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Wednesday, 25 June 2003
Page: 17592

Mr GAVAN O'CONNOR (11:43 AM) —The Workplace Relations Amendment (Protection for Emergency Management Volunteers) Bill 2003 will be supported by the opposition, although we do consider that it does not go far enough in protecting our volunteer firefighters in their employment. I think it is fair to say that the government has been dragged to the table on this piece of legislation. I remind the House that in October 2002 the Leader of the Opposition put before the House a private member's bill that enshrined a range of protections for our volunteers in this area of emergency service activity. At that particular time, the government opposed the bill because it claimed it was unnecessary. We have experienced the worst bushfire season on record, where literally thousands of our volunteers were called into service. An unfortunate incident where one volunteer firefighter lost his employment has basically prompted the response of the government today.

We certainly do support the central element of this bill, but we do not believe it goes far enough. The bill that Labor proposed sought to restore the power of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission to grant paid emergency services leave as part of an award. Our bill attempted to protect volunteers from any form of discrimination as a result of their volunteer service. We felt that those particular provisions were worth while and worthy of consideration by the government, but what we have here is just one element of the three elements of Labor's proposal that was tabled before the House in October 2002. This bill will add to the list of reasons termination of employment by an employer is rendered unlawful by the Workplace Relations Act 1996. The current list of reasons termination is unlawful includes temporary absence due to illness or injury; union membership and legitimate union activities; non-membership of a union; the filing of a complaint against one's employer; race, sex or disability; and refusal to negotiate or sign an AWA. Of course, we have now added to that list by virtue of this piece of legislation.

Prior to the enactment of the Workplace Relations Act 1996, the Australian Industrial Relations Commission was empowered to make federal awards dealing with volunteer emergency leave. It was the government that basically curtailed those provisions, and section 89A of the Workplace Relations Act now provides that awards may only include certain allowable award matters, which include annual leave and leave loadings, long service leave and personal or carer's leave, including sick leave, family leave, bereavement leave, compassionate leave, cultural leave and other like forms of leave. Volunteer emergency leave was no longer an allowable award matter. The bill that we sought to introduce and have passed in the parliament would have restored volunteer emergency leave as an allowable award matter. Of course, it is a matter now on the public record that the government saw fit at the time to oppose a piece of legislation that would have given broad and comprehensive support to volunteers and in particular to our volunteer firefighters. It is now on the public record that a key element of the legislation that was introduced by Labor has now been picked by the government in this bill. We made several attempts to bring that legislation before the House and have it passed. They were opposed by the government, but we are pleased that the government has finally come to its senses and is supporting at least one element of the bill that Labor introduced in October 2002.

My interest in these particular matters is on two levels. The first is the fact that I am shadow minister for regional services, and the whole area of budgetary allocations for bushfire purposes comes under my portfolio responsibility. I also have a personal interest in the support that we give to our volunteers, because, as members of this House will recall, the Geelong community lost several of its volunteer firefighters in the Linton tragedy several years ago. I will most certainly add my voice in support of any measure that is brought before this House that gives real support to our volunteer firefighters. That event was a tragedy for the Geelong community. Indeed, it was a tragedy for the volunteer firefighting community in the state of Victoria. It had an enormous impact on our community. I would say that only now, many years later, the effects of that tragedy have washed through the community. For the families concerned, obviously that memory will never go away, but they can be comforted by the fact that this parliament is at least taking some measures—not enough, in my judgment—that acknowledge the contribution of volunteer firefighters to our firefighting effort.

Australia has recently gone through a bushfire season which has been acknowledged as one of the worst on record. A combination of climate change factors and the drought made our forests virtual tinderboxes, and it did not take much to spark the disasters that we observed over the last summer. It was not only last summer that we faced this situation. Going back to the season before last, there were some very serious bushfires that threatened life and property in many communities throughout Australia. In this recent bushfire season, Geelong volunteers stepped in, as they always have, to assist other communities in danger. Over 400 firefighters served over the course of the season in various capacities both within Victoria and interstate. I would like to place on the public record the appreciation of the Geelong community and, indeed, of the national parliament for the efforts of those volunteers in my electorate who gave of their time and who in some situations put themselves in some personal danger for the benefit of their fellow Australians.

Members in this debate have acknowledged the important role that employers have played in supporting our volunteer firefighters. I endorse the remarks made in his contribution by the member for Paterson, who preceded me in this debate. He made two very important points, which I support. He said that it is very important in this whole area of volunteer effort that every volunteer keeps in mind their position in their enterprise and the fact that, if they do go away on voluntary service to another community, it does place pressure on that enterprise and on other employees. The test in all of these situations is one of reasonableness, and it is one that I would certainly endorse. Having said that, most employers are very pleased with the involvement of their employees in their local communities and with the fact that they do make a contribution beyond their local communities in their chosen field of volunteer activity, and they are, of course, pleased to support them in that. And they do it without getting the acknowledgement from the community that I think they deserve. So here in this debate I would like to acknowledge the contribution that has been made by Geelong employers to the firefighting effort in the state of Victoria and indeed around Australia through their support for those of their employees who happen to be volunteer firefighters and were in the last season engaged in firefighting activities.

