Firefighters Cancer Awareness Day Motion | SPEECH


Mr VAN HOLST PELLEKAAN ( Stuart ) ( 11:33 :34 ): I move:

That this house—

(a) recognises Firefighters Cancer Awareness Day; and

(b) calls on the government to guarantee that all firefighters, both professionals and volunteers, have the exact same access to the support if they contract cancer.

Firefighters Cancer Awareness Day is on 15 September 2014, so that was Monday of this week. This day was established to raise awareness and support for firefighters and their families to assist them through the challenges they may face with their illness. This day is supported by the Firefighter Cancer Foundation Australia and is a nationwide awareness day. I do not believe that there is anybody in this house who would not fully support the validity of such a worthy cause and that that cause is recognised by a national awareness day.

Firefighters, in the work of their duty, do face risks which may well expose them to carcinogens, which may well lead directly to them unfortunately contracting cancer as a direct result of their work. In South Australia, firefighters’ work on behalf of the community is done by professionals and volunteers. Both those groups of people are exposed to the risks, so they should both be able to avail themselves of whatever support the state government is able to give them to deal with those risks if they actually do turn into genuine illnesses. Again, I just cannot accept that any member of this parliament, in either house, would distinguish between professionals and volunteers who face the same risks and so face the same outcomes.

The Hon. T.R. KENYON: Point of order, ma’am: there are in fact two bills before the house that deal with this subject, and I am wondering whether or not this motion strays into debate on those two bills that are already before the house.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: I appreciate what you are saying, member for Newland, and I know the member for Stuart will be careful, but I think that if it were out of order it would have been removed from the Notice Paper.

It has been drawn to my attention that it could have been on the Notice Paper before the bills were brought around, in which case we just remind you to be very careful that you do not stray into the areas where you should not be straying.

Mr VAN HOLST PELLEKAAN: Thank you, Deputy Speaker. I will not refer to those bills, but I will certainly fulsomely discuss point (b), which is on the Notice Paper, which is that this house:

(b)calls on the government to guarantee that all firefighters, both professionals and volunteers, have exactly the same access to the support if they contract cancer.

I am confident that all members, in their hearts, would think that that is a very fair principle to pursue. I am aware that the government successfully pursued legislation many months ago, before the last election, which was led by the member for Colton (a former MFS firefighter) which gave this support to professional firefighters. I commend him for that; I think it is absolutely outstanding that professional firefighters have a strong advocate in the government ranks.

What I am incredibly disappointed in is that there is nobody else in the government ranks—not one other person—who is prepared to stick up for the volunteers. The risks they face are the same, particularly in country areas, and so the protection they receive from the government should be exactly the same. Good on the member for Colton for trying to support an interest group that he is deeply connected with, but shame on the rest of the government that nobody was prepared to stick up for the volunteers.

We also have much public discussion at the moment about the emergency services levy and the removal of remissions. That is an issue which is of course deeply embroiled in the budget. I will not discuss the budget bill, but I will comment on public comments that have been out and about from both sides of parliament. I think it is a great shame that at a time when the government says it cannot afford to provide medical support to volunteer firefighters if they contract cancer, the government is also trying to bring in additional tens of millions of dollars—$90 million, I believe—from the public into the government coffers by removing remissions to the emergency services levy.

They are taking money from the public into Treasury, but still, none of that money will be used to support emergency services workers if they contract cancer. None of that money will give them the same level of care that professional firefighters would have if they contracted cancer. Of course nobody wants any of that to happen, of course not, but if it does happen then they deserve the same level of support. None of that money whatsoever is going into emergency services support.

It is a huge blow to the emergency services workers out there, both professional and volunteer, because, one, they are all getting these extra bills and, two, the rest of the public who are not actively involved in emergency services are also getting these bills and so they assume that the emergency services sector is getting the extra money. It is a pretty fair thing to assume that if you get your household bill, or your commercial property bill, whatever it might be, and it has gone up two, three or four times what it was for the last year, whatever your personal circumstances are, and it says ’emergency services levy’, then you would be quite within your rights to believe that that increase was going to the emergency services sector, but of course we all know that it is not going to the emergency services sector.

