Firefighters union stokes up its attack on Labor, targeting vulnerable seats

Firefighters union stokes up its attack on Labor, targeting vulnerable seats

Talking points

  • The United Firefighters Union will put the Labor Party last on how-to-vote cards in a dozen key seats. 
  • Union secretary Peter Marshall has slammed the government over its decision to expand the presumptive rights for cancer compensation scheme designed for firefighters. 
  • The Victorian government says expanding the scheme will have no material impact for firefighters. 

The United Firefighters Union has escalated its feud with the Andrews government, launching a campaign to put government candidates last in key seats at the November state election.

The UFU is objecting to the Andrews government’s changes to compensation legislation for firefighters who develop certain types of cancers. The change replaced references to “firefighter” to “person” in a bid to extend the compensation scheme to 90 vehicle and equipment maintenance staff.

The United Firefighters Union is campaigning against the Andrews government over presumptive rights compensation legislation.

Under laws passed in 2018, firefighters diagnosed with cancer do not have to prove it was caused by their duties to receive compensation.

UFU secretary Peter Marshall said members and their supporters would saturate the main streets in the seat of Richmond with a letterbox campaign targeting homes and businesses until the election.

He said the changes were insulting and the government had trashed the scheme.

“This is simply not a storm in a teacup that can be ridden out by the Andrews government,” Marshall said.

UFU secretary Peter Marshall (right) has vowed to continue the campaign against Premier Daniel Andrews’ government. Credit:The Age

“The Andrews government has struck at the very heart of what is most important to firefighters – that is acknowledgement by the parliament of the sacrifice firefighters make in forgoing quantity and quality of life as a result of the unavoidable risk in entering burning buildings on numerous occasions to save life and property.”

The state government has argued its vehicle and equipment maintenance workers who attend fires should have the same rights as firefighters to access presumptive rights compensation claims if they develop certain types of cancers. There are about 4000 paid firefighters and 54,000 volunteers. The scheme has been expanded to include 90 non-firefighting personnel.

The state government said those staff maintain and repair firefighting equipment, including on fire grounds where they can be exposed to the same carcinogens as firefighters.

“We take our responsibility to provide the support they need to do this job seriously – these reforms reflect that responsibility,” a state government spokeswoman said.

Firefighters on the steps of the state parliament last month, urging the government not to expand the compensation scheme. Credit:Chris Hopkins

“The change extends a right to a small number of additional workers if they contract specific cancers in the course of their employment and does not diminish any existing protections.”

The government has cited the case of the 2014 Hazelwood mine fire, in which 28 vehicle and equipment maintenance workers attended the fire, as evidence they can be exposed to similar levels of risk as firefighters who attend burning buildings.

The UFU cited evidence showing that firefighters are more prone to developing some kinds of cancers and said that is not established for other firefighting support staff. It argues that if other cancers are later found to disproportionately affect firefighters, it may be harder to include those cases in the compensation scheme if it has been expanded to include non-firefighting personnel.

James Carlson, a personal injury lawyer at Slater and Gordon who has represented firefighters in compensation claims, said the inclusion of people who aren’t firefighters could make it easier for insurers to reject claims from firefighters and maintenance staff.

Marshall campaigned for Premier Daniel Andrews in 2014, but they have publicly fallen out in recent years following a bitter and long-running dispute over fire services reform and enterprise bargaining negotiations. Dealings between union and government officials during the negotiations are being probed by the anti-corruption watchdog.

The Victorian government legislated presumptive rights to cancer compensation for career and volunteer firefighters in 2017 as part of a broader suite of controversial fire services reform that dogged the Andrews government in its first term and led to the downfall of then-emergency services minister Jane Garrett.

Marshall has written to dozens of Labor MPs and candidates, including Lauren O’Dwyer in Richmond, to warn he was in the process of organising street stalls with firefighters who will tell voters that “only the Greens and independents supported firefighters”.

The Greens are targeting the inner-Melbourne seat, which is held by Labor with a 5.46 per cent margin. Party strategists expect it to be a close contest, due in part to the retirement of local MP Richard Wynne.

Marshall did not say whether the UFU would place Greens candidate Gabrielle de Vietri first on how-to-vote cards.

Victorian Greens leader Samantha Ratnam unsuccessfully moved a motion last month to set up a parliamentary inquiry into the expansion of the firefighters’ legislation to maintenance workers.

She said that while her party supported the expansion of presumptive rights schemes, there should have been separate legislation, as is the case for forest firefighters.

“We were concerned if you rushed through the amendment, or we got it wrong, it could potentially dilute or weaken long-fought-for presumptive rights for firefighters,” Ratnam said.

The Labor Party declined to comment.

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