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Long-running CFA saga isn't finished yet

What next for the CFA?

Volunteer firefighters scored a victory in the long-running dispute between the rural fire service and the United Firefighters Union over a new enterprise agreement when the federal Parliament passed legislation this week amending the Fair Work Act to make it illegal for an enterprise agreement to restrict CFA volunteers from performing their duties.

It was a promise Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull made during the federal election campaign, which helped bolster his Government’s support in Victoria.

This is a vote of support for the CFA in an increasingly ugly dispute that has also consumed the State Government over its refusal to back away from a deal many are worried will sideline volunteers.

But the fight is far from over.

Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria, which represents the interests of the CFA and is paid for from the CFA budget, has challenged the legality of the union deal in the Supreme Court, which hasn’t yet returned a verdict.

But if the Court does rule that the agreement is lawful, it will be sent back to the Fair Work Commission to determine if the deal is still valid under the amended Act.

Assuming the Commission rejects the agreement under the amended statute, there could be cause for a High Court challenge on constitutional grounds, given that the Constitution allows States to function as autonomous parts of the federation.

But any challenge depends on the State Government’s commitment to ramming the union deal through. Surely this Government has suffered enough political pain from its continued support for the agreement that it can’t afford to keep dragging out the issue.

Several key figures, including State Emergency Services Minister Jane Garrett, CFA CEO Lucinda Nolan and Chief Officer Joe Buffone, quit as a result of pressure to sign off on the union deal, while the entire CFA board of directors was sacked for refusing to rubber stamp the agreement.

The VFF has previously lobbied the State Government to walk away from the union deal. We ran a petition – which gained more than 500 signatures – to stop the union takeover of the CFA, and helped raise money to assist Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria in fighting against the deal.

The sensible thing now is for everyone to walk away and put this saga behind them. But for that to happen, someone has to give. Who will it be?

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