Volunteers are essential to the functions of emergency management services in Victoria—and play a critical role in creating safer and more resilient communities. We are fortunate to have over 60 000 committed men and women across the state in over 1200 Victorian fire stations, volunteering their time and energies, working hard to protect the lives of Victorians and their properties.
These 60 000 volunteers make a contribution to emergency services in Victoria that has been valued at nearly $1 billion. In addition to saving lives, CFA volunteers protect local economies from devastation, saving millions of dollars in property, environment and natural resources across the state. CFA volunteers contribute to building stronger communities by developing local leadership skills, raising funds for community projects and building stronger community networks.
And yet, despite this incredible contribution to Victoria and our heavy reliance on these volunteers, the Andrews government refuses to support them when issues arise in the workplace. There is no effective independent complaints investigation or resolution process and very little in the way of support available. It is little wonder that the organisation’s repeated failure to protect its volunteers and employees, and to properly investigate complaints, has led to the majority of aggrieved volunteers simply giving up.
The reality is that our volunteers are becoming increasingly reluctant to make a complaint, because the experience of those that have done so is they become the target. Unfortunately, this government has chosen to treat complaints as an attack on the government and the reaction is to find ways to attack the complainant.
In my member’s statement of 11 September 2019, I raised a matter on behalf of a constituent who was a CFA volunteer and who was seeking clarity about a legitimate safety issue with officers at the CFA. It was a simple policy issue regarding the use of sirens in conjunction with flashing lights on CFA vehicles.
Here we are some two years later:
with no resolution to this simple operating policy issue;
with my constituent having endured years of bullying and carried unimaginable stress;
having made (now) two adjournment debate speeches, at least one member’s statement, countless meetings in my office with various CFA representatives and literally hundreds of emails and ongoing written ministerial correspondence;
having participated in an external complaints resolution consultancy processes AND an ombudsman’s investigation; and
this complainant has of course become the victim of countless attacks and allegations.
And yet here we are two years later with STILL NO RESOLUTION IN SIGHT.
The most shocking thing about this case, though, is that this is not an isolated incident! I have been approached by a number of CFA volunteers who have experienced bullying, discrimination and harassment in the service of the CFA.
There have been a number of news articles in recent months damning the culture of the CFA and a repeated failure to act by authorities.
Obviously, this should come as no surprise to the Minister for Emergency Services:
In 2015, the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission investigated the workplace culture of the CFA after reports of systemic bullying and sexual discrimination. The findings of the report were due to be released in 2017. However, the United Firefighters Union successfully challenged the public release of the document and the report was suppressed.
It is obvious that the people who ARE being protected are not our valuable volunteers.
In what should be, but sadly isn’t, an isolated case, this matter has been ongoing for years. My constituent has now been referred to yet another external party in an effort to resolve what has always been a fairly simple procedural safety matter. The third party in this case is Clayton Utz. I can only imagine the considerable ongoing cost that has been borne by Victorian taxpayers in this one case alone.
Regardless of the efforts being made by this law firm to ensure independence is maintained, the fact remains it is being paid by the body being complained about, and that is just not an acceptable situation.
The situation is unacceptable.
My constituent deserves better.
Our hardworking CFA volunteers deserve better.
Victorians deserve better.
I call on the Minister for Police and Emergency Services to ease the suffering of the hardworking CFA volunteers in Victoria and to demonstrate a commitment to workplace safety and implement a comprehensive and effective internal complaints resolution process to address the toxic culture within the CFA that has burgeoned under the Andrews government.
At a minimum, it is what our dedicated Victorian CFA volunteers deserve.