Bushfire Volunteers has asked candidates in the 2021 WA State Election to share their views to help voters who value their local Bush Fire Brigades and want to know more about their next Parliamentary representatives before casting their vote on 13 March.
While there are more questions we could ask, we choose the 10 important ones below because we believe they will also provide an overview of each Candidate’s broader view of our amazing volunteers.
It is important to note that Bushfire Volunteers is strictly non-partisan, but as a member services organisation with a key objective of positively influencing policy – irrespective of which Party holds government – we are necessarily “political”. We don’t play favourites, but are absolutely dedicated to fighting for the best possible policies to protect, recognise and support our 20,000+ volunteer Bush Fire Brigade members.
With that in mind, please find below the 10 questions we have asked Candidates as well as some background to explain each.
- Every question in the survey started with “If elected, will you support…” followed by a particular policy position or action that the association is advocating for.
- Each question in the survey offered Candidates three possible answers: “Yes”, “No” and “Abstain”
- Each question also had an optional comment box.
- Candidates were provided the mobile phone numbers of our President and Executive Officer in case they wanted to discuss any question before submitting their answers.
- Respondents were told we will publish all answers and only comments that are relevant, not defamatory and, not duplicated by multiple Candidates from the same Party.
- Results are being updated as soon as possible after they are received on our State Election page ( https://www.bushfire.org.au/2021-state-election/)
Our Emergency Services Model – Protect the baby but change the bathwater
If elected, will you support the continuation of WA’s Local Government owned and operated Volunteer Bush Fire Service?
Since promises were made to “amalgamate” the several pieces of legislation that govern WA’s emergency services, there has been substantial concern that the process would also see the various emergency services be “amalgamated”.
While there may be some short-term economic benefit argued, Bushfire Volunteers vehemently opposes any attempt (whether via legislation or policy) to take the ownership and management of WA’s 560+ Local Government Bush Fire Brigades away from local communities to any State Government Department.
Quite simply, we believe there are many great benefits to WA’s unique network of locally empowered and legislatively backed emergency service brigades.
Our Emergency Services Model – Do red circles help or hinder?
If elected, will you support a Parliamentary Inquiry into Western Australia’s Gazetted Fire Districts system and its effectiveness and efficiency in comparison to management models in other jurisdictions?
The WA Emergency Service model is unique among its peers in a number of ways. As discussed in Q1, a very strong positive is the resilience and confidence that is afforded to local communities by being able to self-determine in regard to its own natural hazards.
Perhaps a less beneficial feature is the existence of “gazetted fire districts”. Beyond the Perth metropolitan area, there are many small circles drawn on the map that serve little purpose other than defining the “patch” of the State agency. Questions remain about whether this delivers any genuine community benefit or just serves to clarify a potentially dangerous divide between State and Local services.
Bushfire Volunteers sees great value in a Parliamentary Inquiry to evaluate the status quo and ponder possible improvements.
Our dedicated Emergency Services Levy – Fix the perception of bias
If elected, will you support the management of the Emergency Services Levy (ESL) being transferred from the Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES) to an agency that is not a recipient of ESL grant funding.
There is an inherent conflict of interest in the fact that the Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES) has total control over how the Emergency Services Levy (ESL) is spent and is also the largest recipient of that funding.
While the total amount of ESL collected has ballooned since its inception (>$400m in 2019), the amount of funding for volunteer Bush Fire Brigades has remained almost stagnant, creating the perception that the current situation is akin to a “lion in charge of the meat chest”.
Unfortunately, after working for more than 5 years to try to help DFES eliminate the opportunity for such criticism, many inexplicable anomalies remain and the Department continues to use its unfettered discretionary power to spend ESL in favour of its own responsibilities and agenda.
For example, DFES-managed volunteer firefighters are provided Breathing Apparatus – paid for by ESL – and Bushfire Volunteers who are routinely exposed to carcinogenic smoke form fires they attend are not allowed to even make application for ESL funding for the same.
Likewise, DFES-managed fire volunteer fighters are provided up to 4 sets of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) while WA’s 20,000+ Local Government Bush Fire Service Volunteers are only able to have one set paid for by the ESL
If a Local Government wishes to employ a Community Emergency Services Manager, it must either pay the whole costs from its own budget, or DFES may choose to use ESL to co-employ the individual, paying its half of the wage bill from ESL – an option that is not available for Local Governments if they would prefer to not have an employee with mixed loyalties.
The Department’s lack of consistency and ongoing fear of transparency combined with the demonstrable lack of financial support for Local Government Bush Fire Brigades continues to exacerbate the damaging “us and them” divide highlighted in the Special Inquiry into the 2016 Waroona-Yarloop fires.
Bushfire Volunteers advocates for the ESL to remain exclusively hypothecated for emergency services, but argues that until the control of ESL is moved to an unconflicted agency, dangerous divisions will continue to grow.
