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Wednesday, 25 June 2003
Page: 17598

Ms VAMVAKINOU (12:12 PM) —I rise today, like my colleagues before me, to speak on an issue that is increasingly becoming an important part of hundreds of local communities throughout Australia. Such is the case in my electorate of Calwell. For years our volunteer firefighters have been at the forefront of some of this nation's worst and most horrific natural disasters, particularly bushfires, but they are at our service in all emergencies, from small-scale to large. The Workplace Relations Amendment (Protection for Emergency Management Volunteers) Bill 2003 presents us with the ability to reward this service and show them that, as a parliament and as a community, we value the provision of their voluntary labour and will do everything we can to protect them and uphold their rights in the workplace.

In my electorate of Calwell, as the urban sprawl continues, pockets of suburbia are getting closer to what is essentially bush and scrub land. It is a sprawl encouraged, admittedly, by this government's First Home Owners Scheme, but it is done without much thought for the growing household debt, the cost to social services or, more importantly, the lack of infrastructure for these new communities. In the case of fire protection and prevention, CFA volunteers play a sizeable part in the defence of farmland, residences, livestock and human lives. Similarly, the SES volunteers play an integral role in ensuring that, when disaster does, unfortunately, strike, people are inconvenienced as little as possible and the lives of those affected are quickly restored to some level of normality.

In this bill the government finally seeks to protect emergency workers from unlawful dismissal if their absence is reasonable in all circumstances. While it is generally agreed that this risk of dismissal is minimal, and it is felt that most employers take a reasonable approach to their volunteer firefighters, matters can occasionally get out of hand and dismissals can and have occurred. While such matters are often addressed with a simple communication on the part of the emergency services commander, in some cases, as illustrated by the recent sacking of a firefighter in Victoria, this reliance on reasonableness is indeed not infallible.

This bill seeks to address the status quo where, under current Commonwealth legislation, it is not illegal to dismiss on these grounds. Furthermore, it seeks to bring the legislation in line with recommendation 166 of the International Labour Organisation, which states that absence from work due to civic obligations is not a valid reason for termination of employment. While the Australian Labor Party welcomes the government's new found admiration for the ILO recommendations, we suggest that the government should develop an even greater fondness for the spirit and conventions of the International Labour Organisation.

It is interesting to note that from the period 1972 onwards, of the 24 conventions ratified by the Commonwealth government, only one convention has occurred during coalition governments. While this government may be awash with the spin and rhetoric of looking out for the battlers, its track record, both in this domain and in a host of others, is suggestive of a very different picture. This is further illustrated by the fact that in October 2002, when the Leader of the Opposition aired the possibility of protecting our volunteers, the response by the government was one of refusal, arguing that such legislation was not in fact necessary.

We are relieved that the government has finally decided to address this issue, and we are amused to note that the minister feels that his decision to present this bill was a result of some of the initiatives and statements from members on this side of the House. Labor has a proud tradition of, and is dedicated to, protecting the rights of workers. With this bill the parliament has an opportunity to correct the omission that still exists whereby under Commonwealth law it is, as I have said, not illegal to dismiss on the grounds of absence due to emergency volunteer service. As I have already indicated, while such action is unlikely, the fact that it nevertheless exists is a matter that requires urgent and careful consideration.

For decades volunteers from all persuasions of Australian life, all deserving of our admiration and support, have been an integral part of the fabric and, indeed, the survival of this country. This bill presents us with an opportunity to defend the very people who risk life and limb for the rest of the community—whether they are volunteers in my electorate fighting grassfires or the hundreds of volunteers who converged on Canberra in January to help fight that national bushfire disaster—and heroically save life and property across the nation.

I know the community values the commitment and sacrifice of volunteer firefighters, because it understands the fundamental role they play in protecting property and life. While we welcome the government's actions in introducing this bill, we are disappointed to see that it is a diluted version of the private member's bill introduced by the Leader of the Opposition—which has resulted, of course, in this bill before us today. While the minister might like to dwell on his new found instincts and the impulses of government members to protect workers, he appreciates that this bill has indeed come forward into the parliament as a result of opposition initiatives and statements. Nevertheless, at the final hurdle, the government has stumbled and once again fallen short of a satisfactory defence for workers. As I said, while we welcome the intention of the bill—which is to prohibit the termination of employment for volunteers as a result of participation in emergency volunteer operations—it is, in its present form, far from being a satisfactory outcome.

The bill fails in two key related areas, and it is in these two areas that the opposition is moving amendments to the bill. The first of the areas relates to the overarching threat of victimisation. The amendments moved by the opposition would give the Federal Court the jurisdiction to guard emergency services volunteers against victimisation. Such victimisation can be quite implicit in its nature and can include instances where volunteers, whilst not being threatened with loss of employment, are nevertheless assigned less favourable tasks or shifts or are systematically and constantly overlooked for promotional advancement. It is utterly deplorable that these people are ultimately discriminated against simply because of their solid commitment to community spirit. As a parliament we need to do all we can to prevent that from occurring. While instances of victimisation are rare, state emergency services are unanimous in their welcoming of any additional employment protection. Despite the fact that this is a concept that might be a little unfamiliar to the government, the utmost protection of these employees is of great importance not only to the workers themselves but also to the Australian Labor Party.

The second aspect that the government has chosen to ignore in its protection of workers relates to paid leave. The amendment to this bill that the Labor Party will move will restore the power of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission to make award provisions granting emergency service volunteers paid leave. While the government may not deem it necessary, it has been well documented that the CFMEU has already lodged a claim with the commission to vary two federal awards, the results being the protection of volunteers' pay in addition to their employment. This is indicative of a growing trend within a range of industries, one that has seen a host of companies provide paid leave for emergency services.

As reported in the Australian on 29 January 2003, Holden, Telstra, Coles Myer and Bendigo Bank already have in place a system ensuring that employees who are absent from work due to volunteer service are not financially disadvantaged. As a parliament, we need to be adamant in our protection of workers, especially when those very same workers go out of their way in order to protect our homes, our properties, our communities and ultimately our lives. I would like to quote former President of the United States Bill Clinton, who I believe has epitomised almost perfectly the whole spirit of volunteering. Bill Clinton said:

Volunteering is an act—it's an act of heroism on a grand scale, and it matters profoundly. It does more than help people beat the odds; it changes the odds.

The passage of this bill, together with the amendment, would be a perfect illustration to these volunteers that they have the support and the appreciation of their communities, of their federal parliament in particular and of the nation as a whole.