PRIME MINISTER: We are so inspired by the commitment, the courage, the professionalism, of the volunteers of the CFA. 60,000 of you, across Victoria - again and again, putting your life on the line to keep Victorians safe, to defend them and defend their property. Don Bigham said that he joined in 1962 as a 16-year-old but in fact, he started four years earlier. His mother said he was too young at 12 to go out. But his dad said, ‘No, he's old enough to hold the horse.’ It was a Clydesdale. Technology has improved, Don observed, since then. Although the Clydesdale would've been a very steady horse, Don, I'm sure of that. Certainly a big strong one.
But what you've done for generations is the very essence of the Australian spirit. You've dealt with some of the most shocking, tragic natural disasters our country has ever seen - Ash Wednesday, Black Saturday. I will never forget what I saw in the aftermath of Black Saturday. Saw so many motor vehicles where everything was destroyed or melted, except for the steel, aluminium - like a river on the ground. Glass melted down through the car. And recognised as I was told by some of you and your colleagues that the temperatures had exceeded 1,000 degrees Celsius.
That's what you take on. That's your heroism. That's your courage and commitment and that is why every Australian should be supporting you as we are today. You deserve our support, you deserve the love and support and solidarity from your governments, from your politicians, as you give to the people of Victoria.
Now, we promised during the election campaign, when this assault on your independence arose from the Andrews’ Government, we promised that we would change the Fair Work Act to ensure that you could not be subordinated to the union in the way the Labor Government here in Victoria proposes to do. And we are announcing today and releasing the details of that legislation which I'll ask the Employment Minister, Michaelia Cash, to detail for you. But what it will do, in a nutshell, is it will make it unlawful to include a term in an enterprise agreement which undermines or disables the ability of that organisation to work with its volunteers. Your volunteerism, your status as volunteers, is absolutely critical to the CFA. You know that. 60,000 of you. But if you look at the CFA Act, the Victorian Act of Parliament, it talks repeatedly about the importance of the volunteers. Calls on the CFA, the Country Fire Authority, to pay regard to and comply with the volunteer charter. Calls on it, in the specific words of the Act, to do everything it can to support and promote and enhance your work.
So the CFA is of its very essence a volunteer organisation. And what the State Government, the State Labor Government, is trying to do is to undermine it. And we'll put a stop to that with these amendments. But you know, you have many friends in politics to support you here. You have Matt Guy here as well, the Victorian Opposition Leader, with his state colleagues, local members and the shadow minister. They're backing you right up to the hilt too.
This is a united front on our side of politics, on the coalition side of politics, supporting you. And we'll be delivering that legislation into the Parliament as soon as it resumes next week. Now, I will introduce the Minister to take you through some of the detail.
MINISTER CASH: Thank you, Prime Minister. It's fantastic to be here today, with the Prime Minister and of course with Tony Smith, the federal member. But in particular, with the men and women of the CFA who quite literally will do anything to ensure that they protect Victorians from the devastating effects of the bushfires. It’s an honour and a privilege to be here with you. As you know, throughout the election campaign, we made you a promise. We said that if we were returned to government, we would do everything in our power to ensure that you are not subjected to a very deliberate, hostile takeover by a union.
An enterprise agreement is currently being negotiated. Enterprise agreements are negotiated under federal law, being the Fair Work Act. We have worked with you to deliver a legislative solution to this issue. And that solution is a very simple one. It is of course amending section 12 of the Fair Work Act, the list of objectionable terms, to add another objectionable term. And that term will ensure that an enterprise agreement or a clause in an enterprise agreement cannot be utilised to undermine the capacity of an emergency services organisation to deal with its volunteers.
