Has Shorten’s Campaign Been White-anted?

If you haven’t been following the Victorian CFA issue closely, let me quickly bring you up to speed: Daniel Andrews and the Victorian State Labor government are pushing to bring the Victorian Country Fire Authority (CFA) (a volunteer organisation) under the control of the United Firefighters Union (UFU).

At face value, Andrews is simply paying back a debt owed to the UFU – largely for its assistance during the 2014 Victorian state election campaign. However, there’s a lot more to this than meets the eye.

Although a state matter, the Victorian CFA issue has not been confined to Victoria. It has has involved years of treachery, intrigue and opportunism all rolled into a broad factional and union power struggle. As you’ll soon see, the CFA and Andrews are merely pawns – and they’ve had a far greater and more targeted impact on the 2016 federal election than you might think.

The UFU’s powers 

Firstly, here’s a taste of what the UFU’s control over the CFA will involve:

  • Under the deal, the union must have final say over the choice of all equipment bought by the CFA, ­including clothes, torches and tyres for trucks, while all new CFA employees must undertake a UFU course.
  • Volunteers will also be banned from riding on trucks with paid firefighters without union approval.
  • New posts in CFA operational ranks can be created only with agreement of the UFU…
  • Changes to structure and roles in the brigade administrative and volunteer support services must be agreed by the UFU. This is despite the fact these staff are typically represented by other unions…
  • All CFA policies affecting employees can be made or varied only with UFU agreement. This includes policies affecting employees and volunteers, not just firefighters…
  • CFA can make changes to staffing and seniority of roles for any stations/trucks only with UFU agreement — and only for a period of seven days before needing to be agreed again.
  • Firefighters cannot move between specific types of trucks during a shift unless agreed by the UFU…
  • Extra relief staff, including to backfill firefighters during annual leave, can be allocated to specific districts and stations only with UFU agreement. Changes to relief ratios must be agreed by the UFU…
  • Terms, extensions and terminations must be signed off by the UFU. It means highly experienced senior interstate firefighters cannot be seconded into the CFA without UFU agreement, but also that those not carrying those jobs appropriately can be terminated only with UFU tick-off…
  • While the CFA can seek external applications for firefighter posts, the applicant must have done a recognised recruit course agreed by the UFU and complete a course to ensure they possess specific skills determined by the UFU…
  • The CFA cannot employ operational staff on a part-time or casual basis unless the UFU agrees. This applies to every employee, regardless of whether or not they are a UFU member. Where part-time is agreed by the UFU, work hours also need to be agreed by the union…
  • Clothing, equipment, technology, station wear and appliances must be signed off by the UFU. This could include a torch or operational equipment such a replacement fire truck tyre. It means the UFU has control over government procurement processes, contradicting governance and probity standards expected of a state agency. 
  • Changes to amenities (including facilities for meals, refreshments, recreation, rest and recline) or access to communications must be agreed by the UFU. This could include the need for a new tap in a kitchen…
  • Employees covered by the agreement must not be contacted while on leave unless the UFU agrees…
  • Development of traineeships for disadvantaged youth must be agreed to by the UFU…
  • Unless an incident is a level-three, multi-agency incident, paid operational staff will report only to other paid operational staff. This will mean that on a job where experienced volunteers (some with decades of firefighting experience) are running an incident, they will no longer be able to continue running that incident as soon as a paid firefighter gets to the job. This will result in a loss of morale for volunteers and with fires sometimes being controlled by less experienced firefighters.

If you think this list is exhaustive, think again – there’s even more here (50 reported powers of veto all up).

Impact

Who would want to be a volunteer firefighter under this kind of regime?

If anybody thinks that the CFA won’t lose volunteers, or that Victoria’s ability to fight fires won’t be significantly reduced due to the this administrative quagmire, then they’re orbiting Mars – particularly when you look at the UFU’s militant track record:

Statements by brigade managers, and posted on the union’s website as a form of intimidation, say union members refused to commission and crew a special truck called a Bronto for the devastating Hazelwood coalmine fire of 2014.

