“Surely, it’s time to consider whether or not Australia would be better served by extrapolating from the reservists’ model and applying it to our Rural Fire Service,” writes political columnist MICHAEL MOORE.
THE chorus of praise for Australia’s professional and volunteer firefighters has been loud and clear. Appreciation and accolades are important.
Volunteers have been protecting our community by fighting fires for months. Some have had little respite. However, it is time to consider if there is a better way. Are we treating all of them fairly?
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has floated the idea of a Royal Commission to examine fire issues. As Kevin Tolhurst points out in “The Conversation”, there have been at least 57 serious inquiries into bushfires over the last eight decades. He questions what a new one would offer?
The most obvious answer is that a Royal Commission could provide the Prime Minister with the clear evidence to sway the conservative members of his party room to the role played by climate change. However, the already overwhelming evidence has had little impact. It would be an expensive way to provide the Prime Minister with some persuasive political weight for his colleagues.
Another aspect would be to ask an inquiry to define the role of the federal government in what has largely been a state and territory issue. The announcement of a compulsory call up of our military reservists by the federal government to fight fires has precipitated a major change in state-federal relations.
This federal action could be seen as interference in state and territory responsibilities. More likely, most people will say, “at last”.
Compulsory call up of this kind has not taken place since World War II. Even during the National Service ballot “call-up” for the Vietnam War, the army reserve (then called the Citizen Military Forces – CMF) continued to serve as a voluntary force.
The principle behind the Army, Air Force and Navy reserves is to have a ready response to protect our community in times of increased need or outside military threat.
In addition to a force that can protect us in times of need, Australia has also been in a position to provide trained personnel as volunteer peacekeepers in places such as the Solomon Islands and East Timor as well as providing support to regular forces in the Middle East.
There are some interesting parallels between our firefighting volunteers and our military reservists. Both are there to respond in times of particular threats and greater than normal need. Both maintain readiness specific and ongoing training. Both groups are volunteers.
Two differences are notable. The volunteer firefighters cannot be forcefully called up in time of need such as over the last few months. However, a more important difference is that our military forces are paid to complete their training and to maintain skill levels. The pay is largely tax free. The military also supports workplaces that lose reservists during the times they are on duty.
There are good reasons for the sort of support offered to our reservists. However, the same reasons also apply to our volunteer firefighters. They are also volunteers. They are also part time. They, too, have careers, jobs and families that are their prime focus. They, too, protect our community in times of need. Never has this been clearer than following the onset of the fiercest and longest-lasting fire season seen in Australia.
Allow me to reiterate others: this season has been horrific and unprecedented. This is why Scott Morrison and Defence Minister Linda Reynolds provided assistance through the military. Surely, it is time to consider whether or not Australia would be better served by extrapolating from the reservists’ model and applying it to our Rural Fire Services.
Just as the army maintains regular soldiers to administer the army reserve, the administration of the Rural Fire Services could be maintained.
How much fairer would it be, however, if our volunteer firefighters were also paid for four weeks of training a year and paid when called upon to prepare our defences and, in the case of out-of-control bushfires, to defend our community.
Funding for such a situation would be far better value for the Australian people than yet another highly expensive Royal Commission.