Fire service reforms hosed down

A RESTRUCTURE intended to resolve Victoria's bitter fire services dispute was drawn up without consulting "passionate" volunteer firefighters and should be dumped, a committee of upper house members has found.

The state government's bill proposing to consolidate all career firefighters in a renamed MFB, and leave the CFA as a volunteer-only organisation, should be withdrawn, or rejected by the Legislative Council, the Fire Services Bill Select committee says.

The committee's final report, released on Friday following a parliamentary inquiry, has accused the government of failing to consult key parties in forming the restructure.

This undermined confidence in the proposal, "reinforcing the perception of a bias towards the United Firefighters Union", the committee found.

"The restructure proposal was developed quickly, bypassing normal government consultation processes to the extent that neither Emergency Management Victoria, the CFA, nor the MFB were consulted.

"Notably the UFU was consulted multiple times during the development of the bill.

"It is difficult to envisage how proposing a restructure which impacts on 57,000 passionate volunteers without consulting them."

Emergency Services Minister James Merlino said the reforms would "modernise our fire services, provide more support for volunteers and – most importantly – keep Victorian safe".

Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria welcomed the report, which is says has adopted many of the recommendations it made in a submission to the inquiry. 

“In our submission we proposed a way forward to the committee to achieve continuous improvement and the framework for incremental reform that will have long lasting, effective and tangible community safety outcomes front and centre, unlike the current Bill,” a statement said.

“The first step is to develop a transparent and evidence backed understanding of the problems to be fixed, then independent and robust analysis of any reform proposal to ensure it is a way forward with no pitfalls or unintended consequences so that we end up with a better outcome for all Victorians.

“VFBV believes it is critically important that a proper and transparent process of community, agency, volunteer and union engagement and consultation is part of any process in developing and considering reform policy and legislation well before any decisions to proceed are made. 

“This approach is consistent with recommendations of the committee. It would ensure reform proposals which do nothing except the creation of angst and argument or worse still, take us backwards as is the case with the current Bill, could be avoided.”

The government's bill included giving both career and volunteer firefighters compensation for certain cancers - an element the committee said should be reintroduced to parliament as a stand-alone bill.

The majority report was backed by three Coalition MPs and one Shooter and Fishers MP, and was considered a majority after the committee chair Gordon Rich-Phillips, a Liberal, gave his casting vote

A minority report, from the three Labor and one Green committee members, recommended that the Firefighters' Presumptive Rights Compensation and Fire Services Legislation Amendment (Reform) Bill 2017 be passed.

The government's controversial reforms were pitched as a solution to a long-running dispute, which led former emergency services minister Jane Garrett to resign from her role, and the dismissal of the CFA board.

The committee received 1891 written submissions and took oral evidence from 83 witnesses at hearings in Melbourne, Wangaratta, Swan Hill, Traralgon and Hamilton.

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