Firefighters’ crisis: Premier moves to sack CFA board

Jane Garrett has been vehemently opposed to the government’s proposed deal with the firefighters union. Victoria’s Emergency Services Minister, Jane Garrett, has resigned from cabinet. Photo: Justin McManus
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Premier Daniel Andrews said Jane Garrett has ‘indicated she refuses to support Cabinet proposals to end the long-running dispute over the CFA Enterprise Agreement’. Photo: Simon O’Dwyer

Voluntary and paid CFA members stand with Premier Daniel Andrews and new Emergency Services Minister James Merlino on Friday. Photo: Penny Stephens

Full statement by Minister James MerlinoAnalysis: Premier steamrolls his way over processWhy the board was sackedVictorian firefighter dispute: the burning questions

Victoria’s government has been rocked by the resignation of a second minister and the sacking of the CFA board, as the crisis over the bitter CFA pay dispute intensifies.

Once seen as a rising star, Jane Garrett quit as emergency services minister on Friday morning after refusing to back the Premier’s revised workplace deal for paid CFA firefighters.

Hours later, proceedings were commenced by the Andrews government to sack the CFA board, which had been in lock step with Ms Garrett over its opposition to the agreement.

The mass sackings came despite the Supreme Court granting an injunction sought by the volunteers’ association preventing any workplace agreement being signed before June 22.

Ms Garrett had vehemently opposed the deal, and backed the CFA and volunteers, who view the agreement as destructive to the role of volunteers, saying it hands too much control to the union and is not compatible with equal opportunity laws.

A revised deal includes special statements of intent to ease concerns of union control and equality opportunity – it does not, however, remove contentious clauses.

The deal delivers a 19 per cent pay rise over the next three years, and includes 5 per cent already backpaid.

Ms Garrett’s resignation has angered and disappointed many in government, who are despairing at the self-inflicted damage.

Many senior sources say that much effort was made to appease Ms Garrett’s concerns – others say the Premier is simply slamming through the process to get the result he wants.

Sign the deal or be sacked: Merlino

One of the first acts of the newly sworn-in minister, James Merlino, who is also Deputy Premier, was to issue an ultimatum to the defiant CFA board: sign the deal by 5pm Friday or be sacked.

But that deadline appeared to hit a snag when the Supreme Court granted an injunction to the volunteers’ association preventing any closure of the deal until June 22.

In a statement, the CFA said that it could not sign the agreement due to legal issues and 14 threshold issues that it could not agree to, including the clauses which give the union 50 vetoes over CFA’s legislated responsibilities.

“CFA will continue to work with the government and the (United Firefighters Union) to find a solution to the enterprise bargaining agreement, however it will not and cannot sign an agreement which is unlawful,” the statement said.

On Friday evening, Mr Merlino said the government was moving on the CFA board because of its refusal to sign the deal.

“The CFA board has indicated its refusal to support the agreement, I do not have confidence in the ability of the board to end a dispute that has gone on for far too long and to deliver the reform that Country Fire Authority needs to keep our community safe,” Mr Merlino said.

Following Ms Garrett’s resignation and the ultimatum issued to the board, the volunteers’ association sought a court injunction.

Serious question to be tried: Court

Supreme Court Justice Michael McDonald said he was “satisfied that there is a serious question to be tried” in regards to whether the volunteers had been adequately consulted on the agreement.

Justice McDonald said if the CFA voted on the agreement before 4.30pm on June 22, it risked imprisonment or sequestration of property.

The CFA must not “approve that [EBA] agreement by voting for it,” he said in an order.

Ms Garrett’s decision to resign ended a shambolic week for the Andrews government, which struggled to manage community and political anger over its deal with the union.

I leave with a heavy heart: Garrett

“It has been an extraordinary privilege to serve in my ministerial role, which I leave with a heavy heart,” Ms Garrett tweeted.

Ms Garrett, 43, who is also Labor National Vice-President, will continue to serve as the Member for Brunswick.

In a short statement, the Premier said that “despite all concerns previously raised by Ms Garrett being addressed, she has indicated she refuses to support”.

At a later press conference he wished her well.

Mr Andrews has been dogged by questions abut why he had backed Ms Garrett for so long in her fight against the union, but then switched to support a deal after meeting with union secretary Peter Marshall two months ago.

“I was not prepared, the cabinet was not prepared, no fair-minded Victorians would be prepared to continue to have this dispute drag on dangerously, in a bitter and spiteful distraction from the important work of fighting fire,” Mr Andrews said.

“I have a resolve, as does the new minister, as does the cabinet, to deliver reform … this dispute needs to come to an end today.”

Dysfunctional, chaotic government: Opposition

Opposition Leader Matthew Guy said Ms Garrett’s resignation proved that Mr Andrews was a “vengeful bully who is leading a dysfunctional, chaotic government”.

“His forced resignation of a female minister for daring to question his attack on the CFA and its 60,000 volunteers emphasises that he puts his own political safety ahead of the safety of Victorians,” Mr Guy said.

Over the weekend attention will turn to Ms Garrett’s replacement in cabinet and a factional fight looms with some agitating that the replacement should hail from the Right, not Ms Garrett’s Socialist Left because the group is already over-represented in the ministry.

Ms Garrett’s resignation follows former small business minister Adem Somyurek, who resigned in 2015.

With Josh Gordon

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