Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Amendment (Fair Protection for Firefighters) Bill 2011

When people run out of a burning building it is the firefighters who run in to ensure the safety of the premises and the safety of individuals. They are willing to put their lives at risk for the sake of others and their property. They are people whom all Australians should salute. We in the coalition do so.

There is good, clear evidence that, in general terms, firefighters are healthier than the average punter when they begin their careers as firefighters. That is how we want them. In fact, that is how we need them, because of the physical tasks they are required to undertake. The sad fact is that once they come to the end of their careers as firefighters they are more likely than the rest of the community to suffer from a number of cancers. Health and fitness epidemiological studies, the study of people and their health and other matters—I will not go into the technical detail—indicate that, by all accounts, firefighters when they start their careers would be less likely than the average punter to contract various types of cancers but that at the end of their careers they are more likely to suffer cancers.

We can ask the question: why is that? I think it is pretty obvious that the reason for that unfortunate circumstance is that they go into workplaces that are different from any other Australian's. It is a workplace that cannot be controlled. People who work in factories would and should have a fair idea of the mix of chemicals and other substances in those premises. As a result, they can take precautionary measures to make sure they do not inhale or touch the various noxious substances. The firefighters workplace, of course, is so different. They are unable to determine what is in the workplace. Before they walk in they do not necessarily have a checklist about all the noxious substances they might come into contact with. It is clear that it is because of that fact that our firefighting community suffers from a greater risk of cancers than it otherwise should.

On the other side of the ledger, in the coalition's consideration of this matter, is the fundamental principle that, in general terms, he who asserts must prove: if you want to assert a matter you should have to prove it. I think that is a very strong general principle that has served us well. But from time to time there are exceptions that prove the rule. With most workplace injuries it is easy to say that on such and such a day I tripped over a loose bit of carpet and broke my leg. It is very easy to put the two together and say that because of the loose carpet somebody tripped. As a result a broken leg was suffered. However, when a firefighter has attended fire after fire and, regrettably, contracts cancer, it is difficult to say that it was this particular fire on this particular day that occasioned the cancer. Indeed, it may well have been a cocktail of noxious substances that the body came into contact with over a number of fires. To try to prove the exact linkage and cause in each individual firefighter's case would be very difficult.

That is the case that was put to me. Unfortunately, I could not attend the briefing of the coalition, but four gentlemen briefed me whilst I was in Perth, Western Australia. I compliment them on the documentation they provided to me. It was extensive, it was professional and it made out their case exceptionally well. The gentleman concerned were representatives of the United Firefighters Union of Australia. I mention Peter Marshall, Graeme Gear, Mick Farrell and Kevin Jolly, whose business cards I still retain, as I do the evidence and documentation they left with me. They presented a compelling case that convinced us in the coalition that, despite our very strong view that there is this principle that he who asserts must prove, there are occasions, unfortunately, when those good fundamental basics of our legal system also have the capacity to fail and cause an injustice. That is why the coalition, in considering all the factors, determined that this was a matter that should not be frustrated or denied passage in this parliament.

From time to time I have been known to be critical of certain elements of the Australian Greens and of union leadership. But, of course, the great exception to that is Senator Gavin Marshall, who is smiling in the chamber. As I have been talking about other exceptions that prove the rule, I believe that on this occasion, with the legislation that was introduced by Mr Adam Bandt in the other chamber along with Mr Russell Broadbent, the Liberal member for McMillan, and Ms Maria Vamvakinou, the member for Calwell, the Australian Greens, who were there at the front, did a good job—as did Mr Russell Broadbent and other members of the Senate Standing Committee on Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, from all sides, who participated.

As for the trade union leadership, it has been known from time to time that the United Firefighters Union of Australia is not necessarily the most moderate of unions within the Australian community. But that should not detract from the fact that they do, and may, from time to time come up with a proposal that is worthy of consideration. In case somebody thinks that I have been bought by the largesse of the United Firefighters Union, I have declared on my register of interests a firefighters helmet that was kindly presented to me by Mr Marshall with the name 'Abetz' written on the side. It is one of the few things in my office that attracts nearly everybody's attention, so I publicly thank the United Firefighters Union for it.

The coalition speakers who wanted to speak on this bill have kindly agreed to limit their contributions, not out of any disrespect to the gallery or the firefighters who are in a gallery today but out of respect for them, because we want to see the passage of this bill prior to question time today.

I conclude simply by congratulating the United Firefighters Union for putting a strong case that was built on evidence from northern America—the United States and Canada—which also showed, given the length of period they have had this type of legislation, that it does not open the floodgates to other claims. I also address the one final issue that some people may be concerned about, and that is that whilst we have what is called presumptive legislation it is nevertheless still rebuttable. To give an extreme example: if somebody has been a firefighter for 15 years—and I hope I do not offend anyone in the gallery—but has been a chain-smoker all his life and has attended only one fire and then develops a cancer, chances are under the legislation that would be rebuttable, and so it should be, because that evens up the ledger.

The totality of the bill that was introduced by those three members of the House of Representatives that I previously referred to and the amendments suggested by the government—all of a technical nature—that were passed in the other place, have resulted in a bill that is now in a form that we as a coalition definitely will not be opposing. I personally will be glad to see it pass. Again, I congratulate the United Firefighters Union on the way they have approached this matter.

About Eric

Eric Abetz has been a Liberal Senator for Tasmania since 1994 and has served in a range of Leadership, Ministerial and Shadow Ministerial roles.

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