Australia — It should have been the perfect day to launch a plan to boost the number of women firefighters.
The event, on Tuesday at the MCG, was the day after International Women’s Day and state Women’s Affairs Minister Maxine Morand was scheduled to speak at the Metropolitan Fire Brigade launch.
But Ms Morand cancelled with little notice and in a surprisingly frank speech, MFB president Adrian Nye theorised why she had done so.
”The reason why the minister is not with us today is because a junior member of the UFU (United Firefighters Union) office rang the minister’s office and uttered threats about the consequences of her attending, ” Mr Nye told the audience.
”The basis of those threats are not totally known and in a sense that is not relevant but what is relevant is that we, the MFB, still have this mountain to climb to explain to people that this is not scary.”
Sources say the alleged threat came from UFU senior industrial officer Greg Pargeter. The politically active UFU has previously campaigned in the Altona byelection and Ms Morand, whose Mount Waverley seat is ultra-marginal, could be vulnerable to any push.
Ms Morand’s spokeswoman cited an ”extremely busy week” for her not attending and denied threats had been made.
But the launch controversy is part of an increasingly hostile climate at the MFB, one of Melbourne’s most important institutions, which is attempting to change its overwhelmingly white male workforce.
Only 56, or 3.2 per cent, of its operational workforce are women. The MFB recently applied for an exemption from the Equal Opportunity Act to give preference in pre-training to indigenous people and ethnic minorities, while the gender plan was trying to boost the number of women firefighters.
The MFB says it wants to better reflect the community it serves and to reflect state and federal government objectives on diversity.
After the MFB event, parliamentary secretary Danielle Green, who was sent in Ms Morand’s place, approached the sitting Mr Nye, leant over near his face and spoke in an animated fashion.
Meanwhile, UFU national secretary Peter Marshall said Mr Nye’s comments would be referred to the union’s lawyers. There had been no threats from the union or Mr Pargeter, he said, and the comments were ”typical union-bashing rhetoric from an ill-informed bureaucrat”.
The troubles at the MFB have resulted in aggressive emails, threats, industrial action and numerous union attempts to boycott diversity policies. There have also been claims that the MFB misrepresented firefighter absenteeism statistics to the Bushfires Royal Commission.
The backdrop to all this is bargaining over a new enterprise agreement. The union wants to keep a clause that requires extensive consultation around workplace changes but the MFB wants more flexibility.
The union says the clause helps protect conditions that are under threat, while the MFB says it stymies any workplace change, including being more diverse.
Whatever the cause of the dispute, it does little to change an uncomfortable reality.
Firefighters have far fewer non-English speakers, female or overseas-born workers than any other emergency service, according to census data in an MFB-commissioned report. Compared to the broader community, the difference is even more startling, with 2.5 per cent of firefighters in Victoria born in a non-English-speaking country, compared to 14.5 per cent in the Australian workforce.
A speaker at Tuesday’s launch, Victoria Police acting superintendent Pauline Kostiuk, told of the police force’s vast changes in recent decades. In 1980, about 7 per cent of police were women; now, about 24 per cent are.
Getting there, she said, was not about compromising standards. But it was also about not putting undue emphasis on characteristics – such as physical strength – that would rule out many women. ”It turns out a very, very small percentage of police work demands physical strength,” she said.
Speaking to The Age this week, retiring MFB chief executive Ken Latta – who was involved in similar changes at Victoria Police – said that due to differences in the nature of its work, the MFB was more difficult to reform. Firefighters worked in small groups of four or five and had to confront life-threatening situations, he said, creating an intense, family-like environment. ”They are all actually reliant on each other and it is life-and-death stuff.”
But Mr Latta said he felt it was only a vocal minority resisting change and much more could be done. Ideally, the workforce should be 50 per cent women, he said, but with the low attrition rates it may take decades to just get to 10 per cent.
Mr Marshall said the MFB was engaging in an industrial strategy to lower standards and said the fire brigade was ”pretty diverse”.
He said the MFB’s gender program put at risk the teamwork ethic needed in firefighting and the wishes of employees to be selected on merit.
Mr Marshall said the union had been at the ”forefront” of supporting women, had backed a women’s firefighting network and also accused the MFB of scrapping a program with a non-government group to preference the disadvantaged. ”In other words, they are not fair dinkum.”
The current tension has deep roots. In 2008, the MFB took the union to the Industrial Relations Commission after the union boycotted the launch of a disability plan as well as other programs to boost workplace diversity. The commission found this was industrial action and ordered the union to stop engaging or encouraging it.
Privately, senior MFB management say the problems may be less about diversity than about control over how the organisation is run, with women and minorities the unwitting victims.
This week’s MFB gender inclusion plan has no measures that would lead to a quick change in the make-up of the fire brigade.
One ”aim” is for a minimum of 20 per cent female participants in pre-employment training – a move that would provide no guarantee of greater numbers of women in the job.
But at the launch itself, Mr Latta argued passionately for change to the culture. ”My challenge is to the management team, the leadership of the MFB, to get the silent majority within the MFB to stop being silent,” he said.