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Wednesday, 25 June 2003
Page: 17600


Mr BRENDAN O'CONNOR (12:21 PM) —The Workplace Relations Amendment (Protection for Emergency Management Volunteers) Bill 2003 is indeed very important, but it is rather a pale imitation of the one that was introduced in October last year by the Leader of the Opposition. Again, this bill follows the opposition in the area of policy. The Prime Minister followed the Leader of the Opposition when he decided to commemorate a day for the Bali victims. The Prime Minister followed the Leader of the Opposition when he started to make doorstop references to maternity leave. The Prime Minister's references to maternity leave were rather inane, but nonetheless they were subsequent to the Leader of the Opposition's comprehensive proposal on maternity leave. Again, the government follows the opposition in attending to what is clearly a deficiency in the Workplace Relations Act—more importantly, a deficiency in attending to the needs of the many thousands of volunteers across the country, many of whom reside in my electorate of Burke.

As the member for Calwell said, volunteers are the lifeblood of the community—not just volunteers who fight fires but also volunteers who do all sorts of other things in the community. I suppose what we are looking at today are those emergency services requiring people to quite often give up their own time but, on occasions when they might otherwise be gainfully employed, to give up time undertaking the protection of their own community. I think under the auspices of emergency services we should also add the volunteers who come to the aid of communities suffering from either drought or flood, the other excess. There are many volunteers who do that, and I think they should be referred to.

This bill is a narrow construction of the Leader of the Opposition's bill that was introduced last year. It gives only very limited protection to those volunteers who might have to attend an emergency while at work and who might find themselves facing the wrath of an employer. I think these employers would be in the minority, but nonetheless they do have the ability to terminate their services. Firstly, let us examine the very limited capacity of this bill to protect the interests of those volunteers. Clearly, this bill will not allow employers to terminate the services of volunteers who attend to an emergency and who return to work that day or subsequent to that day. I applaud that. I think that is quite correct. It is something that the Labor opposition supports overwhelmingly but, again, it does not go far enough.

It is fair to say that we do not expect volunteers to risk their jobs as well as their lives; but it is not fair to say that this bill properly encompasses the needs of volunteers in the workplace, because the needs of volunteers in the workplace go beyond whether they can be terminated. It is important to ensure that volunteers are not adversely affected by contributing to their communities in the way that they have chosen to do in emergency services. It would be quite foolhardy of this nation to allow that. The Prime Minister likes to stand on his soapbox and laud the efforts of volunteers but when it comes to comparing the two bills—the bill to which we refer today and the bill introduced by the opposition in October last year—this bill is inferior in many respects. It is inferior because it fails to give any assurance to volunteers that they will not be adversely affected in terms of promotions or the way in which they may be treated by their employer. Indeed, it does not even provide for their time of absence to be paid for if that was agreed to under a federal award.

These deficiencies show yet again that this government are ideologically blind to the needs of volunteers. By that I mean the passion and energy this government put into narrowing the entitlements of employees supersedes their concern for volunteers in this society. That is a disgrace. With respect to this area, which the Prime Minister has made so much mileage out of, you would think he would have come across to the opposition's view and said, `Yes, there should be no ability for an employer to diminish the career capacity of people who have volunteered in emergency services.' But the Prime Minister has not said that. The government have failed to say that. Whilst I support the bill I think it is very narrow in its construction. It pays lip-service to the needs of the many workers who volunteer.

I have some personal experience with many hundreds of volunteers. I have the good fortune of representing workers in local authorities and water boards. Historically those authorities have always expected their work force, in times of flood and fire, to attend to local needs. It has been their custom and practice for many years. In Victoria, under the Kennett Liberal government, there were changes to that. All of a sudden those undertakings by local authorities diminished and there was more pressure on them to act as if their duties to the community at large, compared to their day to day activities, were no longer important. I think since the Kennett government lost the 1999 election that is starting to turn around.

I would like to cite one live example of what can happen when there is no protection afforded to these volunteers. I was personally involved in a matter that had to do with the Bellarine Bayside foreshore committee, which I believe is in the member for Corio's electorate but might overlap with the member for Corangamite's electorate. This foreshore committee's manager, who was appointed by the then Kennett government, wished to place the employees under duress so that they would sign Australian workplace agreements. And he had some success because he had all the employees in the outdoor work force, except one, signing an Australian workplace agreement. That one worker had a job to cut the lawns around the foreshore and on one amazing day he was on his ride-on mower and he was mowing the lawns. As is his right, he was without an AWA; he was resisting the efforts of the employer to have him sign up to an individual contract.

He was on his ride-on mower and his pager went off. He was an officer of the CFA—a lieutenant, if you like, of the CFA in that area—and he was asked to attend to a fire, which he did. He locked up the ride-on mower, phoned his office and left a message with the reception staff to say that he was attending to a fire. He got on the vehicle; in fact, he was the only officer available and that truck could not go out, under the rules of the CFA, without his attendance. He went to the fire—thankfully, it was not a large fire—and he helped put the fire out. He came back to his workplace and finished his mowing—would you believe? The next day he received a letter of termination, and the first reason in that written termination was the fact that he had abandoned his employment by going to a fire without getting permission from his manager. That actually happened in a local government authority in Victoria, only three years ago.

As an employer you would have to be a fool, for a start, to think that the community would accept you dismissing that employee, particularly given that he was employed by a local government authority. Indeed, this employer, knowing they could not use the fact that the employee would not sign an AWA, decided instead—thinking, `I'll be cute here'—to sack him on the basis that he abandoned his employment and went to fight a fire down the road. That is what this employer did. As you can imagine, I was very happy to get involved in that matter. Too often dismissals are not very easy matters to deal with, but in that case, representing that employee, we sorted that matter out very quickly to the satisfaction of that employee.

The point that has to be made is that there was no protection under the award. Sure, the community got together and there was a lot of public outcry. Whilst the fire was small, it was very close to the Linton tragedy. Indeed, this employee knew a number of those fighters that the member for Corio mentioned who tragically lost their lives in the Linton fire. You would have thought in an area that was so sensitive to this issue that there could not be a possibility that a local authority would terminate a worker with the express reason that he abandoned his employment to fight a fire, but that is exactly what happened.

This is a very important bill, though very narrowly constructed and therefore not providing the real protection needed for the volunteers across this country. We support the bill. But again it is another example of the government following the opposition in an area that it has failed to attend to because it has no domestic agenda whatsoever. It is another area where it is following the leader—in this case, it is following the Leader of the Opposition in introducing this bill. We support the bill, but it certainly falls far short of attending to those other issues that we have referred to—namely, giving the capacity for people to take paid leave and providing protection to ensure that the workers that might be involved in emergency services in a voluntary capacity are not adversely affected in their career, in their workplace.

These failings, I think, highlight not just a deficiency in the government, not just tardiness in the drafting of legislation, but an ideological conflict, an ideological blindness. In the end, they would far prefer volunteers to suffer than actually accept that the Workplace Relations Act may have to be properly broadened to ensure that these fantastic contributors to society are protected at the workplace.