Victoria’s firefighters are splashed across the front pages of newspapers across the country, with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull getting involved over the weekend. The deal has been dragging on for years, with career firefighters and volunteers pitted against each other in a bid for control over operations. It’s pitted Minister against Premier and Premier against Prime Minister — so what is actually going on?

What is the United Firefighters Union asking for?

The United Firefighters Union has been locked in negotiations with the Victorian government for more than three years over a pay deal that would affect wages of career firefighters, working conditions and safety measures. The list of demands is long, and as well as a significant payrise, the UFU is also demanding clauses that would affect the power balance between the union and the Country Fire Authority, and between career and volunteer firefighters. The UFU points to issues like the Fiskville training cancer cluster, Hazelwood mine fire and the fire in the Grampians as evidence that it needs more control to protect the safety of workers. The Fair Work Commission has approved the EBA, but this is a non-binding recommendation.

Why does the CFA have a problem with this?

The Country Fire Authority in Victoria includes volunteer and career firefighters who respond to emergencies outside of Melbourne, which is covered by the Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB). The CFA board has rejected the union EBA deal (the UFU represents career firefighters, some of whom are in the CFA, and the CFA board has to approve any UFU deal), saying that it could not approve the deal in its current form. In a statement released today, it said: “We have serious concerns many of these proposed clauses are unlawful and we have legal advice that indicates CFA would be in breach of its statutory obligations.”

The CFA, overwhelmingly a volunteer organisation, is concerned that the deal would give the UFU too much power over its operational decision-making processes, and would contravene its volunteer charter — the state has 60,000 volunteer firefighters. The CFA does support a wage increase for firefighters, but says: “The proposed EBA undermines volunteers, our culture, allows the UFU operational and management control of CFA and is discriminatory.”

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The union wants a dispute resolution officer and also “EMR [emergency medical response] rollout to integrated stations”, which means at stations that include both volunteer and professional firefighters, a minimum of seven professional firefighters would be required to be sent to call outs. It could also give professional firefighters more power at the scene of a fire, causing conflict between the two bodies.

Today’s Fairfax papers report that the Victoria’s Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission has also ruled against 12 clauses in the deal, suggesting that eight parts of the agreement did not comply with the Equal Opportunity Act and five clauses were potentially non-compliant. The CFA commissioned the report, which found that the EBA’s rostering provisions discriminated against people who wanted to work part time.

Which side is Daniel Andrews on? 

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews was originally against the UFU when it came to the deal’s veto proposal, but he changed his mind after a meeting with UFU boss Peter Marshall without Emergency Services Minister Jane Garrett. This puts him in opposition to Garrett, who has pledged to support the CFA, and has reportedly considered resigning over the issue. Victorian cabinet will meet today to discuss the dispute after Andrews returned early from the United States. Now we have to wait and see if Andrews pushes the deal through cabinet — and his minister out in the process.

Why is it up to the Fair Work Commission to decide?

Technically it’s not. Fair Work Commissioner Julius Roe was called in to adjudicate over the deal, and last week Roe made a non-binding recommendation in favour of the UFU. Roe was previously president of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, and he told the CFA that the role of volunteers would not be changed by the agreement.

Why is the federal Liberal Party getting involved? 

Victoria is a Labor Party stronghold, and since his election in 2014, Premier Daniel Andrews has mainly been popular with voters. While this is a state issue, it’s one that the Liberal Party can use to wedge the Labor Party, especially as Victorians are incredibly proud of CFA volunteers. Over the weekend Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull attended a CFA protest in Melbourne, calling the deal an “extraordinary assault on fundamental Australian values” and pledging to change workplace laws to protect volunteer firefighters. He invoked memories of Black Saturday when saying he would defend the volunteer firies:

“I will never forget inspecting the devastation of the Black Saturday bushfire and going to the CFA at Diamond Creek and thanking you. Your heroism that day was the best of Australia; when 19,000 of you in that time of horror stood between Victorians and that ­inferno and put your lives on the line … you are the very best of us and we will back you to the hilt.”

Why is this issue so heated?

Emergency services are an emotional issue, especially in Victoria, where the CFA has been responsible for saving lives and homes, famously on Black Saturday in 2009, and most recently on the Surf Coast over Christmas last year. It has been all over the front pages of the Herald Sun, with CFA volunteers and residents affected by Black Saturday quoted in an attempt to attack  Andrews. Do people really understand the intricacies of the deal? Probably not — but when Victorians consider who they trust more, the heroic CFA or a politician, the Premier is not going to come out of this battle unscathed.

As a Crikey subscriber and someone who began working as a journalist in 1957, I am passionate about the importance of independent media like Crikey. I met a lot of Australians from many walks of life during my career and did my best to share their stories honestly and fairly with their fellow citizens.

And I never forgot how important it is to hold politicians to account. Crikey does that – something that is more important now than ever before in Australia.

North Stradbroke Island, QLD

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