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Wednesday, 25 June 2003
Page: 17585

Mr HUNT (11:11 AM) —The Workplace Relations Amendment (Protection for Emergency Management Volunteers) Bill 2003 is about recognising and protecting people such as Nevyn, Bette and William Jones of the Moorooduc CFA. This family of three all received Centenary medals. I believe, although I cannot confirm, that they may be the only family in Australia of which three family members have received the Centenary Medal. The reason that they and people like them from towns such as Kernot, Baxter, Tooradin, Hastings, Somerville and Tyabb have been recognised and focused on in this bill is that these are ordinary Australians from ordinary towns who give of their time, who place their lives at risk, who make a contribution to the community on an ongoing basis and who have until now been inadequately protected in their place of work from some form of retribution by an employer who does not value their service in the same way. The Workplace Relations Amendment (Protection for Emergency Management Volunteers) Bill 2003 is ultimately and simply about protecting all of those workers who are absent from their work on legitimate volunteer emergency management duties, whether it is with the CFA, the SES or any other genuine emergency management organisation, and who make an enormous contribution to the fibre of towns like Somerville and Rosebud, Cowes and Kernot.

I want to address the Workplace Relations Amendment (Protection for Emergency Management Volunteers) Bill 2003 in quick stages: firstly, the background to the bill; secondly, the importance of the bill; and, thirdly, some of the specific provisions which set out to protect emergency management volunteers. The background is simple. As we noticed during the recent bushfires within both New South Wales and Victoria, volunteer firefighters and emergency management personnel make an exceptional contribution to the protection of lives and property throughout Australia. However, there is no legislation protecting these volunteers who are temporarily absent from their work when they are undertaking such emergency management duties, so they are vulnerable to their emergency management service being used as a pretext for dismissal on some other basis. In fact, many emergency management organisations have a rule that the volunteer's first duty is to their employer, which in turn requires them to obtain permission from the employer before leaving the workplace to attend an emergency, permission which may not always be given and which may not always be obtainable under the circumstances of an emergency.

Against that background, what is the importance of this bill? What it does is simple: it will cover not only the firefighters on the front line but also the volunteers who contribute to the management of emergencies and natural disasters. These volunteers, by the very definition of the word `volunteer', receive no financial reward for their efforts. They forgo paid leave in many cases to undertake these activities, and above all else they put their lives at risk. In that situation, it is critical that we emphasise the important role that employers have to play in supporting volunteer efforts in the country.

What this bill will do in particular is ensure that employees do not lose their jobs for being away from work to protect the community—whether due to accident, emergency or fire. It minimises the disruption, as well, to an employer's business. So, in essence, what the bill will do is apply when a recognised emergency management organisation requests the volunteer to carry out an activity or if, having regard to all of the circumstances, there is a reasonable expectation that the volunteer will or should carry out the activity in his or her capacity as a member of that organisation. Very simply, if there is a crisis and it is an ordinary, reasonable and usual activity of a volunteer to respond—even if they are not called but it is part of their drill and part of their process—then the volunteer will be covered, as they should be covered. In addition, the bill will cover all situations where volunteers are not individually requested to attend an emergency but may hear of an emergency and attend on their own initiative. So it protects volunteers.

In addressing the provisions, I want to focus on one key element: subsection 170CK(2)(i), which makes it unlawful for an employer to terminate employment where the employee is temporarily absent from the workplace because they are carrying out a voluntary emergency management activity. In order to obtain this protection, a volunteer must show that the absence is reasonable in all of the circumstances.

I do not wish to speak at length on this bill. It presents a simple proposition—one that I think all people within this House can agree on—and that is that those who give of their time, who give of their resources and who ultimately place their own health and safety at risk for the good of the community should in no way be subject to any risk that they will be penalised for that activity. They should not just be given freedom from risk; they should be given reward and recognition within our community. That is why I return to people such as Nevyn, Bette and Bill Jones of the Moorooduc CFA. They are the types of people whom this bill sets out to protect, Australians who act voluntarily in communities all around Australia. Whether they are in Lang Lang, Kooweerup, Cowes, San Remo, Somerville, Red Hill or any of the areas which have volunteer CFA organisations, these are the people whom we should be respecting and whom this bill sets out to rightfully and appropriately protect. I am delighted to commend this bill and to give it my full support.