Mr NORTHE (Morwell) — It really does not give me any great pleasure to rise today to speak on this matter of public importance (MPI). We really should not be having this debate this afternoon, particularly during National Volunteer Week, which is an opportunity to honour and respect those volunteers across our community who do so much good work, including those in emergency services, whether it be the State Emergency Service, the Country Fire Authority (CFA), ambulance services or others.
Speaking from the Morwell electorate perspective there is long-running concern in our community and across many regional communities about the government’s respect or lack thereof for CFA volunteers. In many country towns and communities our CFA volunteers — our men and women, our juniors — are enormously respected and highly valued, as are our career firefighters, and they should be.
Speaking from experience, in my time as a member of Parliament, over the last 10 years or so, unfortunately we have had many major and complex fires in our region; indeed a month after the 2006 election we had a significant fire in the Cowwarr-Toongabbie area, where 10 homes were lost. It gave me a great appreciation at the time of how well our rural CFA members functioned. Yes, it was sad that 10 homes were lost in that particular fire — and if you understood the terrain, it is just amazing that it was limited to that number — but there was no loss of life, which was extraordinary in the circumstances. I still vividly remember touring through that particular fire area in the aftermath, and my respect for firefighters absolutely increased at the time.
In January 2009 we had the Delburn complex of fires in the Boolarra and Mirboo North area, and unfortunately a number of homes were lost during that time. Again, I have vivid memories of attending community meetings as the fire front came towards the township of Boolarra, which was like a village set down at the bottom of some hills. Again, there were just some extraordinary efforts not only from the local CFA brigades but also from those of neighbouring towns who came to not only save the town but also ensure that there was no loss of life. It is just remarkable what those volunteers and career firefighters did at the time.
Then of course there was Black Saturday, which we have spoken about many times in this chamber — just a terrible, terrible event for not only my local community but also many Victorians. There were 173 lives lost and thousands of homes and stock destroyed. The damage was just extraordinary. Unfortunately this time during that awful set of circumstances there was loss of life locally, and it was just absolutely terrible. Again, you can only commend, honour and acknowledge the efforts of all firefighters at that time.
It was obviously a different set of circumstances or a different complex of fires when we had the mine fire in Morwell in 2014. It was not so much just the flames at the time; the ongoing smoke event that engulfed the Morwell township and beyond was just terrible. In relation to the conditions that those firefighters and volunteers faced — career, interstate and international firefighters — you can only take your hat off to the work that they did in trying to extinguish the mine fire at the time.
So my observation, assessment and conclusion is one of absolute admiration and respect for all firefighters, and there are no boundaries to that respect, whether they be career firefighters or volunteers. Indeed last Sunday at Churchill we had a CFA memorial service for firefighters who have passed away. One of those people was a young Churchill lad who passed away around 35 years ago, young Darren McLean. His mum and dad, Barry and Val, still live in Churchill. I guess it really brings home to roost what a dangerous occupation or volunteer role many men and women in our community undertake. Again, my condolences to Barry and Val on the passing of their son Darren even though it was 35 years ago.
Many members opposite, including the previous Speaker, have talked about scaremongering and politicising firefighters, and I just find it absolutely hypocritical and extraordinary. I think one only has to have a look at the Electoral Matters Committee inquiry into the 2014 election and have a look at the evidence that was tendered by a number of CFA volunteers and helpers of political parties at polling booths to understand some of the bullying, intimidation and impersonation of CFA volunteers for the United for Firefighters Union (UFU) to curry favour in having the now Premier elected. It is just extraordinary, and I particularly encourage newer members of the government who are here today to go back and read some of that evidence that was submitted by the volunteers, and you might get a better appreciation of the scaremongering and politicking.
Since that particular time, one of the frustrations for many of our CFA volunteers has been the uncertainty that exists for them. We have had the extraordinary situation, as has been articulated, of the resignation or forced resignation of the previous minister, Lucinda Nolan gone, Joe Buffone gone and the board sacked. What has happened has just been an absolute debacle and a disgrace from so many perspectives. I talk to a number of volunteers and personnel across our brigades, whether it be Newborough, Yallourn North, Tanjil South, Tyers, Yinnar, Yinnar South, Glengarry, Glengarry east, Traralgon South, Toongabbie, Cowwarr, Boolarra or Callignee. The feedback that I have received from people who work in the stations has been mostly just shaking their heads in frustration about what has transpired over these past two and a half years.
In the Morwell electorate we do have two integrated stations, those being Traralgon and Morwell. I think one of the questions being asked at the moment is: what becomes of those volunteers in those stations? Do they actually get a new station? Will they be forced to merge with other brigades out in the regional communities? One has to ask that question. What is right?
In some of the conversations and reading notes, no doubt from the other side, they talk about cuts to the CFA budget when the coalition was in government. It is just simply not true. I encourage any member to bring in to this Parliament proof of that, because the facts are that when the coalition was in government every single CFA budget was more than the last Labor CFA budget before the 2010 election — fact. It is fact. And yet with the hypocrisy that exists in this budget, there is actually a $47 million cut in emergency management capability. It is just extraordinary. There is even a concession from the government in the budget papers that volunteer capacity will reduce by 3800, and we simply cannot afford that to happen.
On a final note, this is an email from a volunteer of a station within the Morwell electorate. I will not name the person or the station because this person did not want me to. What it actually says is, and I quote:
With the Andrews government’s poor handling of the EBA and removal of the CFA board and minster and inexcusable support for the UFU, our once-friendly, welcoming station became a broken, defective, destructive cold place. And now we understand the Andrews wrecking ball of government wants to destroy any chance of things being repaired. If they have their way, where do I stand as a volunteer and my fellow members who are part of integrated brigades all over the state? Does this mean that we are given a station with a truck to ourselves? Or is our service and dedication just thrown out after protecting our community with dedication and spirit that is the Aussie way? I am sorry, but I don’t understand why all members of government have abandoned us. When the —
hits the fan you need as many volunteers as possible, and you are now putting that at risk.
That is from a CFA volunteer, and they are legitimate questions. There is ongoing uncertainty and concerns that have escalated over the past two and a half years. The new minister, Lord Farquaad, was put in place to try to fix this, and like Lord Farquaad, he has not been able to resolve these issues. It is not good enough. It is not satisfactory for any of the CFA volunteers or indeed career firefighters. While there have been challenges, they have worked well together over decades. I support the MPI that is in play.