Australia : Fighting fires: The militant union leader who cost Bill Shorten the Lodge
After more than 20 years running the union, Marshall saw himself as a political player in Victoria. Even though his union was formally aligned with Labor – and could vote in
Even though his membership was small, Marshall knew the community's huge respect for firefighters gave it an outsized political power. The perfect time to use that power was coming: an election that polls suggested was going to be unexpectedly close and give his Labor a shot at power.
Gutting a deal
Unable to conclude a deal with the intransigent union, the CFA told Garrett it wanted to unilaterally give its paid firefighters a 19 per cent pay rise over six years. In almost all other respects the existing workplace agreement would be kept. Marshall's demands would be simply ignored. Nothing much would change. Garrett agreed and convinced cabinet it was the right strategy.
Then, after meeting Marshall without Garrett present, Andrews flipped.
In late April, the premier told Garrett to direct the CFA to resume negotiations. The union would not be circumvented. The Fair Work Commission was called in to help reach a deal. A commissioner with a history in the Communist Party, Julius Roe, gathered Marshall and some of the other key players into the tribunal offices on Exhibition Street in Melbourne on May 30.
Roe had an announcement: he had come up with a solution. A sharp intake of breathes could be heard around the room. The union would be briefed first. After a few minutes with Roe – presumably getting a run down on the plan – Marshall threatened to walk out with his entire delegation.
With the talks on the brink of collapse, Roe and a senior public servant from the premier's office sat down with Marshall and his team in a conference room reserved for the union. Senior executives from the CFA – still not knowing what Roe's proposal was – sat in their own conference room waiting for three hours while Roe worked with the union.
Then, Roe and the public servant walked in. This is the "new deal", the stunned CFA executives were told. Roe spent less than 10 minutes in the room. The new plan didn't have everything the union had asked for. But it still contained the "consultative committee" that would give Marshall huge control over the CFA. (A spokeswoman for Roe wouldn't comment.)
The following day, Andrews declared Roe's recommendation the government's official position. It would be up to Garrett to bring the CFA into line. Garrett was being ordered to push through a deal she believed would cost Victorians a fortune, entrench union power at the expense of volunteers' morale and autonomy, and make it harder to hire more women firefighters by limiting part-time work.
She had been abandoned by her own side. Her glittering career was falling apart.
Hunt on case
Federal environment minister Greg Hunt got a call from the president of the association that represented CFA volunteers, Neville Jones, two days after Roe handed over his recommendation. The two men knew each other well. Jones was captain of a CFA station in Hunt's electorate in south-east Victoria. His father-in-law was Hunt's godfather.
Jones pleaded for help. He said that volunteer firefighters were devastated by Andrews' support for the union's claim.
Hunt grasped a social cause and a political opportunity. He called Michaelia Cash, the industrial relations minister, and Malcolm Turnbull, the same day. "This is a big issue and has the potential to be enormous in Victoria because it is deep and substantial," he told the prime minister.
Turnbull wanted to be kept informed. Cash and Hunt and their staff had a formal meeting with the leadership of the CFA volunteers' organisation where the politicians were walked through the implications of the industrial agreement. (Hunt dialled in.)
Cash and Hunt decided they wanted to support the volunteers politically, by speaking out for their cause and formulated a four-pronged strategy to veto the agreement. They sent up a small team to work on the issue: Cash's chief of staff and one of Hunt's political advisers. They worked with Brad Battin, a state Liberal MP who was the party's spokesman on emergency services, and staff in the office of Matthew Guy, the state opposition leader.
Cash, who is a West Australian, flew to Melbourne for discussions at the Liberal Party campaign headquarters. At that meeting it was decided the Coalition should do everything it could to block the agreement. The CFA volunteers had planned a rally on the steps of state parliament on the morning of Sunday, June 5 – a public show of force designed to shame Andrews into pulling back his support for the firefighters' union. The volunteers' leaders wanted Turnbull there.
'Right thing to do'
The prime minister's schedule during the election campaign was tightly controlled. Turnbull barely had 10 minutes to spare a day. Asking him to drop his plans and turn up to a public rally against a state government was politically risky. Everyone remembered Liberal leader John Hewson's appearance during the 1993 election when some of his rallies turned violent. Cash and Hunt discussed if there was the risk of a political backlash if Turnbull personally injected himself into a state issue. They agreed it was worth it.
Hunt called Turnbull Saturday night. He talked the prime minister through the issue again, and put forward Cash's legislative fix, which he wanted Turnbull to announce to the CFA volunteers.
Hunt compared the situation to the 2004 election when Prime Minister John Howard backed Tasmanian logging workers against Labor leader Mark Latham, who wanted to conserve more forests. When Howard turned up to a meeting of loggers he was cheered, a moment that was seen as a turning point in the campaign, which the Coalition won decisively.
"This is your Howard CFMEU moment," Hunt told Turnbull. Turnbull barely hesitated. "I will go," he told Hunt. "I have got to do this. It is the right thing to do."
Cash flew to Sydney, and caught the prime minister's Air Force jet to Melbourne with Turnbull the next morning. She explained to him how the legal changes would work. Turnbull agreed it would be the first legislative item if the Coalition was re-elected.
