Premier Daniel Andrews is insisting no deal has been struck with the firefighters union. Photo: Jason SouthNEWS ANALYSIS
Giving in to the state’s militant firefighters union after more than a year of political pain would be a major backdown for Premier Daniel Andrews.
For months the Premier and his Emergency Services Minister Jane Garrett have warned Victorians that the United Firefighters Union pay and work conditions demands were outrageous and expensive.
Ms Garrett has led the charge but it has now emerged that the Premier met with UFU secretary Peter Marshall last week to discuss the pay dispute inherited from the Napthine government, sidelining the minister.
Mr Andrews has described the talks as “good faith negotiations”.
His office insists no deal has been done – details of a proposed deal remain cloudy with the UFU unusually media shy on Wednesday – but many senior members of his government were urging a deal be done.
At the centre of the dispute has been a battle over work conditions, with the CFA and MFB pushing back against a consultation provision that the firefighters have in their previous EBA that requires them to be consulted on everyoperational change, regardless of how minor.
There are fears that Mr Andrews may cave in on many of the union’s demands.
Ms Garrett has taken a hardline approach to the equally tough UFU and has also overseen a push for major cultural change following the Victorian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commissioner scathing inquiry into fire services.
The government has also frequently voiced concerns about how expensive a pay rise would be – the UFU has rejected a 19 per cent pay offer, nine per cent over three years, plus a 5 per cent sign on and 5 per cent in backpay.
Public opinion had begun to turn against the firefighters, who are experienced and effective public campaigners, especially over their resistance for more women to be recruited and at a time of national wage restraint.
Despite this the Premier has taken a new plan to the powerful expenditure review committee of cabinet.
There is no doubt that the firefighters and the public deserve to see a resolution to the long-running dispute, but the public are also entitled to demand that a fair deal is struck and not one based on politics.
And while a new deal threatens to reignite tensions among a group of dissidents in his caucus, it also serves to appease MPs who face weekly campaigns from militant firefighters in their seats and have been complaining to the Premier.
Ministers and backbenchers alike say that they are constantly dealing with firefighters, both volunteers and professionals, who after more than 1000 days of a war want the issue resolved.
Some in government view that part of the move is to clear the decks ahead of the federal election – others say it would be a first for Mr Andrews to care about what federal Labor thinks.
The major question will be how Mr Andrews sells any deal to Victorian voters, who for months have been told that the UFU demands are unacceptable.
The Premier is also at risk of sending a signal to other unions that Mr Marshall’s hardline tactics work and that huge pay increases are achievable.
At the same time as a tight state budget, to be delivered next week, spending tens of millions on a pay boost will be politically unpalatable for many voters.
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