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Wednesday, 25 June 2003
Page: 17583


Ms JACKSON (10:38 AM) —It is a pleasure to rise and speak on the Workplace Relations Amendment (Protection for Emergency Management Volunteers) Bill 2003 and in support of the amendment to be moved by the member for Barton. I believe that this government bill was prompted by Labor's initiative: the private member's bill known as the Workplace Relations Amendment (Emergency Services) Bill 2002, which was introduced into the House by the Leader of the Opposition on 21 October 2002. Indeed, when he introduced the bill, the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations acknowledged the fact that the impetus for this legislation had come as a result of calls for changes in this area by the Labor opposition, prompted by similar calls from his own backbench, so I am pleased to see the bill here.

A division having been called in the House of Representatives

Sitting suspended from 10.40 a.m. to 10.59 a.m.


Ms JACKSON —Just before we adjourned for the division, I was talking about the Labor opposition's private member's bill that dealt with similar issues. I very much supported that bill and its intention, which was to give across-the-board employment protection to emergency service volunteers. One of my concerns about this legislation, and I will come back to it, is that I do not believe it is as broad in its scope or as comprehensive in the protection that it offers to emergency services volunteers. The Labor private member's bill received wide community support and I have to say that even this legislation, in its watered-down form, has similarly received widespread community support.

This is particularly so in my outer metropolitan electorate of Hasluck. A substantial part of the electorate is dependent upon the volunteer bushfire brigade for fire control, unlike the rest of the metropolitan area, which is catered for by the Fire and Emergency Services—which is, of course, a professional full-time firefighting service. So we are very dependent on the volunteer bushfire brigade—the Kalamunda Volunteer Bushfire Brigade in particular. That brigade has a very proud history of service to the local hills community in my electorate, and it has been a great pleasure for me to have had dealings with that organisation and to have been able to represent its interests on many occasions. It is completely dependent on its very dedicated volunteers, who give many hours of their time for its operation. The hills area in Perth is considered to be one of the greatest areas of fire risk. The Kalamunda Volunteer Bushfire Brigade spends many hours trying to provide protection to that hills community.

The brigade is also something of a family affair—many people involved can say that their parents and their grandparents also served in the local bushfire brigade. It receives financial support from the Kalamunda Shire, and I think it is appropriate on this occasion to acknowledge the shire for that contribution and support. The brigade also relies on donations from business and fundraising for all its equipment and gear. As I said, organisations like the Kalamunda Volunteer Bushfire Brigade rely on their volunteers and certainly welcome any measures that give their volunteers and, frankly, potential volunteers confidence that their employment will be protected.

I had a lengthy discussion with Mr Sean Winter, who is the Captain of the Kalamunda Volunteer Bushfire Brigade, regarding the Labor opposition's private member's bill in this area—and also the government's legislation. He explained to me that they were having an increasing struggle to get volunteers who could be available for the bushfire service from nine to five, Monday to Friday, and that was entirely because of the work commitments of many people in the area. Unfortunately, of course, we cannot dictate precisely when fires will be nor tell them not to burn between nine and five, Monday to Friday. The volunteer bushfire brigade has very good practices in place to alert employers when volunteers are needed to attend fires, and after such fire-fighting services, of course, it always provides a letter to the employer confirming that there has been a fire and that that was the reason for volunteers having absented themselves from work. I think that also has the benefit of ensuring that the service itself cannot be exploited by people who might like to leave their employment without proper cause.

Sean Winter explained to me that he joined the fire service some 13 years ago and used to fight fires with the blessing of his employer, as did many other volunteers. He explained to me that they have noted in recent years that that kind of community spirit approach to volunteers leaving the workplace is sadly declining. That may be because, in days gone by, more volunteers were employed closer to home and, since the fire is usually in the local community, the employer, as part of that community, was happy to see the volunteer attend the fire. In my outer metropolitan seat of Hasluck, that is increasingly less often the case. We are, for the first time, experiencing difficulties in attracting volunteers and in their being able to access time off from work. I suspect this is being felt more in my outer metropolitan electorate than in some country areas where the majority of employment is still local. So I am very pleased to see this legislation introduced to at least provide some protection to volunteers.

Not only are we blessed with the Kalamunda Volunteer Bushfire Brigade; I also have a very active state emergency service unit in my electorate, and I want to take this opportunity to commend, in particular, the SES Gosnells unit. The SES Gosnells unit is a delightful organisation. It has provided many years of service to the community. It not only plays a role in the education of the community in local emergency preparedness; it is also part and parcel of any search and rescue operations, both for missing persons and for forensic evidence, and of course it assists members of the community in mitigating the effects of storms. Again, in the outer metropolitan area in the hills of Perth, where we are surrounded by lovely trees and forests, sometimes the effects of storms can have quite devastating consequences, so the Gosnells unit has played a very valuable role in that regard. The unit also supports all other emergency services and agencies in the area. The SES Gosnells unit put in thousands of hours of community service each year, and it is through that constant commitment and the support of the volunteers that the unit is able to continue to provide such a valuable service to the community. Members of the unit make similar comments to that of Sean Winter concerning their ability to continue to attract volunteers, and when I spoke to them of this legislation they also welcomed its introduction.

However, as I said at the outset of my comments, the bill fails to provide for what I think is a very important aspect; that is, it does not provide for the reinstatement of leave for volunteers to be an allowable award matter. In other words, the government is continuing to deny the Australian Industrial Relations Commission—the umpire—the power to create an entitlement to leave, either paid or unpaid, for volunteers who work in emergency services organisations. It does not provide for that to become an award right. That is a great irony to me because, in the state industrial relations system, such powers exist for the commission and, indeed, in Western Australia we have a number of public sector awards and agreements which, by that award regulation, provide a certain number of days each year for volunteers for emergency services. I think that the ability to have similar provision in the private sector, either by award or agreement, would be warmly welcomed.

I say that particularly in light of the concerns that have been expressed to me and by me about the difficulty we are now experiencing in attracting and retaining volunteers. In that regard, the government has taken only a small step to protect emergency services volunteers. I urge the minister, in considering his response to the speeches that have been made in respect of this piece of legislation, to give further consideration to reinstating the power for leave, be it paid or unpaid, for volunteers for emergency services organisations to be reinstated as an allowable award matter in the federal jurisdiction. That would provide the opportunity for the commission to act in that regard. I urge support for the amendment to be put forward by the member for Barton to strengthen the protection and allow the Industrial Relations Commission the right to create award rights for volunteers. That is the greatest deficiency in the legislation that is currently before the parliament. All the bill does is provide some protection against a person being dismissed for attending an emergency. What it does not do is create additional rights, or an opportunity, for people to claim leave, be it paid or unpaid, in order to be a participant in an emergency services organisation.

As I have said, this is a critical issue in my electorate. I adopt and support the comments made by the member for Brisbane in his contribution to the debate that this is an area that ought to be considered and that needs to be given some urgent attention by the government. Indeed, if we do not start to take steps in this regard, I think we will be faced in my local hills community with fewer people volunteering to make themselves available to valuable services such as the Kalamunda Volunteer Bushfire Brigade and the Gosnells State Emergency Service organisation.

Finally, there are lots of organisations that I did not specifically refer to in my comments that provide a magnificent service to the community. The St John Ambulance Association is one. I take this opportunity to commend all of those who volunteer and to thank them for their contribution. They are valued by many of us. Again, I reiterate my comments in support of the bill and, in particular, the second reading amendment to be moved by the member for Barton.