Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has taken the unusual step of intervening directly in a state-based industrial dispute, publishing an open letter to Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews over union agreements for firefighters.
The tech-savvy PM has opened an account with popular blogging platform Medium, and popped his cherry by sharing a letter he wrote to the Victorian premier regarding the state's controversial and much-discussed firefighting reforms. A new agreement proposed by the United Firefighters Union would see professional firefighters given more power over the members of the volunteer Country Fire Authority. The proposal has angered the state's 60,000 volunteers, who claim they would be shut out of decisions about how to fight fires and effectively be put under the command of paid firefighters.
The Herald Sun reported the agreement would allow paid firefighters to overrule CFA decisions, as well as placing other regulations on firefighting such as mandating a set number of firefighters at a fire, regardless of size, and higher pay for having to work with contractors. The Fair Work Commission backed the changes on Wednesday, delivering non-binding recommendations around the agreement which Andrews called "balanced and fair".
The changes have been quite controversial and hotly debated in Victoria, with federal Employment Minister Michaelia Cash weighing into the issue this weekend.
"What the [agreement] says is basically that the union firefighters will no longer have to take instruction from volunteer firefighters. You're talking men and women who have 30 years experience fighting fires," Cash said.
"At this stage we are working through all possible options, but certainly it is looking at potential changes to the Fair Work Act to ensure that we protect these types of situations and in particular any steps that are taken to compromise the ability of emergency services to undertake their role in an efficient manner."
"This is an Australian institution that is about to decimated because another union says I want control and a Labor government says 'absolutely, we'll give it to you'."
Cash flagged the federal government -- which started a royal commission into trade unions and is ostensibly fighting an election over its Australian Building and Construction Commission legislation in a bid to reform construction unions -- would intervene directly in the firefighters case, and on Sunday, the Prime Minister released his open letter to the public.
"Grave concerns, which I share, have been raised with me that the proposed agreement will seriously undermine the operation of the CFA and in so doing jeopardise the safety of Victorians and their property," Turnbull wrote, going on to invoke the tragic loss of lives and massive damage of Victoria's 'Black Saturday' bushfires in 2009.
"Standing between the fire and Victorians and their homes were more than 19,000 CFA volunteer fire fighters some of whom I was able to thank in the days after the fire. Many of the survivors owed their lives to the heroism and professionalism of those volunteers and other firefighters," he said.
"The proposed agreement appears to transfer the leadership of the CFA to the United Firefighters Union. The effective subordination of the CFA volunteers to the members of the UFU runs the grave risk of seriously demoralising and demotivating the volunteers. I am particularly concerned by reports that thousands of CFA volunteers will resign if this is implemented. The strength of the CFA is founded on the commitment of its sixty thousand volunteers — mass resignations, and a reduction in new recruits have the potential gravely to imperil the safety of Victorians."
Hundreds of volunteer firefighters protested the agreement on Sunday afternoon near Victorian parliament. Turnbull attended the rally, reportedly speaking in support of the volunteer organisation.
"Sadly, CFA volunteers have been denied a voice in the consideration and determination of matters affecting them," Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria said in a statement.
To read Turnbull's full open letter, click here.