We will also include another term to ensure that there are no terms in enterprise agreements that are inconsistent with State or Territory legislation dealing with volunteers. So again, they're very simple amendments. But what the amendments will ensure is that the CFA in Victoria is able to manage its own affairs. You have demonstrated since 1945, and well before that, that you will do everything in your power to ensure that your fellow man is protected, whether it be a bushfire, whether it be a road accident, whether it be cleaning up after a storm. You volunteer because that's just what you do. It's in your DNA. And I am delighted that we have been able to work closely with you and that we're here today to announce our formal legislative solution, which as the Prime Minister said, will be introduced as a matter of priority when we return to the Parliament next week.
JOURNALIST: Minister, have you read the EBA - the proposed EBA?
MINISTER CASH: I have been briefed on it, yes.
So why does your opinion piece today say that certain firefighters must be on the fire ground before operations can start?
MINISTER CASH: I saw and that it's a real shame that Adam Bandt has decided that he just wants to side with the militants unions. We have worked very closely with the CFA in Victoria. There is no doubt that this enterprise agreement deliberately seeks to undermine the capacity of the CFA to manage its volunteers. In Victoria, you have already seen the relevant minister herself put her hand up and say ‘what is being negotiated here is wrong.’ She no longer has a job. You have seen the board of the CFA sacked by Daniel Andrews. If you are telling these men and women here today that there's nothing wrong with their EBA, I would say to Adam Bandt - come and speak to these people and you will hear a very different story. We will do what we can to ensure that the men and women who are represented here today are to continue to do what they need to do in the interests of all Victorians.
JOURNALIST: Are you saying volunteers can't start fighting a fire until seven salaried officers turn up? Is that what you’re saying?
MINISTER CASH: No, not at all. I think the use of the word deployed and dispatched - it may have been an incorrect use of wording. At the end of the day you need to go to the broader picture and the broader picture is this - are these men and women wrong? Are they wrong? Does Adam Bandt want to come here today and say that they are wrong? A Minister has resigned, a board has been sacked. We will do everything in our power to respect the men and women who are standing here in front of us today and ensure that they can continue to do what they do unencumbered.
JOURNALIST: Does your change affect the disputes resolution process in the proposed EBA?
MINISTER CASH: What it does is ensures that - all we're doing is amending section 12, objectionable terms, to add to the list of objectionable terms to ensure that an EBA cannot be used in the manner in which it is already - which it is clearly trying to be used by Daniel Andrews. But if Adam Bandt wants to play political games, please, play the political games. The legislation is now out there for Adam to see and I would invite him to pick up the phone and talk to me but I will stand with these people every day.
JOURNALIST: Is it retrospective, the legislation?
MINISTER CASH: No, it's not.
JOURNALIST: How is it going to affect this EBA given that…?
MINISTER CASH: The EBA, as you know, is not yet in place. We have stated it will apply to new EBA’s as of the day that the legislation gets through and obviously it hasn't yet been introduced and in relation to EBA’s already in place, it will only apply from the date that the legislation is formally in place so any clause that is currently in place is not affected but if a clause offends the EBA, going forward then the only thing that happens is that term is rendered unlawful.
PRIME MINISTER: If I may just add to that, the real test now is for Mr Shorten and of course Mr Bandt, indeed and all other members of the Parliament. The sooner these changes are passed by the Parliament, the better. This should not be a controversial piece of legislation. There is the harm, the damage, the offence that this proposed EBA has created here in Victoria to 60,000 volunteers of the CFA. You've seen a Minister resign, you've seen the board sacked, you can see what a shocking affront this is and how this undermines the safety of Victorians. Now is the opportunity.
We recognise the Premier is beholden to that union and obviously his hands are tied. He doesn't seem to be capable of independent action but the Federal Parliament now - and I call on Mr Shorten in particular to support this legislation, surely who can say - who is going to stand up in the Federal Parliament and say that they do not support the volunteers of the CFA? Mr Shorten is a Victorian. He should be right behind these men and women and he should stand with us, support this legislation, can go through very quickly and the sooner it's passed, the sooner their future, their autonomy, the safety of Victorians is assured.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister - if it is such a pressing issue and it’s not going to apply to future EBA’s why are you doing it with such concern? Parliament resumes in a week, why out of all the issues facing the country, why is this the most pressing issue given it’s not going to affect the CFA?
