Victoria’s lost love for Labor: firefighters and unions (part two)

Part Two: on the CFA, the MFB and the Liberal Party’s union attacks

The Liberal Party’s Labor-union attacks are focused on further reinforcing the narrative that ordinary people have lost control. When it comes to pro-worker legislation, the Liberal Opposition will say the usual words and take their normal positions but they will not keep at it as a persistent talking point. The Andrews Government’s introduction of an extra public holiday for the Grand Final parade is no longer a major talking point for Guy and the Liberal Party. Neither is opposition to the historic introduction of Labour Hire licensing.

Instead, Guy has focused in on the relationship between the leadership of the United Firefighters Union (UFU) and the Premier.

The long-running firefighter dispute centred around the frustrations of professional firefighters coming up against a fire service administrative structure designed in, and fit for the purposes of, 1950s Victoria. This led to a situation where sixty per cent of the Melbourne metropolitan population and major regional centres, including Ballarat, Bendigo and Geelong, was serviced by the old Country Fire Authority (CFA). In addition, during fires, professional firefighters often found that they were reporting to and under the direction of volunteers of varying skill and experience.

Creating a modern fire service that is fit for Victoria’s present and future – one that is far more populous, urbanised and bushfire prone – is of critical importance.

From his public statements, none of this appears to matter to Guy. He tells a story in which the Victorian Government sides with UFU Secretary Peter Marshall and professional firefighters against country volunteers. In Guy’s account, the Victorian Government’s approval of an enterprise agreement that specified areas of responsibility, and operational chains-of-command, for professional firefighters in relation to volunteers was an attack against regular volunteers.

In this story, none of the industrial and operational issues are discussed in any substance. There is no talk of the creep of the Melbourne metropolitan area into the historic division between the Metropolitan Firefighting Brigade (MFB) and the CFA, no discussion about the complexity involved in getting two organisational structures to work in together, and no analysis of the CFA’s unhealthy and abusive leadership culture. Rather there is a repetition of the message that the Premier is disrespecting volunteers (read: regular Victorians), and he is doing it to ‘pay back’ his elite support-base. Guy offers himself instead as an alternative Premier who is a champion of volunteers.

Nor does it appear to matter to Guy that the Andrews Government is effectively dealing with the underlying structural issue in the fire services by committing to turn the CFA into a volunteer-only firefighting force, and combining some of the remaining CFA responsibilities, including thirty-five fire stations where professional and volunteer firefighters work side by side, along with the MFB into a new body – Fire Rescue Victoria.

Come what may, Guy and the Liberals seemed determined to take the matter to the 2018 election. The Liberals, Nationals and conservative cross-benchers have stalled the Andrews Government’s changes to the fire services. In blocking Fire Rescue Victoria’s creation, Guy is simultaneously fostering a climate of uncertainty, and positing his own election as the solution.

When the volunteer-defending narrative is stripped back, one sees that the Opposition Leader has very little in the way of supporting fire services policy, other than a judicial review. This would be the ninth review into the Victorian fire services in just over a decade. The likely net result would be the postponement of problem solving in the fire services through another two to three bushfire seasons.

Unfortunately, the combination of the common and the remote makes this a fiendishly simple issue to hit the government with. With 60,000 volunteer firefighters in the state, often in key outer suburban and regional marginal seats, and fire danger being an increasingly urgent issue for the Victorian public, bushfires and the fighting of them is a relatively common experience for Victorians. Moreover, it is likely to become a more common experience over time. Between 2008 and 2013 there has been a forty per cent increase in Australian bushfire frequency. This is consistent with unfolding and dangerous climate change.

On the other hand, the bureaucratic issues of departmental organisation and dealings between the fire services employers, the union and the government is far removed from Victorians’ lived experiences. This is especially so given the relatively low-density of the union movement and its irrelevance in most Victorian workplaces. Most Victorians have very little direct familiarity dealing with unions or union leaders.

Guy’s volunteer firefighter story, therefore, has enough veneer of respectability for it to play on repeat.

Taking together Guy’s positioning on crime and firefighters, a pattern emerges – Victoria’s conservatives are practising a parasitic politics that feeds off the dysfunction and chaos created in the wake of a broken economic model. The symptoms of climate change, like natural disasters, and inequality, like a loss of trust, are a fuel for reaction.

There will be those in Victorian Labor who will advocate the Andrews Government respond to Guy’s political strategy with a two-step manoeuvre. The first step being to engage in a policy race with the Liberals on which party is the toughest on crime. The second step being to deliberately pick a fight with the union movement and shift further to the big end of town when it comes to economic policy. Those who advocate that Labor shift to and capture some fixed ‘moderate’ or ‘centre ground’, however, are generals fighting the last war.

