Few organisations are as cherished by Victorians as the CFA.
It’s iconic, it’s much loved and there’s a fair chance you’ll know at least one hero who volunteers to save lives and property.
Ask any firey why they do it and they’ll usually reply – ‘to help my community.’
Last summer our state experienced some of its darkest days. We watched helplessly as our beautiful regional communities burned and CFA volunteers selflessly put themselves in harm’s way, to protect us.
CFA volunteers were our summer heroes but now they’re being treated like second class citizens. These Victorians, who we owe so much to, shouldn’t have to worry about Spring Street politics.
But right now they are in the middle of it.
Back in 2014 Labor first waged a war on CFA volunteers in order to curry favour with the United Firefighters Union who then campaigned to make Daniel Andrews Premier.
Now Daniel Andrews is ripping the heart out of our CFA and trying to turn it into a union-led pawn. And I won’t stand for it.
That is why, if elected, my Liberal Nationals team will rebuild and restore the CFA as a proud, independent and equal firefighting service.
Today marks the first day of Labor’s so-called “reforms” which ultimately hand effective control over the CFA from volunteers to a union.
The cherished independence once provided to the CFA command has been stripped away.
Gone are the days of a job going to the best person – that power now firmly in the hands of union bosses that back Daniel Andrews.
Gone too are the CFA career firefighters – brought into Labor’s new “Fire Rescue Victoria” at the CFA’s expense.
At its peak the CFA had more than 60,000 volunteers across Victoria but since Andrews’ war on the CFA began, those numbers have dropped dramatically.
Around 5,000 hardworking volunteers have felt so disillusioned that they have walked away.
They love their communities but they hate what Daniel Andrews is doing to their beloved CFA.
Adding to the carnage, almost 70 commanders and instructors have been stripped out of the CFA, representing decades of lost knowledge and experience.
Another 171 support staff are stripped out and staff in one district have been told at least two-thirds of positions will not return.
But the scalps don’t finish there. Under Daniel Andrews’ watch, anyone who dares to disagree with his position has to go.
In fact back in 2016 Andrews forced the resignation of his own Emergency Services Minister, Jane Garrett.
A Labor stalwart, Garrett saw what damage would be done to the CFA if operational control was handed to the United Firefighters Union.
She refused to bow to Andrews. So Andrews decided she had to go.
The CFA Board was then dismissed and the MFB Board was replaced resulting in the loss of over 100 years of emergency services experience. Ultimately this undermines the capacity of Victoria’s fire services and that puts lives and property at risk.
And a little over a year ago Andrews played his final card. Without proper community consultation, legislation to break up the CFA and cut its funding by $40 million was forced through Parliament. That law starts today.
It’s a kick in the guts to the 55,000 remaining volunteers who protect each and every single community across regional and rural Victoria.
While I can’t image some of the challenges these volunteer men and women face in our service, my Liberal Nationals team will fight for the future and the independence of the CFA.
Reform within the fire service needs to be about strengthening CFA volunteers and their communities, not sidelining them.
We owe it to them.
That is why if elected we will end Andrews’ war on our CFA within the first 100 days of taking office.
A Michael O’Brien-led Liberal National government will introduce laws to restore the CFA’s power to select, recruit and manage its own staff and wear the CFA uniform.
Our legislation will enhance the CFA’s powers and responsibilities for the ongoing delivery of fire services in current CFA areas.
And unlike Andrews, who takes direction from a union, we will consult with Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria and CFA brigades across Victoria to identify the essential powers, people and resources that are needed to rebuild and restore the CFA.
When you go the polls in a little over two years, you’ll have the choice to back the volunteers – the local husband and wife duo, the captain of the local footy team or the father and daughter combo who work alongside the everyday heroes that make up our iconic CFA.
A vote that says you too want to restore our CFA, and give these brave men and women the respect the Andrews Labor Government has denied them.
Michael O’Brien is the Victorian Opposition Leader.
This opinion piece featured in the Herald Sun (1 July 2020)