Our dedicated Emergency Services Levy – 100% should mean 100%
If elected, will you support the corporate services (costs typical of every government agency such as office accommodation, cleaning, percent for art, HR etc) of the Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES) being funded from consolidated revenue rather than being taken from the Emergency Services Levy (ESL) as it now is?
It is unfortunate that successive State Governments have chosen to reduce the proportion of the DFES budget allocated from Consolidated Revenue – directly resulting in more of Emergency Services Levy (ESL) being used for items that are patently not related to the provision of WA’s Emergency Services.
To be clear, the vast majority of the Department’s “back office” functions that are common to all government agencies (eg. office cleaning, utility costs, HR, percent for art etc) are now funded from the ESL while many Bush Fire Brigades do not have basic facilities like a toilet, electricity or even a water source.
As well as the moral dilemma of forcing DFES to misuse a levy that is explicitly promoted as being 100% for the provision of emergency services, the fact that the Department’s annual budget is guaranteed, means it is not subject to the same scrutiny that comes from other agencies (and Ministers) competing for the same pot of money – increasing the risk of wastage and abuse.
Our dedicated Emergency Services Levy – Clear the muddy water
If elected, will you support the details (eg Date, Amount, Vendor, Cost Centre/Service, Description of goods and services) of every expenditure paid for by the Emergency Services Levy (ESL) being published on a public, online register?
As a levy collected from rate-payers exclusively for the provision of emergency services, there is a compelling case for maximum transparency of the $400,000,000 per year Emergency Services Levy (ESL).
Further, the funding of extra or excessive “bells and whistles” (such as gymnasiums and artwork) for career fire stations while many Volunteer Bush Fire Brigades in high risk areas are told there is not enough money for basic infrastructure and equipment creates the unhelpful perception of poor or biased funding decisions.
It is the view of Bushfire Volunteers that in light of the above and the recent requirement for Local Governments to publish full transaction ledgers, a real-time, complete public record of ESL expenditure is both technically viable and important to ensure public confidence in the value of the compulsory levy.
Our dedicated Emergency Services Levy – Resourcing the Risk, or political plaything?
If elected, will you support a Parliamentary Committee inquiry into the management of the Emergency Services Levy (ESL), with particular regard to the existence, adequacy and fairness of decision-making policies and procedures, and the public benefit returned by expenditure decisions over the last five years?
In the last five years, land owners in Western Australia have paid almost $2,000,000,000 in Emergency Service Levies (ESL) collected by Local Governments on behalf of the State.
The Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES) has maintained that 100% of the ESL is spent on the provision of emergency services using a “Resource to Risk” formula (it created without consultation with Local Government Bush Fire Brigades).
While the Department’s closed culture and refusal to make decision-making policy publicly available has long cast doubt over that claim, it has also limited the availability of definitive evidence of ESL expenditure being used to address political imperatives.
However, a number of recent events have provided evidence of a management culture that accepts (if not supports) the substantial irregular use of significant amounts of public resources, being the ESL. These include:
- the establishment of new infrastructure in low-risk areas,
- overt claims that political advocacy has resulted in increased ESL expenditure for some electorates,
- political candidates being invited to speak at openings of ESL-funded infrastructure,
- election commitments that would require the FES Commissioner to fund new buildings and equipment for certain electorates and personnel, and
- running tender processes for decisions that appear to have already been made for political purposes.
These examples demonstrate a troubling trend that will ultimately undermine the public’s support for the ESL, create a very problematic perception that DFES is not independent of politics and cause morale issues that could directly impact the number of people willing to commit to emergency service volunteers.
Bushfire Volunteers therefore seeks this commitment from Candidates to support a Parliamentary Inquiry into the management of the ESL in the hope that it would arrest the current trend and repair damage already done.
Respecting experience – Volunteers in decision-making roles
If elected, will you support the significant policy and cultural changes required to ensure the invaluable local knowledge, skills and experience of volunteers are always respected and incorporated at the most senior decision-making levels?
The Special Inquiry into the 2016 Waroona-Yarloop fires made a number of recommendations and observations around the need for significant cultural change that delivered great appreciation of and respect for the skills, knowledge and experience of Bushfire Volunteers.
However, despite spending valuable time and money (ESL) creating paid positions and building mechanisms to undermine rather than support the existing Bushfire Volunteer engagement and representation opportunities, genuine respect for and involvement of Bushfire Volunteers in meaningful decision-making is at an all-time low.
For example, in response to a Parliamentary Question about concerns over the process that Local Governments use to access funding from the Emergency Services Levy (ESL), DFES provided assurance that it had created a Working Group to recommend changes, and make the process more democratic and transparent. For two years in a row, changes were made to the process without consultation, let alone agreement, of that Working Group and Local Governments were informed before the Working Group was made aware of those changes.
In a sad piece of irony, the association’s work in advocating for change in light of the findings of the Waroona Special Inquiry, DFES has seemingly addressed these concerns by creating a vast array of committees that involve volunteers. Unfortunately, most are either purely “consultative” (i.e. Bushfire Volunteers have no decision-making roles) or vote-taking groups that are set up with a majority of voting members being DFES employees.
