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Wednesday, 25 June 2003
Page: 17587

Mr ZAHRA (11:17 AM) —The Workplace Relations Amendment (Protection for Emergency Management Volunteers) Bill 2003 deals with important business. Those of us who represent country districts know how much of a risk fire is, and we know what an enormous community effort is required in order to deal with that risk. It is worth noting—and I want to say this up front—that the government are essentially responding here to a private member's bill introduced by the Leader of the Opposition on 21 October last year. It was a bill which contained a lot of the same provisions that we now see in the government's legislation. It is worth making the point here in this place that the government probably should not have been so bloody-minded about it and probably at that time should have just adopted the bill and the suggestion which the opposition made. It would have been a good thing, but that is not what they did. However, we have the legislation from the government before us today, which deals in large part with those issues that were raised in that original private member's bill moved by the Leader of the Opposition.

I was just talking with my colleague and friend the member for Hasluck about the shared community responsibility for emergency management. She made the good point that in a number of the areas in her constituency, people do not work in the town in which they live. This issue that we are talking about today—people being protected from unfair dismissal from their workplaces as a result of being called to help fight a fire in the community in which they live—is particularly important when you have situations like that. It is not something which tends to exist so much in country districts, as you would be aware, Mr Acting Deputy Speaker Hawker. In country regions we tend to have more people who live in the area in which they work, so that when there is a fire it is a case of all hands on deck and it is hard for an employer not to see how their own interests are served by having a fire put out—because it is likely that their own family's wellbeing is at risk, as well as the wellbeing of their employees. So it is a slightly different circumstance, and it is important that we recognise that this exists in a growing number of communities as people increasingly find places to work that are away from the places where they live.

An enormous amount of work gets done through emergency management volunteering. I am lucky in the electorate I represent to have a number of outstanding people who contribute to making our community safe through their participation in the CFA, the SES and numerous other volunteer agencies that are responsive to emergency situations. I have been—as I am sure you have, Mr Deputy Speaker—to many occasions such as annual presentation nights or fundraising efforts in the course of the year, and they continue to impress me as a group of people who have a great notion of serving their community first. These people are as good a reflection as you are ever likely to find of the people who live in their various towns and districts. In my electorate, you get farmers participating, you get people who work in the power stations, you get people who work at Rocklea Spinning Mills, you get people who work in retail at the big supermarkets and you get people who are in other circumstances unemployed; you get a great mix of people involved in these agencies. They reflect our community well, and they serve our community well. What we are doing here is ensuring that those people who are in the paid work force are not disadvantaged by participating in the emergency management task that is so vital to our community.

The recent bushfires that we have had have been a very powerful reminder to us all of just how significant the threat from bushfires is in our country. I know you, Mr Deputy Speaker, would be aware, as a Victorian—as would other members, because they would have read about them in the newspapers—of just how significant the bushfires in the Gippsland region were. I was fortunate that in my electorate, in my part of the Gippsland region, we had hardly any bushfires at all. We had a few little outbreaks, but they were very quickly contained by the professional volunteers we have and by the full-time staff of the emergency services. But further east in the federal electorate of Gippsland I know people paid a very high price indeed for the bushfires, which ravaged far east Gippsland in particular, during that time. And what we saw was an incredible community effort. We saw an effort which joined employers and employees; we saw an effort which joined volunteers from right across the Gippsland region and the rest of Victoria. They came to where those bushfires were burning in far east Gippsland and they lent a hand.

And I have to say this: as far as I am aware, we had no instances where an employer did the wrong thing by their work force. No-one in the community who was a volunteer and an employee was then penalised for going to fight a bushfire. We did not have a single person, to my knowledge, in that circumstance. I think that says something very good about our region and about our community, but it also underscores the point I made a little bit earlier that, when you live in country districts, you can see much more clearly the shared responsibility and the shared obligation you have in emergency situations. The truth is that, when you work and live in different areas, that clear link is not so clear.

There was a great community effort. A large number of people made a big effort to contain those fires and to protect people's property and families. During that time, we saw a great example of `all hands on deck'. People from right across our region—people who were giving up, in some cases, their own time and using their own petrol and resources—were going down and lending a hand further east because they knew that, if they were ever faced with the same circumstances, the same would be done for them. That represents a great spirit of mateship.

While a lot of attention tends to be given to those people who actually go and fight the fires in these crisis situations, we also have to make sure that we do not forget about the people who stay behind. I know the work that people do in fighting bushfires is very attractive, and it is something that people want to be associated with. There is great footage on the television, and great stories emerge from the situations where people are fighting bushfires and putting their lives on the line. However, equally brave are the firefighters who stay behind to protect the communities in which they live. These are the unsung heroes, I think, of firefighting, because it is pretty hard to stay in your community when there is a fire raging some hundred kilometres away which requires a large number of people to go and deal with it. People know that you are in the CFA or the urban fire brigade or what have you, and they say to you, `Did you go down to Omeo to help out with the fire?' and you say, `No.' I guess that that is not an easy conversation for people to have, because they feel the weight of expectation upon them; they feel that people expect them to have gone and fought those fires. What I want to say in this place about those people is that they do their communities an incredibly important service by staying behind and being on stand-by to respond to a fire should one take place in the community in which they live.

In the Gippsland region, we were feeling very much on edge, very much at risk and very vulnerable at the height of the bushfire situation in our region. We had outbreaks between Morwell and Traralgon, and we had outbreaks in a section of pine plantation to the south of the Latrobe Regional Hospital, and they threatened a large number of properties. If it had not been for those people in our region who had stayed behind and were able to respond to that circumstance, we might well have had another disaster and we might have been fighting bushfires on a number of fronts, instead of being able to fight the large bushfire in the east whilst containing outbreaks in central and west Gippsland. So I want to place on record the importance of the work that those people do.

We really have in Victoria, I think, an outstanding emergency management volunteer system. We have professional full-time staff who are employed by various emergency management agencies and by the state government and a professional emergency management volunteer structure which involves a number of different agencies, with direct responsibility given to those agencies by local towns and districts right across the state of Victoria. I think it is an excellent model. It has gone through some strains and changes over the course of the last six or seven years when we have seen a large amount of pressure applied to those agencies to respond to threats in a different way and to be involved in giving their volunteers a new range of skills and knowledge to deal with fire situations. I say to those people who have been involved in that task: thank you for keeping the faith; thank you for participating in that process and thank you for continuing to be a part of the CFA and the other emergency management volunteer agencies that have been part of emergency management in Victoria for so long.

Those of us on this side of the House who represent country districts understand just how important volunteers are to the emergency management task. We have many of those people in our local ALP branches and in our communities. We know them—they are our friends, they are our neighbours—and we are full of admiration for the work they do. The quality of the people we have in those emergency management volunteer organisations is a powerful expression of just how cohesive a community we live in. We have in our community decent, community minded people who are prepared to put their shoulder to the wheel to protect the lives and resources and assets of people who live not only in their own areas but in other towns and districts.

Let me conclude by saying how much we appreciate the work of emergency management volunteers and how serious we are in the Labor Party about protecting the volunteer effort people are making in emergency management. Whilst we think that the government should have acted sooner to provide protection for emergency management volunteers, we nonetheless will be supporting this legislation for the protection that it gives to people who could be vulnerable to situations where their employer might take sanctions against them simply for carrying out the task of protecting the community in which they live.