Another very unfortunate and detrimental impact of this is that the public are then less inclined to support the emergency services sector because they believe the emergency services sector now has so much more money. They think, ‘Well, why do I need to volunteer? Why do I need to help?’ I was contacted by a very senior volunteer from the CFS in my electorate who said to me that he is exceptionally concerned because now farm firefighters, who are a really important part of emergency services—and we saw this recently with the fire near Truro in the southern end of my electorate and with the Bangor fire in the mid section of my electorate last summer where the CFS was wonderfully well supported by private farmers with their private farm fighting units—are all getting extra bills as well.

Earlier this week, the members for Goyder and Flinders and, I think, the member for Hammond gave examples of constituents in their areas having their bills go up by 400, 500, 600 and 700 per cent in some cases. So, of course, those people are thinking, ‘Well, why do I go out and risk my personal safety and my equipment to support the emergency services sector?’ because they think the emergency services sector is getting all of that extra money when, unfortunately, it is not.

There is a lot going on at the moment which is penalising the emergency services sector and it is completely unfair. The government is proposing a restructure of the emergency services sector at the moment. Professionals and non-professionals from the different sectors are coming forward regularly with enormous concerns about this. I think it reflects incredibly poorly on the government and I think it reflects incredibly poorly over the last several months, probably a little bit over a year, because this all started when the government wanted to provide extra care for professionals but not for volunteers.

In my electorate, and I know in most electorates throughout country South Australia, they do the same work and they are exposed to the same risks. I can understand that there would be differences in Adelaide and particularly metropolitan Adelaide. If one of our CBD buildings was on fire it is unlikely, it is not out of the question but it is unlikely that the CFS would be so closely involved that they would be likely to contract cancer, but in the rest of the state it happens every day: they both turn up to the same events. In fact, across country South Australia where there is no MFS, where there is no professional firefighting service, which is the majority of country South Australia, only the CFS turns up.

We have hundreds of towns across regional South Australia and I stand to be corrected but I think it is either 17 or 19 rural MFS stations that we have in country South Australia. They do a fantastic job, and we are pleased to have them. There are three of them in my electorate, and that is wonderful. But the reality is that, when there is a fire anywhere else across any of the hundreds of towns, only the CFS turn up.

Where there is MFS and CFS, they both face the same risks, so they should both have access to the same support from the government. Where there is only the CFS, only the CFS turn up, so they are fully exposed, on their own, to all the risks. So, for the government to say that there is a distinction is, in my view, completely inappropriate and it outrageously devalues the contribution of our volunteer firefighters across the length and breadth of our state.

Something like this would never be accepted in any other workplace. Can you imagine somebody turning up to an office building in Adelaide to do work experience or to volunteer in some way or another and, if they happened, unfortunately, to contract some illness or to have an accident in that workplace, somebody saying, ‘Oh, you’re just a volunteer, we won’t protect you. Only the people who turn up here and get paid have protection.’ That would never happen. It would never be accepted, nor should it be accepted. In a workplace, whether you are a highly-paid person, a lowly-paid person or not paid at all, you should be entitled to exactly the same health and safety benefits that workplace would offer to anybody else. Every single person should be able to access identical safety and health support at work.

When the government says, as it has, ‘We just can’t afford it. We would like to do this, but we just can’t afford it,’ I think that is also a disgrace. If the government says, ‘We have a certain maximum amount of money we are prepared to apply to these risks,’ then everybody should get access. It is completely wrong to say, ‘The maximum amount of money we have allows us to give the paid staff 100 per cent cover and the unpaid staff no cover.’

If it is truly a budgetary constraint, and there is a maximum amount of money that is able to be contributed towards this risk, it should be applied equally to professionals and to volunteers. If that maximum were insufficient to give everybody the cover they deserve, everybody should get a little bit less. As unfortunate as that would be, everyone in that workplace, professionals and volunteers, should all get a little bit less, but they should all be able to access the same health support, whether or not they are professionals, and it is completely disgraceful that the government would say, ‘We will give full cover to the professionals and zero cover to the volunteers.’

