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Legislative Council
Firefighters' Presumptive Rights Compensation and Fire Services Legislation Amendment (Reform) Bill 2017

08 June 2017
Second reading


Ordered that second-reading speech be incorporated into Hansard on motion of Ms PULFORD (Minister for Agriculture).

Ms PULFORD (Minister for Agriculture) — I move:

That the bill be now read a second time.

Incorporated speech as follows:

Our firefighters, be they career or volunteer, work tirelessly, and at immense personal risk, to protect our people, our assets and our communities. In short, our firefighters are world class.

This government is committed to supporting our firefighters and ensuring the safety of Victorians, as Victoria's population grows, our state evolves, and our fire risk increases as our environment changes. The safety of people and assets is paramount, and underpins everything that this government does.

World-class firefighters need to be supported by modern and supportive governance and leadership structures that reflect changing risks and the needs of our community. A multitude of official reviews, eight in less than ten years, have made it clear that modernisation is needed to a system that is based on legislative arrangements originally conceived in the 1950s.

We hear time and time again that our firefighters are having to work harder to maintain some of the best response times in the nation, and that our organisational arrangements are not keeping pace with the changing face of Victoria. While we acknowledge that improvements have been made in many areas, the time has come to progress more fundamental reform to set our fire services on course to meet the challenges of this century.

This bill will do just that. It will ensure that Victoria's career fire service is modernised, with clear accountability structures to meet the needs of a growing and changing state. It also restores the CFA to its roots as a community-based, locally responsive organisation made up of dedicated volunteer firefighters. And ensures that these volunteer firefighters are supported to do their job with clear organisational objectives and paid support staff.

Importantly — this bill also delivers to our career and volunteer firefighters a presumptive right to compensation for cancer claims arising from their service. This is an important reform that will make the process of applying for compensation less onerous for many Victorian firefighters. These laws recognise the invaluable service provided by firefighters, which often requires them to work in inherently dangerous situations.

I call on the house to pass this bill as a priority to ensure that these reforms can be fully implemented. This will ensure public safety, deliver safe systems that work, provide certainty and stability for our firefighters — volunteer and career — and instil community confidence in the readiness of our fire services.

The results are in, the reviews have been done — now is the time for change.

Part 2 of this bill will establish a new Firefighters' Presumptive Rights Compensation Act to enable eligible firefighters to seek compensation through WorkSafe and their cancer will be presumed to be due to their employment or their service. This will apply a presumption to compensation for both career and volunteer firefighters who develop one of 12 cancer types and who meet the qualifying period by cancer type. This scheme will apply to eligible firefighters diagnosed on or after 1 June 2016.

A separate bill will be introduced into Parliament in the coming months for a scheme for workers undertaking critical fire prevention and suppression work across the state in the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning. This will also capture partner agencies, for example, Parks Victoria and Forest Fire Management Victoria, and include relevant workers from the Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources.

Cancer types and service types in the bill are based on commonwealth legislation and are consistent with other jurisdictions including Queensland, which is a model we have drawn on extensively in developing our proposed approach. Should evidence emerge over time that additional cancers should also be prescribed, the government will consider additional legislative changes.

Firefighters will continue to be eligible for the presumption for a period of 10 years after their employment or service has finished. Firefighters who do not qualify for the presumption will continue to be able to claim compensation through WorkSafe or the volunteer compensation scheme.

Volunteer firefighters will have to have attended fires to the extent reasonably necessary to fulfil the purpose of their service as a firefighter. This is based on the equivalent Queensland legislation and is intended to recognise the invaluable service that volunteer firefighters provide.

As in Queensland, an advisory committee will be established to support this process and provide an expert opinion to WorkSafe on presumptive claims made by volunteer firefighters. The committee will be established under regulations and will include members with appropriate expertise.

Firefighters who do not qualify for the presumption will continue to be able to claim compensation through WorkSafe or the volunteer compensation scheme.

This bill also provides for a special consideration process to enable firefighters who attend an exceptional exposure event but do not meet the relevant qualifying period for their cancer to access the presumption. This process is unique to Victoria and recognises that firefighters can be called upon to protect Victorians in exceptional situations, sometimes risking their own health. The advisory committee will also provide an expert opinion to WorkSafe on these special consideration claims.

The bill will change the existing administrative arrangements, with WorkSafe to administer all presumptive compensation claims. Currently, volunteer compensation is administered by the Country Fire Authority. WorkSafe will be reimbursed for volunteer compensation claims, and associated costs, by special appropriation.

These measures are separate to the development of a Fiskville redress scheme which we have previously indicated our support for. This was a key recommendation of the 2014 parliamentary inquiry into the CFA training college at Fiskville.

Turning now to the fire services governance reforms announced on 19 May 2017, part 3 of this bill seeks to amend the MFB act, with a change in title to the Fire Rescue Victoria Act 1958 and establish a new entity, Fire Rescue Victoria (FRV). FRV will be constituted by a new fire rescue commissioner who will replace the MFB board and assume all of the existing functions, powers and duties of the board, chief executive officer and chief officer under the MFB act. This allows clear lines of responsibility, both in the day-to-day management of the organisation, and in the critical time of responding to emergencies. The fire rescue commissioner will be supported by deputy commissioners who will be delegated certain responsibilities of FRV, such as metropolitan operations, regional operations and specialist operations. Commissioner and deputy commissioner appointments will be undertaken through a merit-based selection process — only the best will do.

