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Wednesday, 25 June 2003
Page: 17590


Mr BALDWIN (11:32 AM) —It is a great pleasure to be speaking on the Workplace Relations Amendment (Protection for Emergency Management Volunteers) Bill 2003, as it will provide direct benefits to those in my electorate who give so much of their time and, indeed, who put their lives on the line for fellow Australians.

There is that great Australian spirit of mateship and stepping up to the mark when needed. Whenever the call goes out, our volunteer communities step straight up—no questions—looking for the job, looking out for where they need to participate, doing what has to be done to save people's lives and property. That is the true spirit of Australia. I suppose that spirit was formed right back before the days of ANZAC and those horrific days in Gallipoli. That Australian spirit of mateship and the desire to help each other has been there since time immemorial in Australia's history.

The most important thing about this spirit of Australia is that it is done without any need for recognition. We do not see our volunteer communities—firefighters, coastguards, people from the state emergency services or other volunteer rescue associations—out there looking for credit or honour, for medals or certificates. They do it because they want to do it. They do it because they know it is the right thing to do for their fellow Australians.

I am glad to see that this bill will make it unlawful to dismiss an employee who is temporarily absent from work on voluntary emergency management duty. Currently there is no federal legislation protecting those volunteers who are temporarily absent from work undertaking these emergency duties. Indeed, after the bushfires at Christmas last year I had a visit from a young chap asking for help. He had been away for a couple of weeks fighting fires and had come back to find that his job was no longer there. I can understand the concerns of the small business operator—whose name I will leave out of this—who said that his business had suffered financially because he employed only one person, and this young chap was the person he had employed and he could not financially afford to support him. But this young chap had put his own life on the line and, indeed, extended himself in the protection of others outside the area in which he had lived. He had gone down to the South Coast, to the Jervis Bay region, to fight fires in another region. His own home was not under threat, his own family were not under threat, but to him all that was important was other Australians and their property, which was at risk.

It is a pleasure to be speaking to this bill and to see this bill being put through the parliament. This bill will provide the legislative recognition that emergency volunteers deserve for their outstanding service in the protection of the Australian community. It will cover those involved in state emergency services, volunteer rescue associations, rural fire services, coastguards, coastal patrol and, in fact, any recognised volunteer organisation responding to matters of emergency affecting our community.

I reflect on the time, not so long ago, when volunteer firefighters from Paterson gave their time to help communities during the 2001 Christmas bushfires. They were some of the most ferocious fires in Australia's history. They began on Christmas Day and finished around 16 January. When you drive along the Pacific Highway in my electorate, you can see the most damaged areas and how regrowth has appeared in the bush. In local areas there were fires at Swan Bay, Fullerton Cove, Booral, Stroud, Gloucester and Nabiac. But volunteer firefighters also travelled further afield—to the Blue Mountains, Gosford, Penrith, Sydney and the Hawkesbury area. There was an estimated $100 million worth of damage in New South Wales from those fires, and that figure would have been significantly higher if not for the efforts of our firefighters.

One firefighter from Paterson, Albert Kinman, came very close to death during these fires when he was volunteering his time down at Warragamba. He was working with five other firefighters at the time. Their vehicle went up in flames, taking all their belongings with it. Fortunately, no-one was injured in that particular incident but it shows how close to danger our volunteer firefighters actually came. More than 185 firefighters from Great Lakes Fire Control volunteered their time to fight fires, with some people travelling out to Parkes to help with efforts there. I congratulate Fire Control Officer Ian Lewis and the firefighters in the Great Lakes area for their efforts.

More than 80 volunteer firefighters from Dungog Fire Control Centre were involved in helping to fight the fires. I thank Fire Control Officer Allan Gillespie and his team for their efforts. The Port Stephens Fire Control Centre had around 130 firefighters working that Christmas, and I congratulate Fire Control Officer Mark Lewis and his volunteers. Maitland Fire Control Centre had around 70 volunteers working on the fires, and I extend my thanks to Fire Control Officer Barry Pont and his team.

Shortly after those fires, some 18 months ago, the Prime Minister moved a motion in the parliament recognising the efforts of those fine young men and women. In a further mark of respect, those firefighters were honoured with a certificate from the Commonwealth for their courageous efforts in serving our communities. These men and women perform an outstanding service for the community, and that is why I fully support the legislation before us today.

However, if it were not for the support of employers in Paterson, the volunteer firefighters whom I have just mentioned would not have been able to perform their duties. When I travelled around my electorate of Paterson to present the certificates, a number of firefighters made the point of thanking their employers for their support. They appreciated the fact that their employers saw the good that these firefighters were doing for their community and allowed them time to carry out their volunteer duties. Today, the Commonwealth is adding weight to that support by adding to the list of prohibited reasons for terminating a person's employment with the new category of temporary absence from work for carrying out voluntary emergency management duty.

At this point, I should point out that, not long after the election in 2001, in November, the Port Stephens area was affected by tremendous windstorms and hail damage. True to form, the local SES volunteers were out there within minutes removing dangerous trees which were resting on houses, making sure that roofs were tarped down and doing what they had to do to make sure that people's property was protected from further damage and that people felt secure in their environment. I also recognise the efforts that were undertaken at the Salamander Christian Outreach Centre church building, where an emergency centre was set up to provide accommodation, meals, support and coordination. I thank those people and their leader, Alan Williams, who does a tremendous volunteer job as the head of the SES organisation.

Having said that, there is one thing to note: any absence from employment would need to be reasonable in the circumstances in order to be covered by this protection. We need to see give and take from both the employer and the employee, remembering that these people contribute to their community but, at times, there is an incredible cost to the employer as well. So, in order for a volunteer to be covered by this protection, the absence needs to stand the reasonable test, having regard to all of the circumstances. In most circumstances there will be an expectation that the employee would seek the employer's consent before leaving their workplace but, as always, there may be circumstances where this is not possible.

During their time away from work, it must at all times be reasonable. For example, as I said before—in the example where one young chap was laid off—for the sole employee of a small business to be away for several weeks fighting fires may not be reasonable because it may place the financial viability of that business in jeopardy and, therefore, have some very serious ramifications. The protection applies to volunteer members of a recognised emergency management body who are requested or expected to attend an emergency matter.

Legislation is usually not acceptable unless there has been broad community consultation. I am glad that the officers in the department consulted with the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Australian Industry Group, the Australian Council of Trade Unions and, indeed, Emergency Management Australia, through the Attorney-General's portfolio, to discuss and develop guidelines for this legislation.

Section 170C of the act will be amended to include reasons for which employers may not dismiss employees under the lines of this volunteer service. It will add to other reasons for which people cannot be dismissed, such as race, sex or temporary absence of work because of illness or injury. Dismissal on these grounds is unlawful, unless it is based on the inherent requirements of a particular job. The act also provides a clear statement that these are not normally accepted reasons for dismissal. So inclusion of voluntary emergency management duty under this provision will recognise the importance of the service that the volunteers provide in protecting our communities in times of disaster.

Finally, I am glad to say that this amendment to the Workplace Relations Act is a public statement of support for the efforts of our emergency volunteers. They are highly valued, they are respected by our community, and we need to do what we can to encourage people to participate and become volunteers through our rural fire services, state emergency services, volunteer rescue associations and coastguards. Indeed, anything that we can do in this House that encourages people to be involved in supporting and protecting their community is to be commended. I commend this bill to the House.