It misses the fact that the conservative critique of the Andrews Government rests on portraying Labor as simply another set of elites who are taking things out of the control of ordinary Victorians. For the Liberals, it is about union leaders being ‘in control’ of the government, not ordinary Victorians. It’s about a shadowy group of academic and intellectual elites being ‘in control’ of the government’s criminal justice policy as opposed to the rest of us. A shift to a more ‘moderate’ direction now does not dispel this narrative but rather gives it further credence. Parasitic politics grows in strength and effectiveness the more it is fed.

It would also position the members of the Labor Government as simply another set of elites who are somehow less competent at running Victoria. This is especially the case in light of the Victorian expenses scandal roping in three Labor parliamentarians in senior positions – former Minister Steve Herbert, former Victorian speaker Telmo Languiller and former deputy speaker Don Nardella. That Herbet was having his dogs chauffeured in his taxpayer funded vehicle screams privilege. That Nardella and Languiller, both representing western suburb working-class communities, were found to be wrongfully claiming second homes in relatively affluent coastal towns, is all the more damaging. That Nardella was initially unrepentant and not prepared to pay back the allowances claimed is almost fatal.

Taken together with the drip feed of media reports of brawls and bashings, often in those same working-class communities, a Labor parliamentarian misusing public funds ends up becoming a contemporary Nero – playing the fiddle while their voters worry about their community burning.

If the Victorian public believes Labor to simply be another set of self-interested elites then it will lose government. When asked to simply make a choice between which party is best positioned to manage the status quo, the Victorian public will go for the conservatives every time. It’s why the Liberals consistently outpoll Labor on the question as to who will better ‘manage the economy’.

If a parasitic politics is to be overcome, it is through cutting it off from its source of nourishment and starving it.

The key to winning in November comes from the Andrews Government finding the confidence to implement the Labor values of equality and democracy in the field of economic policy. The tragic flaw in this Labor Government’s first-term strategy has been its reliance on privatising and enclosing the commons to fund its policy agenda. This is a government that has sold the Port of Melbourne off for a ninety-nine-year lease, is set to privatise the land registry office otherwise known as Land Use Victoria, has plans to sell public housing land to property developers and even extended the life of former Premier Kennett’s hated City Link tolls.

It is worth noting how Guy incorporates the Andrews Government’s corporate deals into his parasitic politics. He attacked the Transurban deal to extend the life of toll roads in return for infrastructure funding as ‘a billion dollar capitulation’. He rallied against the Apple superstore by tweeting that ‘Daniel Andrews has approved the ugliest building for one of the most prominent parts of Melbourne’. Guy critiques the enclosure of the Victorian commons at a surface level. He’s careful not to take issue with the underlying principle of turning over social wealth to private actors but he takes issue with the way the Labor government has gone about it. He then turns the conversation quickly back to the latest home invasion, a picture of himself standing in a vacant lot in hi-vis gear contemplating the building of a police station or some outrage over a prison sentence. He aims to channel the discontent to his preferred solutions.

The impression left is that somehow the Liberals would privatise assets and do corporate deals in a much more competent manner, and that they would bring order to an otherwise chaotic Victorian community.

Even where the Labor Government could have rolled back the corporate enclosure of public assets at no cost, it has not taken the opportunity. The Andrews Government in September last year extended the Metro and Yarra Trams contracts to run our public transport system for a further seven years, and thereby missed an opportunity to make the public control of public transport an election issue later this year.

There are those within the government who think they are pulling off some sort of third dimensional chess by selling assets to the rich, or as they call it ‘asset recycling’, as a way to fund a socially progressive policy agenda. It’s not working. Once safe inner-city seats are going to the Greens. Heartland suburban working class electorates like Tim Pallas’ seat of Werribee are in danger of falling to the conservatives. Meanwhile, a thumping seventy-seven per cent of regional Victorian voters feel they are being dudded in favour of Melbourne when it comes to government spending.

In short, Labor is losing critical ground in Brunswick, Broadmeadows, Bentleigh and Ballarat.

Today, the difference between a Victorian Labor government and a Victorian Liberal government is that the latter will give away our public assets and wealth to enrich their mates while the former will do the same, but in order to fund the tackling of social problems or infrastructure bottlenecks. When it comes to privatising community assets Labor at least offers to put people first. Neither choice, however, really gives Victorians any of the agency they crave over their lives or their communities.

There is enough time, however, before November for the Andrews government to change tracks and secure its victory.

To win another term, the Andrews Labor government needs to confront its own mortality.

Every progressive reformist government will eventually end. Its limited time in government will come to a conclusion and it will be followed by a regime of reaction seeking to undo its achievements.

For those of us looking for deep and lasting systemic change, this poses the question as to why it matters who forms government.


This article is the second in a three-part series. Read ‘Part One: Victoria’s lost love for Labor’,  and the final in the series, ‘How Labor can win back Victoria’s love’.


Image: UFU secretary Peter Marshall addresses firefighters outside Parliament / Green Left Weekl



Godfrey Moase

Godfrey Moase is an Executive Director, United Workers Union. He’s previously written for the Guardian, Overland, Jacobin and New Matilda.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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