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Wednesday, 25 June 2003
Page: 17578

Mr SECKER (10:19 AM) —I rise to give my support to emergency management volunteers by speaking for the Workplace Relations Amendment (Protection for Emergency Management Volunteers) Bill 2003. In seeking to amend the Workplace Relations Act the government is recognising the invaluable contribution made to our community by emergency service volunteers. The sheer amount of time and effort contributed by these people could not possibly be made up by regular emergency service organisation employees alone. To put it simply, we could not do without volunteers. It is therefore highly important that some measures be taken in order to protect our emergency service volunteers from dismissal as a result of absence from work while serving our community.

In order to better illustrate the impact volunteers in general have on our community, I would like to relate to the House the contributions and achievements of some of my own constituents in the seat of Barker. Several of them have made great contributions to various emergency services in South Australia, but the worth of volunteers in general to our society is what I would like to emphasise the most. I recently held the Barker community awards in my electorate to provide some small recognition to volunteers who make our community what it is. There were four outstanding volunteers to whom I had the pleasure and honour of presenting community award certificates; they are just the kinds of volunteers that this legislation intends to assist.

Mr Craig Harris, for example, has spent the last 34 years as a Country Fire Service volunteer, firstly with the Willunga brigade, then with the Morphett Vale brigade and now with the Yankalilla brigade. During that time he was one of a select few volunteers to be trained as a fire investigator. He is also a former captain of Yankalilla brigade, a particularly important role given that it is a joint Country Fire Service and State Emergency Service brigade, as many are in South Australia's rural areas. He currently serves on the regional AIMS team and is one of only a small number of volunteer breathing apparatus instructors. A colleague of Mr Harris told me that he has completed every course the CFS has to offer and has trained and guided many younger members in his many roles. I was also told that Mr Harris has `given unselfishly to the community and has risked his life for the ideal that the CFS stands for—protecting and serving the community'. Mr Harris's contribution is typical of that made by the people this bill seeks to protect. We are fortunate to have such a dedicated emergency management volunteer in our community.

Similarly, Mr Graham Lander has been a tireless worker for the Normanville Surf Life Saving Club. During the first two years of the club's existence, 1998-99—which coincided with my entry into this parliament—Mr Lander, as building manager, negotiated with the Yankalilla Council for a clubroom site and liaised with a number of environmental groups, Surf Lifesaving South Australia, designers, engineers, planners and so on. Furthermore he led a fundraising effort at a local level, also gaining the support of the council and the Emergency Services Fund. He continued in this role for the next two years and also assumed the mantle of club president.

During the actual construction of the clubrooms in 2001 it became apparent to the club's management committee that, for various reasons, neither cost nor completion targets would be met. To make matters worse, the possibility of contractual and legal disputes threatened the very existence of the club. It was at this point that Mr Lander took on yet another role—that of builder. Holding a licence himself, he was able to take the contract. He began to work three to five days a week on site, plus he spent many evenings costing and ordering materials and organising subcontractors. This vital work continued for a whole year, during which time Mr Lander continued to run a mixed farm and also established an olive grove and a vineyard. One of his colleagues said that the excellent end result—a fully functioning, licensed and equipped clubroom—would have been extraordinarily difficult to achieve without the foresight, leadership, push and building skills of Graham Lander. Again, we are talking about a person whom this bill seeks to protect during his service to our community. The commitment made to our community by volunteers such as Mr Lander is something that needs to be supported by measures such as those proposed in this bill.

Mr Lindsay Honeyman is, simply put, a bit of an all-rounder when it comes to volunteering. He started out quite young, giving up his school holidays to help his father and uncle on the old horse tram at Victor Harbor. Later, when his wife was seriously ill, he gave up work for eight or nine years to care for her and his mother. During this time, both he and his wife worked tirelessly for the local primary and high schools and the football, netball, tennis and cricket clubs. Mr Honeyman was a founding member of the local youth club and still works for it in many ways, including serving as its representative on the Recreation Centre Management Committee and carrying out maintenance work. Another project Mr Honeyman was involved in was the formation of a committee to reinstate the old steam train in Fisher Playground at Victor Harbor. Not only did he go out seeking donations for this purpose; he also did much of the actual work on the train himself.

