Presumptive Rights for firefighters

Mr PURCELL (Western Victoria) (14:21:13) — I move:

That this house notes that the —

(1)   Firefighters' Presumptive Rights Compensation and Fire Services Legislation Amendment (Reform) Bill 2017 was defeated in this house in March 2018;

(2)   purpose of the presumptive rights element of the bill is to provide a rebuttable presumption to claim compensation under the Workplace Injury Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 2013 for career and volunteer firefighters who are suffering, or will suffer, from certain cancers;

(3)   presumptive rights compensation legislation included in the bill had support amongst volunteer and career firefighters and members of this house;

and therefore calls on the government to expedite the introduction and passing of a new bill that addresses only the presumptive rights compensation issue before this Parliament expires in October.

The reason I have brought this motion to the house is certainly not to reopen old wounds. The discussion about the Country Fire Authority (CFA) bill and the presumptive rights portion of it that was conducted in the house I do not think too many of us would be really proud of, but I bring this to the house because my community wants me to.

When the CFA bill came out in the first place, I took it to the volunteers in my community. I organised a number of meetings, in particular within 100 kilometres of my office. Two of those were at integrated stations. The first meeting I had was at Warrnambool, which is quite a large integrated station. It was well organised. The meeting was a good meeting, with mainly career firefighters. At that, most of them certainly wanted me to support the bill, so at that stage I thought I had better go and talk to some of the other volunteers in western Victoria, particularly south-western Victoria.

The next station I went to was also an integrated station, in Portland. We invited a number of the smaller brigades from the border right through to include Tyrendarra and certainly Nelson and through there. It became apparent that they did not want the bill to pass — or they wanted more information rather than them not wanting the bill to pass. They definitely wanted the presumptive rights portion of it included as a separate issue. They felt it should be considered as a separate issue.

I then met with a number of the very small brigades in groups that represented a lot of brigades. I went to Heywood, where we had probably 150 CFA volunteers from many different brigades. I also visited the Koroit brigade, the Port Fairy brigade and the Pernim brigade, and I finished up at Macarthur on one very cold evening in the middle of the week. For those who do not know Macarthur, it has a population of about 200 people. We had one of the biggest meetings probably ever held in Macarthur at the fire shed. We could not fit into the fire shed, so they backed the truck out and we all huddled into the shed. There were probably 150-odd people there, so it was a big meeting for Macarthur.

In regard to the bill, I do not intend to touch on it other than to say that all the community really wanted was more information and they did not want me to support it until they received that information. They were not necessarily against what it included; it was just that they did not understand it well enough and were not comfortable enough to be able to say that, yes, it was a good piece of legislation. But I was asked right at the end of that meeting what would happen to the presumptive rights part of the bill if it went down. My comment to that was, 'Look, if the bill doesn't get passed, I will do what I can to make certain that the presumptive rights do not get lost in the rest of the business of government'. I said that if time permitted, I would raise it as a bill or at least as a motion.

So that is the reason why I am here. As I said, it is not to open old wounds; that is the last thing I think any of us need. But what I do think we need to do is to make certain that our CFA volunteers are looked after. As I said, this was a promise I made to them. I do not think anyone would argue about the need for presumptive rights legislation. The volunteers deserve to have the same cover and to be looked after in the same way as professional firefighters. It is long overdue, and it has been in the federal Parliament and this Parliament for getting near a decade. I think both parties have helped and hindered the passage of that as time has gone on.

I think we agree that the work that the firefighters do, our volunteers as well as our paid firefighters, does routinely expose them to toxic smoke and chemicals that can cause cancer. I do not think there is any argument about that, and if there is I certainly have not heard it. So we can all agree, because if they do become ill and show causes of the cancer, the last thing that they need or that their family needs is for them to have to prove that that was caused through their actions as firefighters. That is where we need to change the burden of proof so that the proof is actually to prove that they have not received it as part of their firefighting routine. I do not need to go through the history of this, but as I said, if there is a siren or a bell, as there often is in country Victoria, volunteers as well as professional firefighters will immediately don their clothes and be out fighting the fire. They will travel overseas, as many of them do, and my understanding is that there are a number of them already overseas fighting fires in other parts of the world, representing Victoria, representing Australia and representing us, and they do that so well.

The idea of presumptive rights has been around for a long time. It may have started before this, but the first piece of legislation was in 2011, when the federal government passed what was called the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Amendment (Fair Protection for Firefighters) Bill 2011, which amended the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1988. That actually created a legal presumption that if a firefighter had been employed for a certain period before being diagnosed with one of seven primary cancers, that employment was to be taken as being the dominant cause for the contraction of that cancer. I think that is the essence of it. So that was in 2011. Not long after that the Greens actually raised the issue in the Victorian Parliament in 2012. Not long after that, while not rejecting it, the Liberal government at the time basically wanted it to include further advice from the Victorian WorkCover Authority and the firefighters assessment panel to set up and review cases, but this required firefighters to prove their cancer was contracted at work. The presumptive legislation is to reverse that.

In 2014 Labor then made it a part of their 100-day promise. That was excellent and they took that to the election, but when the legislation was actually introduced it was wrapped around the very unpopular CFA bill. To their credit Labor did bring it to the Parliament, but they did not bring it in isolation, and that was the problem. I probably do not need to go over the events of Easter when the legislation was lost in this house, but it is probably the story of a book in itself. In May this year finally there was an attempt to introduce presumptive rights as a private members bill, which did not make it out of the other place, but it is time it did. And why wouldn't it?

Both sides of our current Parliament have taken advantage of the issue, I believe, for political reasons and political gain, especially during the course of this Parliament. I must admit it is not something I will look back on proudly as an achievement during the four years that I have been here. There are a growing number of unwell firefighters and their families who have been left waiting for compensation and recognition. So I urge the government to stop these games. I ask the government to introduce a new firefighters presumptive rights bill as a standalone piece of legislation without strings attached and to expedite its passing before we close. I commend this motion to the house.