Instead, crews from South Australia had to be brought in to operate it, according to the statements, which also reveal a union veto over the design of new fire stations has delayed $8 million of building and refurbishing work.

It is mathematically certain that lives will needlessly be lost if this insane reform is carried through. Administrative burdens of this nature never improve the efficiency of anything – and fires have an inconvenient habit of moving faster than phone calls to the UFU. 

Where are the Victorian Liberals? 

If there ever was a free kick to say that Andrews and Labor will have blood on their hands, then this was surely it. That aside, at the very least, the Victorian Liberals should have challenged Andrews and Labor to explain:

  • why ‘UFU’, ‘union’ and ‘united’ don’t appear once in the Royal Commission’s report (click on the above link, hit Ctrl and F and search for yourself).

But I digress: as interesting as this is, this story is not about the incompetence of the Victorian Liberal Party.

More than meets the eye

The entirely predictable uproar in this matter has led many to question Andrews and his seemingly foolish timing. ‘Foolish’ is not the word I would use here as Andrews knew exactly what he was being told to do doing. The real question is: what was he really doing and why did he do it?

Let’s begin by looking at Shorten and Andrews’ union and and factional histories:

But this does not, and should not, let Premier Daniel Andrews off the hook. Andrews may not have met Setka in person, but he is still factionally close to the CFMEU, primarily because of Setka.

How this happened is a matter of public record. The CFMEU split with Andrews’ Socialist Left faction in 2009 after it was locked out of a peace deal divvying up safe Labor seats between previously warring factions. But in early 2013, Setka, who had just been promoted to lead the union, decided he wanted back in.

The faction’s heavyweights leapt at the chance. The re-forged alliance would boost the Socialist Left’s influence. In return, the CFMEU would gain a handful of strategically important votes at Labor’s state conference, a meeting broadly responsible for the policy platform and for the membership of the committee partly responsible for candidate selection for elections.

(NB: if you go to Andrews’ Wikipedia page or his official Premier’s page and search for ‘union’, prepare to be disappointed).

To recap: we’ve got Shorten of the AWU and Labor’s right – and Andrews of the ASU, linked to the CFMEU and of Labor’s socialist left.

When unions aren’t trying to make businesses and governments as unworkable as possible, they’re busy little bees in committing treachery against other unions and amongst themselves. Labor’s left and right factions are far from harmonious. For anyone who doubts this, I present the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years as exhibit A.

Now that we know Shorten and Andrews are linked to different unions and opposing factions within Labor, let’s have a look at a couple of notable interactions involving Shorten and Labor’s socialist left:

At the time, the CFMEU described the deal as a “second rate agreement”, and a “shocker” when it came to rostered days off.

Originally struck exclusively with the AWU, the CFMEU was later included. But its members were given limited work and its officials had little influence over the project.

Suffice to say, in politics, these kinds of things are never forgotten and the above two interactions are the tip of an almighty iceberg. Retribution is certain.

Perfect timing

As for Andrews, he and Labor’s socialist left (more relevantly) hardly came down in the last shower. They’ve had Shorten lined up for a while and the CFA matter hasn’t been foolishly timed. It’s been perfectly timed:

  • Firstly, Andrews is miles away from the next Victorian state election. He could just about ration chocolate in Victoria and it would be forgotten by the time of the next election. This has made him a usable pawn.
  • Secondly, Shorten is at very long odds to win the 2016 federal election – so helping him get elected as PM and potentially knifing him later is off the table for Labor’s socialist left.
  • The remaining concern for Labor’s socialist left is the prospect of Shorten achieving a respectable defeat and batting on to the 2019 federal election.

This is where Andrews has been ordered to come in. Although it’s a state issue, the CFA/UFU issue is an obvious federal election vote changer given its timing. In this respect, it has deliberately been unleashed to:

  • enable Shorten to lose by a greater margin; and
  • allow a socialist left faction leader to take the reigns after that.

On the second point, would you like to take a guess which Labor faction Tanya Plibersek and Anthony Albanese belong to?

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