Mr PEDERICK ( Hammond ) ( 11:47 :56 ): I rise to support the member for Stuart’s motion:

That this house—

(a) recognises Firefighters Cancer Awareness Day; and

(b) calls on the government to guarantee that all firefighters, both professionals and volunteers, have the exact same access to the support if they contract cancer.

I declare that I am a CFS volunteer and also that, when I am not on a CFS truck, if there is an incident, I have the capability of deploying my farm firefighting unit, which has a reasonable capacity. I have it mounted on a four-wheel trailer, and I have 4,600 litres of water readily available if there is an incident. Farm firefighters across the board are extremely helpful in all incidents. Certainly, we need to acknowledge all our firefighters, whether they be MFS, CFS or people who operate their farm units.

In relation to the cancer cover, it has specifically been put in place for MFS personnel, and then CFS personnel have to come up with the onus of proof. What discrimination! We are already seeing problems now with the outrageous rise in the emergency services levy, where some farmers are saying, ‘Perhaps we won’t help out the government. Perhaps we just won’t turn up,’ and that would be a real tragedy. If it was not for those farmers, whether they be members of the Country Fire Service or the blokes and women who get out with their farm firefighting units, as well as the people in the background who provide the support on those days by bringing in supplies, whether it be food or water, to people putting out those fires and working with those incidents, this government might find out that it comes at a far bigger cost to the state. There are many hundreds of thousands of volunteers across this state—I note that a figure of 600,000 is put around at times, but I think it would be a lot more than that in all the various fields of volunteering right across South Australia—and this state would be worse than penniless, in a far worse position than it is with the current deficit of this state Labor government, if it had to fund these people to leave their workplaces and assist with emergencies.

I have been to many fires over my time, and at times people give up many days and sometimes weeks. We had a fire at my own farm in the last eight or nine years, and the local units and local people were exhausted. I got up the next morning to see who was in charge, and there was a captain from Avenue Range who had been brought up with a strike team from the South-East. That is to be commended, that people travel hundreds of kilometres to help out their fellow man. They know that if it happens to them we will do exactly the same thing; head down the road and help put out their incident.

In the last couple of years I happened to be visiting the member for Finniss on Kangaroo Island. The Hon. John Dawkins was in attendance as well. There were many lightning strikes throughout the Murraylands and the South-East and hundreds of fires had taken off. I got a phone call saying there was one on my place. That is pretty handy when you are hundreds of kilometres away and with the barrier of the water, and you are wondering what is going on with your home property. I contacted one of my neighbours and asked him what he was doing. He said, ‘I’m out at so and so’s place.’ He was so nonchalant about it. He did not say he was out at so and so’s place fighting a fire with the rest of the CFS, but that was exactly what he was doing. That is how comfortable these people get in protecting lives and properties.

However, because all the local CFS units were tied up at another incident about 15 or 20 kilometres from my own property, thankfully a couple of farm fire units from my neighbours tore over. Not only did they put it out with their own units, but a lad who lives behind our property turned up and grabbed my unit, and tore out and helped to put it out and mop up.

If we do not look after our firefighters right across the board there will be a real problem in this state. I have seen what has happened with the recent fires in the Billiatt Conversation Park, the whole of which is now in the member for Chaffey’s electorate; virtually all the park burnt. There are quite a lot of sandy areas adjacent to the park as well as in the park, and a lot of private fire units went in there. There were blown motors, blown differentials and a whole lot of vehicle damage, and I pointed people in the right direction to get some recompense through the government. I know that it caused a great deal of angst to those people that not only did they put their lives on the line but they have also basically blown up vehicles along the way and had significant repair bills to get them back on track.

I just fear where this government is going. The emergency services levy, which is raising another $90 million, will impact, and is already impacting, on local CFS firefighters. There is also the reform that is going on with the management of all our emergency services. I have had people from the agencies that could be affected come to me saying, ‘How are we going to go when we are all responsible to an MFS commander and we are members of the CFS or the SES?’ I think that is a very real argument.

The Minister for Emergency Services (the member for Light) thinks it is a great thing to have this reform, but I do not think he understands that there is a reason that the different levels of emergency service have differing levels of command for the slightly different tasks, and sometimes more than slightly different tasks, that they do when they are out at emergency incidents. I raise that as another issue which is more than just bubbling along; it is fermenting along quite heavily in the emergency sectors, and especially in the volunteer sectors in all the communities across the state.

