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What’s the Victorian government’s dispute with the CFA about? And how will it affect the election?

Historically, the CFA was a voluntary organisation. But with increasing urbanisation, there are pressures to increase the number of career firefighters. Tracey Nearmy/AAP

What’s the Victorian government’s dispute with the CFA about? And how will it affect the election?

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is using Victoria’s long-running enterprise bargaining dispute between the Country Fire Authority (CFA) and the United Firefighters Union (UFU) to highlight the Liberal Party’s credentials to challenge union militancy in the final week of the federal election campaign.

But what, exactly, is the dispute about? Let’s go back to basics and look at the key players, how the negotiations broke down, and the state Labor and federal Liberal political responses.

Volunteer firefighters’ rights

Pay is not one of the issues in contention. Rather, the CFA is concerned that the UFU’s enterprise bargaining proposal gives the paid firefighters’ union too much power to make decisions over volunteer firefighters and the equipment, processes and staffing of CFA stations. Negotiations have lasted for almost 1,200 days.

Underlying the dispute are issues of increasing urbanisation, which means the CFA’s 800 career and 60,000 volunteer firefighters increasingly work alongside each other. Of Victoria’s 1,186 fire stations, 32 are are staffed by both paid and volunteer firefighters.

The CFA has long been concerned with the marginalisation of the volunteer workforce and the cost to the CFA budget of increasing the numbers of career firefighters. During the 2014 state election, the Labor Party promised to hire an additional 350 firefighters. The CFA seems concerned this will be at the expense of other equipment and other priorities.

CFA vs UFU

Underlying this dispute is what can only be described as a toxic relationship between CFA management and the UFU.

In February 2014, the Federal Court decided on a case brought by the UFU seeking to have the CFA implement a provision of the 2010 enterprise agreement to:

  • recruit an additional 342 career firefighters by 2016;

  • employ a specified number of career firefighters on each shift; and

  • use only career firefighters to perform certain work.

The Federal Court found the clause unconstitutional, though its decision noted the CFA had given no cogent explanation for why it had agreed to the provisions in the 2010 agreement in the first place.

Among other things, the CFA had argued the agreement had been reached under a different government and a different management, and that “budgetary and demographic issues” had made the changes necessary. In effect, the CFA used the constitutional challenge to renege on an agreement, a move that could only have exacerbated tensions between the parties.

Victoria’s CFA has 800 paid firefighters and 60,000 volunteers. Mal Fairclough/AAP

Similar issues are at the heart of the failed negotiations for a new agreement. This led to an application to the Fair Work Commission to assist the negotiation process.

Since November 2015, the parties had progressively narrowed the areas of dispute and the Fair Work recommendations were provided as the “best prospect for resolution of this long running dispute”. Specifically the recommendations were designed to:

  • ensure the agreement would only apply to career firefighters and not impact on the role of volunteers;

  • apply only to integrated volunteer and career firefighter stations; and

  • maintain the discretion of incident controllers in managing resources in the interests of public safety.

While these seem reasonable, it’s important to note that the CFA had indicated to the Fair Work Commission as early as February that it did not accept it making final recommendations. Meanwhile, Fair Work expressed concern that the CFA had reneged on some matters already agreed in the negotiation process.

The Victorian government response

Under ordinary circumstances, the Fair Work recommendations would have led to a final agreement. But, predictably, the CFA rejected the recommendations, arguing they did not meet their concerns about issues of discrimination, management’s ability to deploy resources flexibly, management autonomy in decision-making, and the interests of volunteer firefighters.

On June 10, the Victorian government announced it had accepted the Fair Work Commission recommendations as the basis for agreement and had inserted additional clauses protecting the position of volunteer firefighters. The government went even further by appointing Emergency Services Commissioner Craig Lapsley to oversee the implementation of the agreement particularly in relation to volunteers.

This intervention prompted the resignation of Emergency Services Minister Jane Garrett, who had been a vocal critic of UFU demands and had been unwilling to accept the cabinet proposal to end the dispute.

Shortly after, the government sacked the CFA board, expressing a lack of confidence in its ability to settle the dispute and bring about the necessary cultural change in the organisation. Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews noted morale was:

… at its lowest ebb in decades, with an enormous divide between senior management and firefighters.

It was reasonable of the government to challenge the competence of the board to manage the dispute. But sacking the board brings into the question the capacity of bodies such as the CFA to operate independently of government under their legislative mandate.

While the government had endorsed the agreement, the unresolved matters in the bargaining dispute and the concerns of Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria, which represents the state’s 60,000 volunteer firefighters, have yet to be finally resolved.

On June 20, the Supreme Court issued orders requiring the CFA and VFBV to meet and discuss the volunteer firefighters’ concerns with the proposed agreement on July 8. This prevents the CFA putting the agreement to a ballot of employees until July 23.

The Victorian government has begun the process of appointing a new board, beginning with a new chair, Greg Smith, and four other members. The remaining four members are to be nominated by the VBFV. The board’s immediate task is to resolve the industrial dispute and rebuild morale in the CFA.

Smith is a former deputy president of the Fair Work Commission and had portfolio responsibility for the CFA. He has a reputation for fairness and independence. His appointment greatly increases the prospects of an early resolution as he is likely to have the confidence of the CFA and the UFU at least. The VFBV has yet to comment on this appointment.

Implications for the federal election

While the Victorian government intervention in the CFA dispute can be defended, the timing and form of its intervention is questionable. Andrews has provided the Liberal Party with a great opportunity in marginal seats in Victoria, particularly Corangamite, Dunkley and McEwen.

Liberal Party internal polling suggests 43% of Labor voters disagreed with the Andrews government’s response to the dispute. Some 25% said they would change their vote as a result.

Malcolm Turnbull’s support of the CFA is likely to play out well electorally. Lukas Coch/AAP

Meanwhile, a ReachTEL poll in Corangamite, an electorate that suffered in the Christmas Day 2015 bushfires, gave Liberal MP Sarah Henderson a two-party preferred vote of 51-49 against her Labor opponent, Libby Coker. This poll was taken before the resignation of Garrett or the sacking of the CFA board. The incumbent may therefore have an even greater lead.

Turnbull is capitalising on the issue of union militancy as he seeks to lock in an electoral victory. He has framed the Victorian government’s response as an attack on the Australian ethos of volunteering and is promising to put this at the head of his legislative agenda if re-elected.

While the practicalities and the constitutionality of his proposals are questionable, it is may play well electorally. The issue of “rogue unions” has not resonated with the electorate in the election campaign so far. Yet it was the Senate’s rejection of proposed legislation to re-establish the Australian Building and Construction Commission that was the trigger for the election.

Whether fanning the flames of union militancy in the final days of the election campaign pays off for Turnbull and his party is uncertain, the appointment Smith to the CFA board and the CFA’s undertaking to consult with the UFU presage an imminent resolution to this seemingly intractable dispute.