Among countless other clubs and organisations, Mr Honeyman continues to support the community with his active involvement in the Ratepayers Association, on behalf of which he liaises with the council; the Women's and Children's Hospital and the Red Cross, both of which he regularly sells badges for; the local Zonta Club; Rivercatchment Plants Trees for Life; and the Victor Harbor 2002 celebrations. An acquaintance of Mr Honeyman remarked that he has `packed his life with an interest in the wellbeing of others'. This is indeed the true spirit of volunteers and is what we seek to support and encourage today.

I will mention one more outstanding person—Mrs Helen Midgley, who has provided many years of service to the community, particularly through St John Ambulance. A volunteer ambulance officer with about 28 years service, Mrs Midgley was only the fourth female officer in South Australian ambulances. She was also a training officer with the Brigade Advanced Training Corps for 11 years and was in Operation 4 Minutes Team for three years. In 1988 she qualified as a fully trained air attendant for St John Ambulance Air Wing and the Royal Flying Doctor Service based at Adelaide airport, and she still works for the flying doctors and gives them her unswerving support.

After the devoluntarisation of the St John Ambulance service, she was a founding member of the Volunteer Emergency Medical Technician Service, assisting the underprivileged in and around Adelaide city. This service operates seven nights a week and is staffed completely by trained volunteer ambulance drivers. Mrs Midgley's ongoing efforts were acknowledged in 1999 when, in recognition of 25 years as a fully qualified ambulance officer, she was admitted to the Sovereign Order of St John of Jerusalem, Knights Hospitaller, as a Serving Sister.

Mrs Midgley is also the founder and president of the Spider Bite Recovery Support Group, which she established after suffering from a particularly poisonous spider bite in 1999. To date, the group has held two state conferences, has offshoots established in Queensland, Victoria, Western Australia and New Zealand, has 520 bite victims registered worldwide and is growing at the rate of four every week. She has written one book, is currently writing a second and has put five years of research into an information pack to assist new victims in the recovery process. She also continues to lobby for funding to continue research in the field of necrotic disease, a particularly shocking condition. As a colleague said of Mrs Midgley, `she has given so much to South Australia as a volunteer', and that is what this legislation is all about—protecting those volunteers.

With the efforts of such people as these in mind, it becomes very clear why we need to safeguard the employment of these contributors so as not to discourage them and others like them from volunteering in our society. Volunteers, those who selflessly give their time and effort for the wellbeing of others, are those that this bill seeks to protect. We rely on them relentlessly, often without even knowing it. For example, in the horror fires earlier this year, we depended on so many volunteer CFS crews to fight the fires and to restore order to these devastated areas. We have relied on SES crews to secure our properties after the great storms that have hit various parts of the country, and we have relied on various volunteer medical teams to provide medical assistance in times of need also.

We dial 000 knowing that within minutes someone will respond to our call but never sparing a thought for what this means to them. Naturally, when a 000 call is made, the circumstances do not lend themselves to thinking about what the volunteer must do to respond to our call, but in times of calm it pays to reflect upon what it means to drop everything and go to the aid of others. For example, what does it mean to inform your boss that you have to leave work because there is a fire? What does it mean to not be able to advise your boss when you will return? What does it mean to put all your faith in the relationship you have with your employer to maintain your job for you, knowing that at any point you may get a call that means you must leave work regardless of what deadlines need to be met?

While most employers fully understand the need to have people who are willing to drop everything to help others, there are some who only see their bottom line, and it is for this reason that the federal government has taken this step to safeguard the employment of these men and women who selflessly make the effort, give up their time and often put themselves in danger to assist others. Section 170CK of the Workplace Relations Act provides certain specified reasons for which an employee's employment may not be terminated. These include temporary absence from work due to illness or injury, as well as race, colour, sex, marital status, religion, political opinion and so on.

This bill will include another reason preventing termination of employment—that is, if the employee is an emergency management volunteer who is temporarily absent from the workplace on voluntary emergency management duty. Reasons for the introduction of this particular bill are several. Firstly, while there is some legislative protection in some states and territories, it is not universal and the scope and limits often differ. Secondly, it will be inserted into the act by way of a statement. This bill will assist in giving effect to the International Labour Organisation's recommendation No. 166, which states, among other things, that temporary absence from work due to civic obligation should not be a valid reason for dismissal. Lastly, this bill will be, in both a symbolic and practical manner, a statement recognising the much valued efforts and ongoing commitment of emergency management volunteers in Australian society.