PRIME MINISTER: Well it does. I’m sorry, it does. It certainly does affect the CFA and it will affect the EBA because any changes to, any new enterprise agreements or changes to enterprise agreements after the date of the legislation will have to comply with it. So it absolutely will have affect with respect to this proposed enterprise agreement here in Victoria.
JOURNALIST: Who decides what’s objectionable though? That’s up to Fair Work Australia?
MINISTER CASH: Absolutely. An application has to be made in relation to one of the terms.
JOURNALIST: So what happens if they decide that a future resolution process is not a breach?
MINISTER CASH: Well obviously that will ultimately be a decision for Fair Work but certainly in terms of what we’re here to do today, it is to stand with the men and women here. You can’t honestly be saying that what is occurring –
JOURNALIST: I think because it doesn’t guarantee the changes to the EBA.
MINISTER CASH: Well nothing is guaranteed is it? But certainly what our change seeks to do is change the law so that what is currently occurring is unable to occur.
JOURNALIST: It’ll be up to the judges to decide?
MINISTER CASH: It’s normally up to the judges to decide.
PRIME MINISTER: We live in a country governed by the rule of law so legislation is construed by the courts. But the changes will protect these volunteers and the second part of the amendment that Michaelia spoke about – it’s important to remember too that ensuring that the EBA’s have to be consistent with the state Act. If you look at the Country Fire Authority Act of Victoria, if you look for example I think it’s section 6I, gives – that’s just one of a number of sections that deal with this – gives an absolutely express direction to the CFA to respect with and promote in every way, the volunteers.
I mean the Country Fire Authority Act is written – including the way it deals with the volunteer charter – it’s written for the purpose of an organisation that is largely a volunteer organisation. It reflects that. What is being proposed is clearly at odds with that and that is why you’ve seen so much protest, so much objection, so much affront being caused.
Look can I just say to you I think there is a sinister purpose here from the State Government and I’ll be very frank with you. All of these men and women are volunteers. They’re not paid to do it, they’ve all got plenty of other calls on their time. They’re doing it because of their big hearts and their love of their community. If you drain away from a volunteer organisation the autonomy, the sense of self respect, the sense of self control of those volunteers, then you will discourage recruitment. You reduce morale, you demoralise the volunteers and over time you’ll have fewer and fewer people volunteering for this service.
So when you have a volunteer organisation like this, that has been so successful, that is so large, attempting to demoralise it is extremely dangerous. Because you undermine the motivation of people to join the CFA. Don introduced me to one of the members of his crew, a young lady who has been in the CFA for a few years. Her generation – are they going to be motivated to join? If they feel that they’re just going to be running around doing what they’re told by the union? That they’re not going to be in charge. That they’re not going to actually have positions of leadership? Are they? You know the answer to that. You demoralise an organisation and over time it will decline. Now that is something that every Victorian should be very very concerned about.
So there is a very deep long-term risk here with what Daniel Andrews is proposing, a very deep, dangerous long term risk to the safety of Victoria. That is why Michaelia and I and Tony and all of our federal colleagues working hand-in-hand with Matt Guy and his state colleagues, are determined to stand with these volunteers and ensure that their great tradition, their great commitment is supported not just for now, but for generations to come. So that when there is a 12 year old boy or a 16 year old girl who wants to help their father or their mother today, just like Don did all those years ago, they will be inspired and motivated as his generation was. They’ll do that because they have a sense of dignity and autonomy and leadership – and if that’s undermined you put at risk that spirit of volunteerism, you put at risk the safety of Victorians.
We stand with Victoria, we stand with the safety of Victorians and we stand with the volunteers of the CFA. Thank you very much.