I think, in the light of all these actions, the simple fact is that the state Labor government will not recognise our Country Fire Service volunteers. They say they are going through all these reviews and all this kind of thing. It was mentioned in the ‘Brockument’ that the member for Frome has with Premier Weatherill, but it has gone nowhere. We heard in the parliament only yesterday that members involved were supposed to have a meeting the day before and that was supposedly the pointy end of the debate.

I think the pointy end of the debate has been long ago, when the government had the opportunity to move on this serious factor, to make sure that everyone has access to legal compensation. This government runs a real risk of alienating all our emergency service workers with everything that is going on: the cancer compensation, the emergency services levy and the reform. I think the government needs to have a real good look, because this could come back to bite them and cost this state far more than they think they are going to make out of the rise in the emergency services levy.

Mr VAN HOLST PELLEKAAN ( Stuart ) ( 11:56 :38 ): I greatly thank the member for Hammond for his contribution and I also thank my colleagues on this side of the house who have spoken on this issue many other times in many other forms. I know that all my colleagues believe in this principle very strongly, that is, professionals and volunteers in the workplace—whether that workplace is an office or whether that workplace is out in a forest, in the bush, in a paddock or anywhere else; in the main street of a country town, the main street of Adelaide, wherever that might be—are entitled to exactly the same safety.

As I have advised this house many times, I am a member of the CFS, so I do have some understanding of this sort of thing. I was dreadfully disappointed to hear the Treasurer make public comments a few days ago when somebody was asking him about volunteers dropping off, as they are saying they will do, because of the increase in the emergency services levy. The Treasurer responded, ‘Look, there will be thousands of others to replace them. There will be thousands of others who will just step in and fill the void.’ He clearly does not understand. He clearly does not understand this issue; he does not get it in the slightest.

As the member for Hammond quite rightly points out, if the number of volunteers who provide freely of their own time, ability and skills diminish, it will only cost the state government money. It will only the cost the government money in the long run, because there will have to be more professionals to do exactly the same job. It is a real shame.

This provision of medical support to firefighters, whether they be volunteers or professionals, is absolutely vital. If you had professionals and volunteers working in a school, you would give them exactly the same cover. If you had professionals and volunteers working in a hospital, you would give them exactly the same cover. Why is it that the government so correctly and so eagerly will address that principle in a Public Service workplace like a school or hospital, but they will not address and accept this principle in a Public Service workplace like an emergency services scene and here particularly, where we are talking about fires and firefighters?

Let us keep in mind, of course, that firefighters do a lot more than just fight fires. It is not only at fires that professional and volunteer firefighters could contract cancer. They deal with motor accidents and spills all time; they deal with hazardous material spills all the time. They deal with a very wide range of workplace risks whereby they could primarily breathe in or inhale toxins which could lead to cancer.

There are other ways in which they face these risks, of course, but it is not just fires. It is a very wide range. The government would never, ever allow this principle anywhere else. I cannot accept that they would allow this principle when it comes to firefighters. Both professionals and volunteers deserve exactly the same support.

I challenge any member of the government, any member of cabinet, to contemplate what it would be like to be trying to give support to a member of the MFS and that person’s family if he or she contracted cancer and you are able to walk up and say, ‘This is dreadful. This is terrible. I am sorry I can’t reverse this disease, but what I can do is offer you the fact that the government has provided insurance for you and the government will give you the support that is necessary—everything humanly possible that medical science has to offer to support you with this cancer.’

I challenge that same person to contemplate going off to a CFS member and his or her family and saying, ‘I’m really sorry you’ve contracted this disease. Thank you for being such a wonderful volunteer and, I’m really sorry, I voted against giving you the support. If you were a professional, I could give you great news. I could give you fantastic news that we will do everything humanly and medically possible to help you but, because you are a volunteer, I can’t tell you that and I voted, as a government member, against giving it to you.’

I ask everybody opposite to hypothetically think about putting themselves in that situation. I ask them, after they have thought about that, to support this motion.