In short, this bill seeks to formalise across the nation the rules and regulations as to how employers must handle the employment of emergency management volunteers and provides regulations as to how emergency management volunteers must handle their employment commitments in conjunction with their volunteer commitments. The bill will go a long way to providing some protection to employers of emergency management volunteers. Obviously, an emergency volunteer will not automatically gain the protection that this bill will provide unless they are a member of, or have a member-like association with, a recognised emergency management body.

Furthermore, an employee's absence from their workplace must be reasonable given the situation. In order to ensure that volunteers who just turn up to emergency activities do not attract this protection, the bill will limit its provision to the situation where: (a) an employee is requested by, or on behalf of, a recognised emergency management body to carry out an activity; or (b) if no such request was made, it would have been reasonable to expect that such a request would have been made. Simply put, a recognised emergency management service must request the volunteer's assistance or, if a volunteer reasonably expects that such a request would have been made of them, they may attend on their own initiative and still be protected. Volunteers need that protection because, in many cases, the call will not get to them and they will realise there is an emergency situation and they need to go.

With regard to the organisations themselves, there are rather a large number that could be classed as emergency management bodies. The scope of the bill includes them all by classing them as one of the following: firstly, bodies that have a role or function under a Commonwealth, state or territory designed disaster plan; secondly, firefighting, civil defence or rescue bodies; and, thirdly, any other body of which a substantial purpose involves securing the safety of persons or animals, protecting property or otherwise responding to an emergency or a natural disaster.

The limiting of protection will serve to minimise disruption to employers' businesses. Indeed, many employers are quite accommodating of volunteers among their employees. Many employers are volunteers themselves. The government is aware that many businesses already have programs in place to provide leave for their volunteers on emergency duty. They are to be commended for this policy. Similarly, this bill will provide a legislative assurance to all volunteers that their jobs will not be jeopardised as a result of their absence from work. Nevertheless, an employee should make every effort to obtain employer permission for their absence where possible and should restrict the duration of their absence to a minimum given the circumstances. It would certainly not be reasonable for an employee to leave their workplace, particularly a small business, for longer than their employer could manage.

Our community in this country thrives because so many of our residents give selflessly to others. We thrive because we know that when disaster strikes there will be a vast support network there for us, and we thrive because there is a support network provided to those who support us. The government have decided that it is time to formalise the support for those who support us and to formalise regulations which protect emergency management volunteers. We plan to safeguard their employment so that once they have finished helping others there will still be a job to go back to. We can finally provide them with some kind of relief. They will know that their interests and stability are being looked after, even though they are too busy looking out for others to worry too much about themselves. We can also provide employers with some kind of stability so that they know that, even though their employee is not at work, that employee will not be able to be absent indefinitely or to fraudulently take time off work and claim the protection.

This bill seeks to offer dual protection to all of those affected by the need for our volunteers to answer the call to duty when it arises. It is a responsible bill which provides much needed assurances to many sections of our community. Just by having these formalised assurances, many employers of emergency management volunteers and many more emergency management volunteers will feel a sense of security and certainty in going about their duties. The work of our emergency management volunteers and the impact they have on our community are so important. Considering that these people receive no payment for their services and are often out of pocket for associated expenses themselves, considering that they often forgo paid leave to answer requests for assistance and may sometimes even risk their own lives, it seems only fitting that they at least have the assurance of a job when they return to work, and the least we can do is say, `Thank you for your efforts.'

In the short remaining time that I have to speak, I note that the previous speaker, the member for Brisbane, put great emphasis on the Industrial Relations Commission as an industrial umpire. Certainly we could take him more seriously if his union mates accepted the umpire's decision on all occasions. We could take him more seriously if he accepted the umpire's decision himself instead of supporting his union mates when they flout and ignore the umpire's decision. We could take him more seriously if he supported our legislation to strengthen the industrial umpire. But he does not, his union mates do not and the Labor Party do not, so we do not take him seriously, we do not take his union mates seriously and we do not take the Labor Party seriously. They have no policies, no leadership and no unity, and that is the Labor Party for you. I consider this a very useful bill, and I commend it to the House.