I would also like to especially mention the support given by families and friends to volunteer firefighters. The member for McMillan made the point that these are ordinary people in our community who have a deep sense of duty to their communities and to this nation. They go about their daily business and they volunteer their time and effort, without getting acknowledgement for it, and they are happy to do it. It is that true spirit that we have identified in a bipartisan way in this debate that really makes this community of Australians very strong. It is a sentiment that is echoed around the world. I was recently in Canada, where the provinces face similar situations to those that we face here and there is a similar situation, with communities coming together to fight fires. I have been hearing on the news of the current bushfires that are occurring in the United States and the efforts of communities to contain those fires. The spirit that we claim as our own is really a universal one. It is one we should be encouraging at every level of our community.

Sad to say, I think that spirit is a little on the wane. The pressures we are imposing in our society—and the government must accept some responsibility for this—have meant that in our workplaces the task of earning a living has become very tough. Many people simply do not have the time available that they had in the past to devote to these community based activities. Families and households are under stress from policies that have been introduced by this government. So I say to members opposite that it is all very well to get up in this debate and acknowledge the contribution of volunteers, families and employers—we join you in that acknowledgement—but we ask you to have a look at the policies that you have introduced. Indeed, this particular bill is one example of where the government has put inordinate pressures on families and households and, as a consequence, many people are not able to participate in a voluntary capacity to the extent that they would like.

But I think there is another cultural danger emerging for Australians. It is emerging among many of our young people, who have a self-centred approach to their futures and to their communities. I know the natural tendency of youth is to look to their immediate future, and I am not being overcritical here, because in the main young people do contribute quite significantly—and in my community quite heavily—in a whole range of activities of a voluntary nature. You do not go many Sundays in Geelong without seeing young people, from both public and private schools, in their school uniforms collecting for various charities. You also see young people at the traffic lights supporting our surf lifesavers and the CFA in their fundraising activities. So these comments are in no way made to disparage those particular contributions. But I think as a community we need to pay particular attention to nurturing the culture of voluntary service, because that is the real fabric that weaves our communities and brings us together.

In conclusion, I hope the measures contained in this bill will be passed. Let me restate our disappointment that perhaps the bill has not gone as far as we would have liked in terms of containing the measures we put before the House in the private member's bill tabled in October 2002. But the government has at long last acknowledged that this particular provision is necessary. In October 2002, following the tabling of our legislation, the government said these particular measures were unnecessary. Now that we have gone through the experience of the bushfire season and we have seen the contribution that was made by volunteers, at least there is a final acknowledgement of the importance of this particular piece of legislation to volunteers throughout the nation.

On this side of the House we are accused by the government of being a policy-free zone, but I think the boot is on the other foot. We have heard from the member for Hunter about the fact that the government has no energy policy. I was in this committee several times during the last session, and I have put before the committee the fact that the government still does not have a tourism policy and, of course, I have put before this committee the fact that the government does not have a national bushfire policy. And it still does not.

It is quite extraordinary to see the minister's press releases coming out on the issue of national bushfire policy, because he has done it all before. Following the 2001-02 bushfire season, the Deputy Prime Minister said that the government would develop a national bushfire strategy with the states and territories, and the Minister for Regional Services, Territories and Local Government stated the very same thing in one of his press releases. He commissioned Australia's top firefighters to prepare a report, and he received it in August 2002. He binned the report, saying that it was simply a wish list of aerial firefighting resources that would be required in the next bushfire season. A very important opportunity was lost. The rest is history.

While the minister fiddled, Australia burned. It is a source of regret that, in the enormous task that faced our volunteers in the worst bushfire season on record, all we had from the government was a few sexy Elvis helicopters that they brought to the task and a few good photo opportunities for the Prime Minister and the minister concerned. However, the diversity of aerial firefighting resources that our top fire chiefs said was necessary to combat fires in the past season was not provided by the minister. He did not take the advice of his top fire chiefs from the states, and the rest is history.

I mention this for one particular reason: when you are out in the bush as a volunteer firefighter and the wind changes and you get that shiver up your spine because you know there is the potential for you to lose your life, the ability to call on an aerial firefighting resource is absolutely critical. I am very disappointed that the government did not take the golden opportunity to do something constructive in this policy area before the last season. I am passionate about this, because some of my volunteer firefighters faced it at Linton, and they were incinerated—burnt to death. So it is a very personal matter that the Geelong community raises in the context of this debate. We warmly receive the one provision that has been made in this legislation. You said it was not necessary; well it is—and so are the two other matters that were raised by the Leader of the Opposition and proposed to the House in October 2002. (Time expired)