The bill establishes a Strategic Advisory Committee to advise FRV on a range of organisational matters. The Strategic Advisory Committee will consist of up to seven independent members, appointed by the minister, with substantial experience and knowledge of modern governance principles, workforce diversity, and fire and emergency services. This model is consistent with recommendations from the 2015 fire services review and best practice nationally, across the emergency management sector.

Part 4 of the bill proposes to alter the boundary of the metropolitan fire district to include some outer urban and larger regional centres in order to address the increasing demand, complexity and risk profile of these areas due to population growth, land use and industrial changes. As this will no longer cover only metropolitan districts, it will be renamed the Fire Rescue Victoria fire district. This change will result in the CFA's existing 35 integrated stations being located within Fire Rescue Victoria fire district. These stations will therefore become the responsibility of FRV, effectively bringing together all of the state's career firefighters into the one organisation.

The bill will also establish a Fire District Review Panel to undertake future reviews of the FRV fire district. Members of the Fire District Review Panel will be appointed by the minister, and will have significant and substantial expertise and experience in fire response and management, emergency management or another relevant field, and be able to make an informed and independent assessment. To ensure its independence, the panel will not include any serving officers or employees or representatives of fire services agencies, industrial bodies or Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria.

Reviews of the FRV fire district will be undertaken by the panel at least every four years in consultation with fire services agencies and local councils, having regard to any change in fire risk. This reform will ensure that Victoria's fire services respond to changes to our state and that Victorians can rely on a service that is modern and responsive to local needs, across the state. It is consistent with and delivers on recommendation 63 of the Victorian bushfires royal commission.

Consistent with our commitment to volunteer firefighters, and in acknowledgement of their long and proud history in serving Victorian communities, part 5 of this bill proposes to amend the CFA act to restore the CFA to a volunteer firefighting, community-based service. The government is committed to supporting volunteers throughout the reform implementation and into the future. To be very clear — CFA volunteer firefighters do, and will continue to, provide a vital service to our state, in particular critical surge capacity for prolonged fire events.

The bill will enshrine the important role of volunteers in the CFA by inserting an additional responsibility for the CFA board to support the effective and sustainable recruitment, development and retention of volunteer officers and members to deliver capability in the provision of the authority's services.

CFA volunteer brigades located in the Fire Rescue Victoria fire district have the option to retain their brigade identity and co-locate at the formerly CFA integrated stations. The bill ensures that these brigades can continue to operate as they have under the leadership of the CFA chief officer by providing additional powers that the CFA may exercise within the Fire Rescue Victoria fire district. Those CFA volunteer brigades that take up this option will work closely with FRV and other emergency services in providing a vital service to the community under Victoria's successful emergency management framework. Other options available to these volunteers include supported transfer to neighbouring CFA stations, or a new pathway to career firefighting for volunteer firefighters. We are already engaging with these volunteers in a genuine manner to plan for the future. The bill does not provide for the establishment of additional CFA brigades in the FRV fire district.

Part 6 of the bill provides the transitional provisions necessary to give effect to the new organisational arrangements for FRV and the CFA.

Specifically, the bill provides a mechanism to transfer CFA assets to FRV in relation to former CFA integrated stations which will be the responsibility of FRV. This will ensure that FRV has the appropriate infrastructure and equipment it requires from the date of commencement. The CFA will prepare an asset allocation statement to guide the split of assets, including land and buildings, between the CFA and FRV. This will be drafted in consultation with Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria Incorporated and volunteers at formerly integrated stations. Once approved by the minister, the required infrastructure and equipment will transfer to FRV.

Further, the bill provides for the transfer of all relevant operational staff from CFA's existing 35 integrated stations and related training instructors from the CFA to FRV, effective on the date of proclamation. All employees will transfer with existing entitlements and benefits.

The bill also provides a mechanism to allow for the further transfer of any required CFA staff to FRV by ministerial direction. It is envisaged that some further operational management and related administrative support staff will need to transfer to FRV in the future. This will be based on advice from the heads of our fire services, and subject to the normal consultation processes with employees and their representatives. The commissioner of FRV and chief officer of CFA will ensure there will be no impact on operational capability during the transition. The bill ensures that FRV and CFA can continue to provide support across agency lines as required, including through shared service agreements and other heads of agreement. In addition, the bill requires FRV to provide operational and management support to the CFA.

Finally, the government will ensure the total amount budgeted for collection through the fire services property levy for the next two years (2017–18 and 2018–19) will not exceed the aggregate amount collected in 2016–17. This means that, on average, 2017–18 and 2018–19 FSPL rates for all property types will be equal to or lower than those charged in 2016–17. In addition, we have committed that any costs in implementing fire services reforms will not be met through the fire services property levy.

The government is committed to ensuring our fire services remain world class and are best equipped to perform their valuable role in protecting our state. This bill will create the modern governance and management structures that our firefighting services deserve, and will fundamentally keep Victorians safe. These reforms are the most extensive since the 1950s and will allow Victoria's fire services to begin a new chapter.

I commend the bill to the house.

Debate adjourned for Mr O'DONOHUE (Eastern Victoria) on motion of Mr Ondarchie.

Debate adjourned until Thursday, 15 June.