Victoria’s first-term government has been rocked by the prospect of losing its second minister in a year – this time over Premier Daniel Andrews’ determination to push through a controversial deal that has outraged thousands of CFA volunteers.
After weeks of internal unrest, Emergency Services Minister Jane Garrett is considering quitting cabinet rather than accept an agreement that critics fear will hand increased power to the firefighters union, undermine the role of volunteers, and reduce the ability of the CFA to properly allocate resources.
Tensions over Ms Garrett’s future mounted on Friday, after a cabinet subcommittee was hastily convened in a bid to ratify a proposal handed down by the Fair Work Commission earlier this week.
But the crisis engulfing the government is set to deepen even further on Sunday, when hundreds of CFA volunteers gather at Treasury Gardens for yet another protest over Mr Andrews’ handling of the issue.
Only weeks ago, a motorcade of 421 fire vehicles made its way to Spring Street to join volunteers over similar concerns: that the government had “sold out” to United Firefighters Union.
“It started off with disbelief, and now it’s turned to widespread anger around the state,” said one well-placed source.
If Ms Garrett leaves the cabinet, she would end up being the second minister to do so in 11 months, following Adem Somyurek’s forced departure in July last year over bullying allegations.
But while the minister is widely regarded as one of Labor’s rising stars, the position she has been put in – to capitulate to union demands she (along with the Premier) had previously branded as “outrageous” – would be highly difficult for her.
To complicate the issue, Ms Garrett told Friday’s subcommittee meeting that she has legal advice suggesting the Emergency Services Minister does not have the power to force the CFA board to sign the deal. Therefore, if the board refuses, it could potentially result in Ms Garrett being forced to sack members, should she stay in the portfolio.
Some Labor MPs have privately branded the matter a mess and warned that it could result in “anarchy” in regional marginal seats, but others have tried to hose down the tensions within Mr Andrews’ ranks.
Speaking at an unrelated press conference on Saturday, Roads Minister Luke Donnellan said he hadn’t spoken to Ms Garrett directly, “so it would be inappropriate to verify what she is or isn’t doing, but I know as a cabinet, first and foremost it’s about supporting those who protect our lives and that’s both our full time firefighters and volunteers.”
The latest developments come after Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull wrote to Mr Andrews this week, warning that it would undermine the CFA, and reminding the Premier of the pivotal role volunteers played in protecting the community during events like Black Saturday and the Wye River fires six months ago.
“The board of the CFA, the organisation representing CFA volunteers and the Victorian Minister for Emergency Services have all expressed their strong opposition to the UFU’s proposed agreement,” said Mr Turnbull’s letter, seen by Fairfax Media.
“I urge you to heed their views and experience and withdraw your support for this proposed agreement that effectively grants the union a privileged position over the volunteers who risk their health and lives in the defence of their fellow Victorians and Australians.”
Mr Andrews has been in North America for the past week and will return on Monday when cabinet meets, but is under growing pressure to explain exactly what the deal with the union involves.
Tensions over the issue erupted in April, after Mr Andrews met with union boss Peter Marshall to discuss the industrial stoush, sidelining Ms Garrett in the process. On Friday, pressure was also placed on her to hold a press conference selling the government’s deal but she refused.
The concerns of Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria and the CFA centre partly on the UFU getting veto powers that would give the professional firefighters’ union greater authority over decision-making across the voluntary firefighting body.
Confusion also remains about how much it will cost taxpayers: government sources claim it will cost more than $160 million, while the CFA has costed it at $1.2 billion.