Hunt drove from his home on the Mornington Peninsula that morning. He texted Turnbull, who was on his way to the Victorian Parliament from the airport, to let him know about 3500 volunteers had turned up in rain and 13 degrees weather. TV cameras and journalists waited for the speeches to begin. Almost no-one knew the prime minister was on the way.
Turnbull, whose election performance up to then had been widely criticised as wooden, was welcomed like a conquering hero. "We stand with you," he said, wearing a fleece jacket surrounded by men in yellow CFA coats. "The idea that you be would over-ruled – subordinated – to the UFU is incredible."
Turnbull promised to legislate the deal out of existence. The crowd lapped it up.
The Carr factor
There wasn't much sympathy for the Country Fire Authority in the Labor Party senior ranks. The board had been appointed by the previous Liberal state government. At least one member, King & Wood Mallesons banking lawyer Katherine Forrest, was well connected in the Liberal Party.
CFA fire stations are more likely to be in National and Liberal electorates. Station captains are often men of high standing in their communities, and regarded suspiciously as establishment figures by local Labor activists. Wives played a subordinate role – the CFA cake stand is a perennial weekend feature of many country communities.
Labor officials were painfully aware of the danger of taking on a volunteer organisation with 60,000 members. Even though it was a state dispute, they knew some voters might think Shorten was just as likely as Andrews to give into union demands.
Fuelled by leaks from in and outside government, the Herald Sun relentlessly campaigned against the firefighters' union. As the biggest-selling paper in the state, its front-page assaults ricocheted across the media landscape. Liberal campaign headquarters in Melbourne seized on the dispute to solicit donations and volunteers for the federal election.
Garrett's political patron, Victorian senator Kim Carr, decided to step in. On the same weekend Turnbull promised to legislate the deal out of existence, Carr was working with Andrews to find a way to save Garrett. Carr led a Labor sub-faction in Victoria called the Industrial Left (because it was backed by several unions). The group had propelled Garrett into Parliament and the ministry. If there was anyone who could influence Garrett it was the veteran Labor politician.
Carr admired Garrett. She had an engaging personality, sharp political skills and a friendly smile that endeared her to voters in her hip Brunswick seat. In 2011 she was elected vice-president of the federal Labor Party in a national vote of members – an impressive achievement for a state backbencher.
In government the relatively new minister, under attack from Marshall, had become too close to the CFA, Carr felt. She needed to assert control over the agency. Even some former CFA board members felt that Garrett had taken on a fight she could never win, and one that had caused huge damage to the CFA's morale and reputation.
Later, Carr argued that the CFA resisted the deal to embarrass the Labor Party. "As an observer it struck me that the CFA was not interested in an settlement before the election," he said. CFA sources said it was Andrews who forced the deal through during the campaign and he could have easily found a pretext for a delay.
Carr tried to negotiate a resolution that would end the dispute and allow Garrett to keep her job. Andrews wasn't going to back down, even in the face of overwhelming media hostility. An online Herald Sun poll put opposition to the deal at 92 per cent. Garrett, who was under huge personal and political pressure, had run out of options. If Garrett couldn't live with the agreement she would have to return to the backbench.
Shortly before the cabinet meeting on June 10, Garrett became one of the rarest creatures in Australian politics: a minister who resigns on principle. Andrews immediately replaced her with James Merlino, his deputy. Merlino told the CFA board, which had legal advice the agreement was unlawful, to implement the deal or be fired. It chose the latter.
The CFA volunteers were outraged. They threatened to appear at polling booths on election day in full uniform – against direct orders – and urge voters to reject Labor. Shorten seemed to avoid campaigning in locations where he was likely to be ambushed by CFA volunteers, including the seat of Corangamite around Geelong.
Andrews couldn't hide. Dan Tehan, the Veterans' Affairs minister, was invited to the opening of a wind farm near the Western Victorian town on Ararat on June 14. Andrews would be the guest of honour. Tehan alerted the local Liberal MP, who organised 200 CFA volunteers to turn up and embarrass the premier. The protest received wide media coverage.
Three days later the CFA's chief executive officer, Lucinda Nolan, resigned. She was followed by the CFA's fire-fighting chief, Joe Buffone.
The story had dominated the airwaves in Victoria for a month, and would continue up to election day, when thousands of CFA volunteers stood near polling booths holding signs that said "Hands off the CFA" and other slogans. In Chisholm, the one seat Labor lost in the whole country, Liberals wearing pro-CFA t-shirts handed out how-to-vote cards. CFA volunteers didn't campaign in Chisholm, according to their spokesman.
The precise impact is in dispute. The national swing to Labor was 3.3 per cent. In Victoria it was 2.1 per cent. It is remarkable that Labor's weakest state was Shorten's home ground.
Labor leaders accept that Garrett's resignation hardened perceptions the CFA was a victim of a union takeover and made it hard for Labor to get voters interested in its attacks on Turnbull. But they don't accept it changed the outcome. "It was a vote blocker not a vote shifter," one shadow Labor minister said. Marshall argues it had no electoral effect.
Tehan believes it made the difference between a hung Parliament and a slim Coalition majority. A long-time Labor activist who advised the CFA volunteers, Garth Head, estimated it cost Labor 2 percentage points of the vote in Victoria. Without it, Labor would have won 74 seats in the 150-seat Parliament, he said. Assuming the post-election support of the Greens' Brandt and left-leaning independent Andrew Wilkie, Shorten could have been prime minister today.