually increase the volunteer base that we have. We know from the New South Wales experience that when they modernised their fire services—they did not do what we are doing; not exactly—their reform actually led to an improvement in the number of volunteers.
We know anecdotally that many CFA volunteers will stay with the CFA because they believe in what it does, and I believe in what it does. But in this context I believe that the risks around fire services reform have been mitigated. I think we need to listen to people like Mr Fred Forrest from Mansfield when they actually address some of the really important issues around volunteering for the CFA and around the culture there—and I hope that modernising our fire services will help with that.
This is not a perfect bill by any means. I think it was significantly improved through the committee process, and I commend the members of that committee, because they did do a lot of work. I do not think that the schedule of diseases for presumptive rights goes far enough. My brother-in-law is a firefighter. I know that he does not talk about it, but when he drives around Canberra and Queanbeyan he passes the house where a child died and he passes the house where someone else died. The trauma that he has deep in his soul and in his heart is tough. I certainly think that for many of our first responders we have to recognise that PTSD is actually something that is very alive amongst them— firefighters both paid and volunteer.
With things like mesothelioma, how many firefighters, particularly rural ones, are going out to sheds that are lined with asbestos? I know we had asbestos sheds on our property. There is also the prevalence of Parkinson’s disease in firefighters. We know in many USA jurisdictions that they have introduced presumptive legislation for firefighters with Parkinson’s disease, and I will certainly be asking how we can add to that schedule without legislation.
However, as I said in the 58th Parliament, I believe that we do need to modernise our fire services. I do believe that we need to give presumptive rights to our firefighters. I thank them for the work that they do, and I commend the bill.
Fiona Patten MP
Leader of Reason
Member for Northern Metropolitan Region
Speech given 18/6/19