Production of Documents - Firefighters (30.10.13)

Written on the 30 October 2013

Ms CROZIER (Southern Metropolitan) -- I am pleased to rise and speak on the motion Ms Hartland has brought to the house today. I want to talk about a couple of points she raised in her contribution. I will say from the outset that the government will not be opposing this motion to produce documents, as has been the practice of the government in relation to such motions. It is important to distinguish what the government is doing from some of the misinformation that is circulating in the public domain.

With all due respect to Ms Hartland, there continues to be confusion, which has been created by Ms Hartland and the Greens, in relation to entitlements to compensation for firefighters who contract cancer in the course of their work. Both volunteer and paid firefighters are already entitled to compensation should they contract cancer or suffer a serious injury through their work. The minister has made this clear on a number of occasions, and a number of things have already been done to assist those making compensation claims. I will refer to a recent media release from the Honourable Gordon Rich-Phillips, the minister responsible for this area, dated 27 August, which states:

Victorian firefighters who believe they have contracted cancer through firefighting are entitled to make a compensation claim, either through the CFA in the case of volunteers, or the VWA in the case of career firefighters.

In addition the government is making it easier for firefighters to lodge their claims and has established the firefighters assessment panel, comprising health experts who can assess and validate claims from affected individuals. The government has also established a hotline as a single point of contact for both volunteer and paid firefighters who wish to lodge a compensation claim. These two government initiatives will ensure that people who have concerns about a cancer-related illness or believe they have contracted cancer through their work will have access to expert advice and a means to request that advice through a hotline.
For people in the general community who contract cancer or other serious illnesses there is always the question of why, and how did this happen to me? What did I do? Did I expose myself to some untoward chemical? Did I put my child in harm's way? These are questions that community members often ask when they themselves contract cancer or other serious illnesses.

Sometimes the answer is simply unknown -- we just do not know. It is idiopathic. It is a real issue for many people who contract illness from an unknown origin. I am not saying that this is not a legitimate concern for people who believe they have contracted cancer or a life-threatening illness through their work -- and in this instance we are discussing firefighters -- but it is still important to have a panel of experts to assess and determine those claims and to have a hotline so that those individuals can speak to someone about their compensation claims.

Ms Hartland raised a number of concerns in her request for documents. She said the government is not being transparent and has had major difficulties with FOI. However, the request Ms Hartland put forward today is a double-up on an FOI request that she had already submitted and received a response to. It is my understanding that she received a substantial number of documents, including assessments of the financial impact of presumptive legislation.

I want to go to that point because I understand that she referred to a number of documents.

I do not want to read the list of all of them, but I will read most of them because they go to the heart of what we are talking about. Ms Hartland said the government is not being transparent and that she has been having major difficulties in obtaining information. I will read from the list of some of the documents that have been released in full including: a June 2012 document from WorkSafe described as a 'Proclaimed diseases brief: stakeholder engagement and communications plan'; an August 2012 document created by WorkSafe and the Assistant Treasurer and described as 'Correspondence re compensation arrangements for CFA volunteers'; and a document dated 6 February created by the Parliament of Victoria and described as 'Second-reading speech of Accident Compensation Legislation (Fair Protection for Firefighters) Bill.

A number of pieces of legislation have been released in full. An email chain created by WorkSafe and the Department of Justice in relation to 'Fair compensation for firefighters/proclaimed diseases', and initiated in July last year, was released in full. Also from July of last year is an email from WorkSafe with notes attached, which was released in full. There are a number of emails with attachments containing information in relation to presumptive legislation; an email seeking further information regarding WorkSafe and an Metropolitan Fire Brigade meeting; emails in relation to cancer claims and the Head of Workers Compensation Authorities meeting in July last year; emails on meetings between the Country Fire Authority (CFA) and WorkSafe; ministerial correspondence; actuarial costings; and an email relating to proclaimed diseases, schedule and status reporting. These documents have all been created in the last year and released in full.

Other documents have been released in full, and without going through them in detail, they relate to a number of the issues we are debating today. There are so many documents that I am struggling to find them all. Multiple requests received by WorkSafe, the CFA, the minister, parliamentary counsel, various other departments and agencies, such as the Department of Justice, have all been released in full. From earlier this year there has been email correspondence between the Department of Justice and the CFA in relation to the Fair Go for Firefighters campaign, which was released in full. Department of Justice and CFA email correspondence relating to the United Firefighters Union of Australia international forum was also released in full. A WorkSafe information sheet relating to workers compensation headed 'Making a claim for work-related injury or illness', was released in full. All of these documents have been released in full, so it is misleading to say they have not been released through FOI. The government is endeavouring to put the documents in the public domain.

In relation to the motion, it is probably fair to say that because so much work has been undertaken the motion has become outdated and needs to be changed. I have just been through the substantial list of documents that have been released, and it is evident that Ms Hartland has received a large volume of information. I suggest that to bring this motion to the house is redundant.

The minister is very much aware of the issue, and he is working with the various agencies in relation to this matter. The advertisements placed by the party Ms Hartland represents have been very provocative and misleading to say the least. I know they have been running in regional Victoria. We had a very unfortunate debate in the house last night when the issue of climate change and its impact was raised, and I think that is the problem. The Greens continually whip up these emotive issues without any basis. It is simply not right to make the community fearful. There have to be guidelines in place, and that is exactly what we are doing. I think the TV ads run by the Greens are wrong.
Firefighters, just like any other workers, are entitled to compensation if they are injured at work, and that includes contracting cancer. There are many reasons for contracting cancer; often they are unknown.

The government has put in place an assessment panel to assess the issues and the claims, as well as a hotline that firefighters can access in order to speak to someone and put in a claim. The minister should be commended for providing that support.

I reiterate that the campaign run by the Greens, particularly in regional Victoria, is unfortunate, and I think it has caused unnecessary fear in the community. Ms Hartland's motion is outdated. The transparency she says is not occurring is occurring. The release of documents has been undertaken, and it is simply not accurate for Ms Hartland to say that she is having major difficulties with obtaining information and that the government is not being transparent. Again I commend the minister for the work he is doing in this important area, and I commend all of the volunteer CFA firefighters, some of whom I know personally, for the work they do.

Members of my family have been involved in fighting significant fires, so I know just what firefighters have to do day in and day out, especially during the very demanding fire season over the summer months, which we are prepared for. Those agencies do an extraordinary job. Craig Lapsley -- --

Mr O'Brien interjected.

Ms CROZIER -- Yes, Mr O'Brien is right. Mr Lapsley, the fire services commissioner, is an exceptional individual, and he is doing a terrific job. Victorians around the state should be pleased that we have someone of his competence in charge of a very important emergency services agency. Our volunteer firefighters put in so much time and work to protect not only their own properties but also the properties of other members of the community, and they do that because it is what they believe in and it is what they want to do.

However, it is inappropriate for the Greens to whip up hysteria and scaremongering through this motion.

The government will not be opposing this documents motion, but I wanted to make those points. Again, I congratulate all our CFA volunteers on the wonderful work they do.

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