The longest dispute: How the firefighters’ union took centre stage

The government’s contentious fire services reform was its longest and most bruising battle, with a fight that began in 2015 as an industrial dispute then dragged on for more than four years, ultimately ensnaring the Premier as he personally dealt with the union to resolve the saga.

The dispute centred on a new pay deal for paid firefighters. The union, which critics say had put boots on the ground to help Mr Andrews win the 2014 election, sought additional conditions and protections.

United Firefighters Union chief Peter Marshall.Credit:Eddie Jim

The agreement was seen to be handing too much control over the fire services to the union, whose secretary, Peter Marshall, became a key player in the dispute, and to be incompatible with equal opportunity laws.

Amid the long industrial fight, the Andrews government also sought to reform the fire services, making the CFA into a volunteer-only organisation and creating a new professionals-only agency called Fire Rescue Victoria to replace the Metropolitan Fire Brigade. It also changed the state’s fire services boundaries to bring Melbourne’s outer suburbs under the control of the new agency.

The state opposition and volunteer firefighters described the change as an attack on the CFA that would marginalise volunteers. Opposition emergency services spokesman Brad Battin said the change would lead to the United Firefighters Union controlling rural brigades.

The dispute pitted former emergency services minister Jane Garrett, who was considered a rising star at the time, against the Premier. She filed a formal bullying complaint against Mr Marshall, who she said had threatened to put an axe through her head at one point in the dispute.

Former emergency services minister Jane Garrett.Credit:James Boddington

Mr Marshall told Ms Garrett she was “f—ing dead” and he was “coming to get [her]”, according to a 2016 report in The Australian Financial Review. The union leader has denied the claims.

At the height of the political firestorm, Mr Andrews sidelined Ms Garrett and secretly met Mr Marshall on April 13, 2016. However, the meeting was not recorded in the Premier’s diary appointments, according to the Herald Sun, despite meetings with 16 other union officials in as many months having been recorded.

In the lead-up to the 2018 election, Mr Marshall declared he had a secret deal with the Premier and threatened to reveal the details. He accused the government of breaking promises that had not been made public.

However, months later, Mr Marshall swore in an affidavit there was no secret recording and nor had a secret deal been struck between the two men.

The reform proposals were passed by Parliament, with the help of upper house independents, in mid 2019.

As well as the industrial dispute and fire services reform, the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission has produced a report on cultural problems within the fire services. Attempts to shine a light on the report have been blocked on numerous occasions, including by court action taken by the union as recently as last month.

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