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Thursday, 24 November 2011
Page: 9517


Senator BACK (Western Australia) (13:21): As a past Chief Executive Officer of the Bush Fires Board of Western Australia, I am proud to lend my support to the passage of the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Amendment (Fair Protection for Firefighters) Bill 2011. As my colleague Senator Wright has mentioned already, it is evidence of the Senate working at its best and, of course, it is common sense. When I joined Senator Marshall this morning at eight o'clock for a meeting and learnt that he had been out during the evening with colleagues from the United Firefighters Union, I was initially very, very disappointed that I had not been invited and I wondered whether I would lend my support to the bill, but, as I saw Senator Marshall's delicate condition, in fact I was very pleased that I had not been invited!

I reiterate also the comments of Senator Marshall and say to you that, from this side of the chamber, there are many if not of all of my colleagues who wished to speak but, given the need for this legislation to be passed, they have passed up that opportunity. I do particularly want to mention Senator Sean Edwards, sitting behind me, who has given up his right to speak. Sean has told me that his first memory as a child was of their family home being burnt down. His presence in the chamber here and the fact that he gave up the opportunity to speak says volumes about his interest and concern for the passage of this bill. I also join with my leader in the Senate, Senator Abetz, in his leadership and that of our parliamentary leader, Tony Abbott, for his support of this legislation.

What is not generally understood is that this is the only civilian occupation in which the employer has no option but to send employees into a situation which they know to be dangerous and which they know they cannot avoid doing. This of course is because of the flashover, a five- to six-minute incident in which time a structure particularly will become enflamed to the extent that any occupants will surely die. Therefore a firefighter has no option, unique in civilian employment, but to go straight into a burning building in the same way that their employer has no option but to demand that they do that.

The second point which needs to be understood, and which was eloquently put by representatives of the United Firefighters Union and other witnesses, is that the very clothing that firefighters must wear is of a nature which allows their body to breathe, otherwise they would hyperventilate and simply expire as a result of overheating of the body. But it is that same clothing that allows heat to dissipate from the body that also allows carcinogens to come into the body, and this is the matter that we are discussing.

Those two points must be understood clearly: we have no option but to send firefighters in and we have no option but to expose them to these carcinogens. It is no accident that the sorts of cancers we are speaking about are those that involve the filtration systems of the body or those areas that are exposed as a result of high blood flow. So it is entirely logical, then, that the sorts of cancers we are considering are those to which firefighters will be exposed.

We know from the Canadian experience that, in 2003, seven cancers were identified; that was increased to 10 in 2007 and then to 14 in 2010. I must say that I am very pleased and proud of the collaborative approach that was adopted by members of this committee in coming to the conclusion that if in fact the evidence was there from Canada and from the United States why would we not go beyond what had been sought in the original request to this parliament and identify those cancers that can be demonstrated from scientific validation to be contracted through firefighters' exposure. It does emphasise that whilst the need is there for scientific validation, and it is around the world, we must also confirm the Australian experience. To that extent I would urge that, over time, more be invested in that activity.

As Senator Abetz and Senator Marshall have said, this confers no greater rights on employees and no greater liabilities on employers. What it does take away is the nonsense situation that existed—that is, the circumstance in which a firefighter had to prove the event, usually many years in the past, at which they actually absorbed a carcinogen. Firstly, that is of course nonsense and, secondly, we know that it is a cumulative effect. So should a firefighter in fact want to have been able to identify an event, anybody else would clearly have been able to dispute that or knock it down.

So we have arrived at a circumstance of which I think this parliament and the people of Australia can be rightly proud—that is, that logic, good common sense and an eloquent and well-developed argument and case have been put forward by the United Firefighters Union. Compliments have already been made about the two people from Canada. I think the fact that they came to this country, provided us with evidence and provided us with endorsement by their government ministers for their presence, speaks volumes of the seriousness with which this is being adopted. There has been concern, as Senator Abetz mentioned, that a circumstance must not be allowed to exist in which spurious claims are made in the future following on the precedent of this legislation. I will be very disappointed if it did, and I believe we will not see that happen.

I conclude by, firstly, joining my colleagues in complimenting the officials of the United Firefighters Union for the way in which you have gone about this whole process, the many staff and others at Geelong and at Tullamarine Airport and those in Perth and in Brisbane who generously gave their time not only to be there with us but also to demonstrate equipment. I do recall Senator Marshall and I being high over the Geelong Fire Station, overlooking Kardinia Park, and I did mention to him on that occasion that if he were to let my safety harness go and throw me over the side there would be a lot of people in Australia at that time who would have been quite happy. But Senator Marshall must not have been able to hear me because we arrived back on the ground quite safely. I also join Senator Wright in complimenting and thanking those families, including a wonderful family in Perth whose husband and father had already passed away, for their generosity and maturity in appearing before us and giving us the evidence they did.

In conclusion, can I say again how pleased I am to support this legislation. It is common sense at its best and I hope that it does give some surety into the future for a very, very fine group of people.