Victorian firefighters rally as CFA names new chief

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Julie Bishop joined hundreds of volunteer firefighters at a rally outside the Belgrave electorate office of Victoria’s new emergency services minister, James Merlino, over the Country Fire Authority enterprise bargaining agreement.

Among the crowd on Saturday was Olinda CFA captain, Phil Skiller, who believed volunteers weren’t getting enough information.

“We’re not sure of anything at the moment. There is so much up in the air,” he said.

Skiller said his brigade stood behind the CFA and original board members, sacked after refusing to support a controversial union pay deal. “And we’re 100% committed to our community,” he said.

The CFA board was officially dropped on Friday after Merlino announced their replacements.

Neville Aldham, the captain of Selby CFA, said some people were becoming emotional about the dispute.

He believed there were clauses in the EBA that took away the CFA’s ability to run its own operation.

“There is a lot of anger toward what has happened,” Aldham said. “And probably especially that they sacked the board, even though there was an injunction.”

The former Fair Work commissioner Greg Smith is now the board’s chair and he has appointed Victorian health sector executive Frances Diver the new CEO.

Diver’s predecessor, Lucinda Nolan, resigned on Friday after refusing to support the government’s proposed deal with the United Firefighters Union.

The former emergency services minister Jane Garrett also quit last week rather than support the deal, which she believed gave too much power to the union and threatened the volunteer nature of the CFA.

A legal injunction means the deal can’t be signed until June 22, when it will go to the 800 professional CFA firefighters for a vote. 

Asked whether the dispute could affect Labor’s chances in key marginal seats, the opposition leader, Bill Shorten, said the focus was safety, not the election.

“Our volunteers are the heart of the CFA and I am more than confident that there will be a resolution to this matter,” he told reporters on Saturday.

State government spokesman Martin Foley said Bishop and the Liberals were politicising career firefighters “for their own gross political needs”.

Michelle McLean will be the new deputy chair of the board. Dr Gillian Sparkes, Pam White and Simon Weir make up the rest of the appointments.

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