Workers Rehabilitation and Compensation (Firefighters) Amendment Bill
Mr VAN HOLST PELLEKAAN ( Stuart ) ( 10:59 :24 ): I am extremely seriously and passionately behind the member for Morphett on this issue. This is incredibly important and very close to my heart, and I commend speakers on this side, my colleagues, who are also just as serious about this issue. I also commend the Hon. Tammy Franks from the other place for pushing this issue over there. I think that it speaks volumes about her for doing that.
I also know that many of the members opposite feel very seriously about this issue as well, and I encourage them to do everything they can within their team to change the government’s position on this. I can only imagine what the Labor Party would be saying if the roles were reversed and the Liberal Party was doing what the Labor Party is doing right now. I thank those people opposite who are working with their consciences and their hearts on this issue, and I hope that they are successful in convincing the rest of their government colleagues on this very important issue.
The reality is that the exposure to health risks for professionals and volunteers is exactly the same. I can tell you that in my electorate, and all over country South Australia, where there are MFS and CFS brigades they go to the same incidents and they do the same work. Sometimes, the CFS people have less equipment and so are potentially exposed to greater risks. In other parts of the electorate where there is only CFS and no MFS, the CFS to do the work that the MFS would do if they were there. So, they are at the very least exposed to the same risks, and quite probably exposed to more.
I will read a brief excerpt from an article which was given to me just this morning by Scott Kennedy, a very capable Liberal staff member, and it comes from the Autumn 2014 edition of Fire Australia magazine. I will not read through it all, but I commend the article to people. The short bit I will read out is:
It is a hazardous scenario that bushfire firefighters in Australia and overseas face more frequently as population growth pushes residential development into rural areas. At the rural-urban interface, bushfire firefighters are exposed to smoke from not just vegetation, but from combinations of burning houses, cars and other materials. And bushfire firefighters—
So, read ‘CFS’, rather than ‘MFS’—
are less likely than city firefighters to be wearing breathing apparatus. This means they may be more vulnerable to health risks posed by burning organic compounds that have been, until now, mostly unmeasured.
There is much more in that article, and I do commend it to the people making decisions within the government to consider this, because it is a very important issue. It is important to point out that this is about access. I understand what the government says: if a CFS volunteer firefighter ended up being sick, and if that person wanted to claim support for a medical condition, potentially that person could get it—but they would have to fight for it. This is about the onus of proof: the professionals get it automatically; the volunteers have to fight for it. That is the heart of the problem here, and that is completely inexcusable.
It would not happen in any other workplace. I cannot imagine that any member of parliament, regardless of which party they come from, would have a work experience person in their electorate office and give them different workplace conditions and expect that if they somehow contracted an illness, or happened to be injured or something like that, there was a difference between that work experience person and one of their paid staff.
I cannot imagine that anybody in this house would say that volunteers in schools, whether they were providing special activities, coaching sport, or working in a canteen as volunteers, should have a different level of workplace health and safety cover than the paid staff who worked there. I cannot imagine that people would think that anybody working for a charitable organisation, whether they be paid or volunteer staff, should have different access to safety cover, to health cover or to basic workplace safety in the workplace, whether they are paid or not paid.
Volunteers in tourism and visitor information centres, Families SA volunteers who drive cars to ferry people around the city and the state as volunteers—I cannot imagine that the government would say that those people would be entitled to a less safe workplace because they had a lower level of entitlement than the paid Families SA volunteers if they happen to be doing the same work. It is completely inexcusable.
There is precedent everywhere we look, and particularly in public servants, as MFS professionals are, and as many very good people across this state are, to say that there should be exactly the same access to workplace health and safety support if it is required. It is inexcusable for the government to say, ‘But when it comes to firefighters, we think that’s different.’ Let me say, I am not trying to take anything away from the MFS. Good luck to them. They have recently received extra support, and I think that is fantastic.
The volunteers deserve exactly the same because the principle is set throughout our state. They deserve exactly the same because the risks they face are exactly the same and quite possibly even greater. For the government to say that we cannot afford it is disgraceful, and that is what the government is saying, ‘We have decided to give it to the paid MFS firefighters, but we cannot give it to the volunteers because we can’t afford it.’ That is a disgraceful precedent that they are trying to set.
This is a principle about the cover that is there, and I understand the realities of budgets and I understand the realities that you cannot pay for more than you can actually afford to pay for. It should not be, ‘We will give complete full cover to one group and no cover to another, or not give the same access to the same cover to a different group.’ It should actually be that you start with the principle and then figure out what you can afford; do not start with what you can afford and then try to create a principle that works to your budget. What is right is right and what is wrong is wrong.
I think it is a dreadful shame for the government to say that we can afford it for the professionals but we cannot afford it for the volunteers. The professionals deserve it and the volunteers deserve it as well. I would not be at all surprised if all of those other types of workplaces I mentioned—whether it be MPs’ offices, schools, charitable organisations, visitor information centres or Families SA, and there are probably dozens of other examples people here could consider—decided to stick up for their colleagues, for volunteers, who go out of their way, as many members on this side have said, and put themselves at very serious risk.
I can say that I have done it and I am just one person. I go to a few CFS callouts a year because I am barely home. If I am home and the pager goes off, I go out, but I am not home that often so I go to probably four CFS callouts a year. I know firsthand the risks that people put themselves through and I know firsthand the people who do it much more frequently than I do. There is a core group of people in the Wilmington CFS, probably 10 or a dozen or so, who would be available for almost every callout.
This is not about me. As far as I know I am very fit and healthy and do not expect to ever benefit from what I am pushing for, but there are probably 5,000 to 8,000 people out there out of the 13,000-odd CFS volunteers who would do callouts more frequently than I do, and they are the people who deserve this. Government members know in their hearts that what the government is doing here is wrong. It is good that they gave it to the MFS but completely inexcusable that they did not give it to the CFS as well.
The last thing I would like to say is to make a genuine plea to the member for Frome, who understands this issue very well. For the previous four years in parliament we discussed many CFS and emergency services issues together. He understands this issue and before the last election he was in lock step with us on this issue of principle. I call on him not to change his principle. He said that if he joined the Labor government he would not change his principles on regional development. He said that if he joined the Labor government he would not change his principles in the way he represents the people of Frome. I call on him not to change his principles on the way he wants to stick up for CFS volunteers throughout his electorate and throughout this state.
There are approximately 30 CFS brigades within my electorate alone. There are 13,000 CFS volunteers throughout the state. We support them. The member for Frome said he would support them, and I call on him to do so.