Back on May 8, Malcolm Turnbull announced that he would take voters to the polls on July 2, and made his jobs and growth pitch:

“We have an economic plan for growth and jobs … on the other hand, our opponents are promising to increase income tax, they are opposing a tax cut for Australian businesses. They are proposing to increase capital gains tax by 50 per cent, a tax on investment.”

By yesterday’s National Press Club speech, the jobs and growth pitch was followed by this line:

From day one, if re-elected, the Coalition will be presenting legislation to amend the Fair Work Act so we can stop the takeover of the Country Fire Authority in Victoria, protecting 60,000 volunteer firefighters from a power grab orchestrated by the United Firefighters Union and the Andrews Labor government in Victoria.”

Tomorrow, at polling booths in Melbourne’s marginal outer suburbs and in regional areas, voters will be greeted by CFA volunteers in their yellow overalls and red firetrucks. In some places, voters will also be greeted by United Firefighters Union workers handing out pamphlets urging voters to “put the Liberals last”.

It’s scorched Labor’s chances in Victoria, where it had previously held hopes of being able to swing some of the most marginal seats away from the Coalition. The CFA’s 60,000 volunteers, and the depth of feeling that Victorians have for them, have become a gift Malcolm Turnbull didn’t even know he wanted in this campaign.

So how did the CFA in Victoria become an Achilles heel for Bill Shorten and one of Malcolm Turnbull’s greatest weapons? Through one of the most concerted and effective media campaigns, coupled with a massive strategic misstep on the part of Victorian Labor government.

In the past two months, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has rammed through a pay deal with the United Firefighters Union that was opposed by the volunteer emergency services brigade the CFA, leading to the resignations of emergency services minister Jane Garrett, CFA CEO Lucinda Nolan and CFA chief fire officer Joe Buffone. The CFA board was sacked by Andrews after Garrett walked. The CFA believes the deal would give the union and career firefighters veto powers over its decisions, while the UFU demands that the deal go through unchanged in order to ensure the safety of its members.

[Fighting Fire with … what exactly?]

In the four weeks before the election campaign began, the Herald Sun mentioned the CFA 44 times, and in the eight weeks since, the CFA (or Country Fire Authority) has been mentioned more than 248 times in the newspaper, including letters to the editor, editorials and news reports according to analysis by Isentia. In the month of June alone, the CFA crisis featured on the front page of the Herald Sun 19 times, as well as today’s front page and two more when the paper broke the story in late April.

It has also released “Back the CFA” bumper stickers that readers can pick up at their newsagents, leading to one United Firefighters Union member facing an assault charge after he allegedly punched a CFA volunteer and attempted to take off with all the stickers from a Diamond Creek newsagency. It’s not been a one newspaper job though, with The Australian also covering the issue in detail, and The Age also covering the dispute.

Premier Daniel Andrews’ government has already faced a few scandals, but this has been the most damaging by far. Labor’s outgoing member for Chisolm has said that the issue, which has been running for more than three years, will cost Labor seats. “They could have just waited, they could have just kept talking and I think that would have been the more sensible approach,” she told 3AW’s Neil Mitchell.

News Corp journos have been instructed to ask Shorten about the CFA dispute daily, but the federal opposition leader has refused to distance himself from his Victorian colleague, but tried to use Turnbull’s policy on the issue as an attack. In this exchange on Monday, Shorten emphasised that it was a state issue, a line which does not take the heat off:

“Mr Shorten, What would you say to Victorians who are considering not voting for you on Saturday out of spite for the way Daniel Andrews has handled the CFA dispute, and secondly, after the riots in northern parts of Melbourne yesterday, would you consider perhaps banning the burning of flags?”

” Let’s talk about the first question that you asked and I think in your question you answered it, you’re saying, is the CFA and a decision by Mr Andrews something which should be a reason to vote in a Federal election? You’re quite right, they are separate matters, you are quite right. The fact of the matter is the safety of all Victorians is what interests me. I have no doubt that career firefighters and voluntary firefighters and their leaders will sort these issues out. I’m a bit disappointed that it has taken as long as it has, but, as I’ve said in the past, in each negotiation there is always a start, middle and end. Volunteers are at the heart of the CFA and I’ve got no doubt this will be resolved and I’ve got no doubt that it is a state issue. I think it’s interesting today that Mr Turnbull’s so-called political solution doesn’t appear to stack up legally. I t hink what is important is the volunteers and career firefighters are not used as pawns in some Federal election when in fact the solution resides far closer to home at the state level.”

The answer hasn’t satisfied voters, and Shorten hasn’t offered a solution. So when Labor conducts its Victorian post-mortem, the cause of death will be clear.

Peter Fray

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