Australia : CFA crisis: Premier's hand-picked board backs controversial fire union deal
Premier Daniel Andrews' hand-picked Country Fire Authority board has finally approved a contentious deal with the militant firefighters union, but the government's plan faces a challenge in the court from tens
of thousands of angry volunteers.
After a three-hour meeting on Friday, the CFA board endorsed the agreement, giving Mr Andrews a small victory in one of the most protracted and bitter industrial disputes in recent history.
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Firefighters dispute: what's it all about?
Firefighters union and the CFA have been locked in a bitter industrial dispute for more than three years, with politics only stoking the flames.
New chairman Greg Smith conceded the process had been difficult, but said it was now time to "move forward and lead the organisation out of a challenging situation".
But within minutes of the agreement being approved, the CFA's 60,000-strong volunteer force announced it would proceed with legal action against the plan, insisting it gives too much power to the United Firefighters Union and its controversial boss, Peter Marshall.
"Today is a day of infamy that will burn into the memory of every CFA volunteer," Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria chief executive Andrew Ford said.
"It is the day that a CFA board decision, and those board members who voted for it, betrayed volunteers and ignored their responsibility and obligations to the public of Victoria.
"Like in countless battles against fires which threaten life and property, CFA volunteers will not give up – it's just not in our DNA."
The issue is likely to remain contentious for Mr Andrews, who is yet to explain how it will be paid for and why he changed his position following a private meeting with Mr Marshall, despite previously agreeing that the union's demands were "outrageous."
Some within the Metropolitan Fire Brigade have also raised concerns that safety could be compromised if similar conditions were applied to the MFB.
Emergency Services Minister James Merlino welcomed the deal, saying it contained a number of safeguards that protected the role of volunteers and enhanced diversity in the workforce, which is 97 per cent male.
"It is clear there needs to be a fundamental culture shift in the CFA and there is a real opportunity to address these challenges," Mr Merlino said.
The decision to endorse the deal comes after the previous CFA board was sacked for refusing to accept it.
Other casualties included the-then emergency services minister Jane Garrett, CFA chief executive officer Lucinda Nolan and chief fire officer Joe Buffone.
Central to the endorsed agreement is a "statement of understanding" that Mr Smith says guarantees the operations of the CFA and the chief fire officer will not be adversely affected by new deal.
Major concerns continue to be raised that the proposed agreement is in breach of the state's workplace laws.
Another issue that has been raised is that the chief officer's command could be stymied by union powers.
In a letter sent from Mr Smith to chief officer Steve Warrington after the meeting, the board outlined the fact that Mr Warrington would have all CFA members under his "order and control" and also highlighted that he must "ensure that we comply" with all laws.
A senior source said the letter showed that attempts were being made to handball responsibility for the union deal to another organisation, because the Premier was unable to reject the union's demands.
The Coalition has written to the auditor-general, asking him to investigate the price of the EBA - which the CFA previously costed at around $700 million - and will continue to make it a pressure point for the government when parliament resumes on Tuesday.
"The CFA issue is not going away and it beggars belief that the Premier just can't see that," said opposition leader Matthew Guy.
Mr Marshall said the union welcomed the board's decision which would allow firefighters to get on with their job to keep Victorians safe and to prepare for the fire season.
"After the Liberal Party's opportunistic attempt to manufacture a conflict between career and volunteer firefighters during the federal election campaign, wiser heads now prevail," Mr Marshall said.
"The CFA dispute, confected by the Liberal Party, did take its toll on members, but attempts to divide career and volunteer firefighters were unsuccessful. Career and volunteer firefighters are highly skilled, dedicated champions in our community who work side by side to keep Victorians safe."