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Estimates Reply – Ellis

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP  -  Wednesday, 21 June 2023

Tags: Police, Fire Management, Firefighters, State Budget

Dr WOODRUFF - Mr Chair, like Ms O'Byrne it is pretty hard to know where to start with this portfolio and the Minister for Police, Fire, and Emergency Management, except to say that his opening statements of support for the volunteer firefighters and emergency services were particularly hollow given his actions this morning. It was a shameful display of disrespect by a minister to completely blank people for the fire services, volunteer firefighters, who were sitting here in the Chamber, a good 10 or 12 of them, for at least two questions before he finally acknowledged them under relentless pressure from the Greens and the Opposition. That show of disrespect speaks volumes about how Mr Ellis responds when he is up against opposition.

I do not know where this is going to go for the minister because he has just painted himself into a corner and it is such a tiny place. He is sitting there facing a corner with the dunce hat on and everybody else is looking at him and wondering, 'What are you going to do now?'. We have a really important decision to make: a reform of the state Fire Service Act. It is something that has had the chief fire officer, who is now no longer with us, pushed out by this minister, his arrogance, his wrecking-ball approach to conflict in the workplace. His approach has driven out a fantastic chief fire officer, Dermot Barry. It is beyond terrible that we are coming up to a El Nino fire season without a person at the helm with the great abilities of Dermot Barry.

He has also completely ignored the concerns that have been raised by the thousands of volunteer firefighters, directly through individuals and also through the United Firefighters Union (UFU). He has also ignored the chief fire officers John Gledhill and Mike Brown, who served ably and outstandingly, kept Tasmanians safe between them for decades in some of the hardest of times, like the Dunalley fire and the post-1967 era. They oversaw enormous changes in Tasmania's fire service.

In Estimates the minister repeatedly talked down the competencies of the fire service structure. He repeatedly talked about how badly it has served us. I find that a terrible miswriting of history. We have had people who have kept us safe in the hardest of conditions and who have led volunteer firefighters, who have overseen structural changes in Tasmania. We have led the country a number of times since 1967. It was because of the horrific, brutal learnings from 1967 that we made changes. The first changes in the country to bring together the urban and regional firefighters, to bring together multiple agencies working with the fire service, working with Parks and working with local government. These are the changes that Tasmania has been leading the country on.

The whole of the Estimates was a hothouse of misinformation from the minister. He repeated false statements about the current structure being a failure with, according to him, the chief fire officer currently reporting to the State Fire Management Committee and the State Fire Commission. The chief fire officer does not report to those bodies. The chief fire officer is one of a group who sit on those bodies. He does not report to the State Fire Commission, which has an independent chair; he sits on it with the UFU and other bodies. It is a policy-making body. It is the body that oversees the State Fire Plan, that coordinates the development of fire services, that investigates fires. He also sits on the State Fire Management Council. That is the body responsible for fire vegetation management. These are the bodies that undertake the work that hold us in good stead when we are in fires.

What the minister continuously and pointlessly misrepresents is the difference between the emergency response phase and the in between phase of fires. All three chief fire officers: Dermot Barry, just previously past; John Gledhill and Mike Brown, the unions and all of the volunteer firefighters they represent are very clear that during the fire period we need to have a clear and direct chain of command, which there is. There always has been.

But it is the in between periods where the great concern arises. This minister is trying to jam what ought to be, needs to be a horizontal structure, a flat structure, where the people in volunteer firefighting positions are able to rise to the top with their expertise and their different abilities. It is not a control and-command situation. It is not a chain of command or a hierarchical structure. That is exactly what we have heard time and again, and that will serve us badly.

I do not know where this is going to end because the bottom line is that Mr Ellis has a pugnacious, political, tin eared approach to managing this conflict. It is a stalemate situation. I asked him what he is going to do given that it is a stalemate, and he said he is just going to ignore it. He said, 'I will move forward with these reforms because they are extraordinarily important'. Minister, you have the unions, the volunteer firefighters across the state, you have a plethora of chief fire officers - recent, past and most esteemed - in this state, all lined up against you. I put it to you, you had better think of another approach because you are not in control of this situation; the situation is controlling you. You might like to hide behind your position as Minister for Police, Fire and Emergency Management, but that will not help you when you have to bring this piece of legislation, which is so important, to a place which can be passed.

It must be said on the record that there is no disagreement between past chief fire officers, the unions and volunteer firefighters that there should be a reform of the Fire Services Act. There is strong agreement and that is being called for now for well over a decade. The Government has been dragging its heels on this. The agreement is to move TFS and SES together; the only point of disagreement is to place the police commissioner in the role of secretary over the top of that.

The last thing we need is to have the operational budget of TFES under the control of the police service, which is seven times the size. We will see what has happened. The police took over, or were given control of so-called deficiencies with TFS, including communications, coporate affairs and a bunch of other things, and ever since then, it has been incredibly difficult for TFS to get value for money. That is what always happens when you are the smaller body and you come to the larger body; you will get gobbled up. What we have to do is make sure that we strongly support the role of volunteer workers. This minister is a wrecking ball. He has bungled the reform and he had better look at doing something different because it is not working.