Current legislation requires the Commissioner to establish a Bushfire Volunteer Advisory Committee (VAC) with membership to be proposed by the association. Due to the refusal to accept the association’s nominees, there has never been a Bushfire VAC established and in the meantime, a number of similar (yet unlegislated) committees have been created and filled with volunteers appointed by the Minister, without consultation with the association – which remains the “prescribed body” in current regulation.
The sheer number of committees combined with the eagerness of the Commissioner and Minister to publicly use them in defence of a criticism, suggests somewhere in a back room, someone believes it’s a good idea to waste the time and goodwill of our most expert volunteers.
Feedback from almost every major incident since the Waroona Fires invariably includes comments from volunteers with many years of local knowledge and experience expressing frustration that major decisions were made without any effort to get or incorporate local wisdom.
Finally, the most recent Enterprise Bargaining Agreement (EBA) between the Department and the Union representing the relatively small number of 1,200 paid firefighters adds yet another level of senior management roles within DFES (Chief Superintendent) that can only be filled by “employees who have successfully attained the appropriate competencies as agreed” by the Union. This condition now applies to all paid firefighter roles, career Station Officers and the non-frontline management positions of Area Officer, District Officer, Superintendent and Chief Superintendent – all of who have management responsibilities for volunteers.
This effectively ensures the Department will continue to be led by those with a paid firefighting background, reducing the likelihood of future decision-makers having a deep understanding of and empathy for the unique Volunteer Bush Fire Service culture and methodologies – thus exacerbating the existing divide.
The association seeks the commitment of all candidates to use their position if elected to support all policy changes and publicity opportunities that will contribute to a culture that offers greater respect for and use of the skills, knowledge and experience of volunteers.
Respecting experience – Major Incident Reviews
If elected, will you support legislative changes to ensure every major incident is reviewed and followed up by an agency independent of all emergency services?
Bushfire Volunteers believes there is great value in undertaking an open, thorough and independent review of every major incident as soon as possible after the event.
Major Incident Reviews are commonplace in the emergency services sector and when conducted properly, provide invaluable opportunities for learning and harm reduction.
However, when Incident Reviews are either not completed, undertaken by one of the key participants in the incident, do not offer mechanisms to protect contributing volunteers from retribution/intimidation, or do not even seek the feedback from volunteers and others involved in the incident, their usefulness – and credibility – suffers immensely.
The association hereby seeks the commitment of all candidates that if elected, they will support regulatory changes to ensure an agency independent of all emergency services is made responsible for and funded to:
- undertake a review of every major emergency incident (fires, floods, storms etc),
- seek and incorporate the views/experiences of the public,
- provide a complete report to parliament that makes recommendations for improvement, and
- provides parliament with an annual report of government responses to all previous recommendations
Empowering our volunteers – Supporting employers
If elected, will you support regulatory changes to guarantee the State Government will reimburse an employer for wages paid to emergency services volunteers who respond to an emergency situation as defined by the Emergency Management Act.
It is often said the number of people willing and able to volunteer in Western Australia’s emergency services is in decline. Bushfire Volunteers and others also agree that the enormous value of our emergency services volunteers is often under-estimated or overlooked.
In order to address these two issues and ensure a sustainable volunteer workforce, it is occasionally argued that government should pay a wage or other direct incentive to individuals for time spent volunteering with an emergency service.
The association does not support personally incentivizing volunteering in this way for reasons including:
- The very definition of “volunteering” requires non-payment to those donating their time.
- A critical and uniting feature of WA’s Volunteer Bush Fire Service culture is the universal acceptance that no-one participates in pursuit of extrinsic reward.
Bushfire Volunteers does, however, strongly advocate for government intervention to remove disincentives that may be a barrier to an individual donating their time and skills as an emergency service volunteer.
One key issue is the potential for lost wages and/or conflict with employers regarding absenteeism due to emergency volunteering.
Thus, we hereby seek the commitment from all candidates that if elected, support will be given for legislative changes that guarantee an employer is reimbursed for wages paid to employees who are absent to respond to an emergency situation as defined by the Emergency Management Act.
Empowering our volunteers – Encouraging community support
If elected, will you support regulatory changes to guarantee the State Government will immediately pay for or replace water taken from a private land-owner for emergency purposes (e.g. if a fire service takes water from a farmer’s dam to fight a fire, the State will replace it ASAP).
Current legislation allows authorised people to take water from privately owned land for the suppression or prevention of bush fire.
There is no legal obligation for the State to ensure the water is replaced or the landowner reimbursed for the cost of replacing it after the emergency has been managed.
The association is seeking the commitment of candidates to support, if elected, legislative changes to ensure the State replaces or reimburses landowners for the replacement of water taken from their land under the conditions of emergency legislation.