A decision by the firefighters union to walk away from the ACT Labor Party is ‘‘difficult to understand’’, according to Emergency Services Minister Simon Corbell.
But Mr Corbell says Labor is keen to ‘‘keep the flame alive’’ with the United Firefighters Union, despite firefighters voting last night to withdraw from the longstanding political association, after anger over safety and staffing issues reached breaking point.
The decision was sparked largely by concerns over ‘‘cross crewing’’ and the provision of support to other emergency services, such as the ACT Ambulance Service and the Rural Fire Service.
There were also concerns about the closure of some stations during training exercises, the absence of funding for new recruits in the budget, and inadequate training for firefighters.
UFU ACT branch secretary David Livingstone said the government’s refusal to address the safety issues was unacceptable.
‘‘We believe that in terms of firefighters safety and representing our members, the ALP has lost their way,’’ Mr Livingstone said.
‘‘And rather than blindly following the path of tradition, our members will now support those politicians who support firefighters and firefighter safety,’’ he said.
The UFU has 100 per cent membership of the territory’s firefighters, and is currently finalising long running enterprise agreement negotiations.
Those negotiations were troubled, with firefighters previously considering strike action over a decision not to pay them an allowance for providing medical care in emergencies.
Mr Corbell said he was shocked by the decision, and pointed to the government’s substantial investments in ACT Fire and Rescue while in office.
He said the government would continue to stand by firefighters, and committed to maintaining a strong relationship between the union and Labor.
‘‘Since Labor has been in government, our rank and file firefighters are the best paid in the country, and they will remain so with the new wage offer,’’ Mr Corbell said.
‘‘It’s also important to stress that our firefighters have seen over $80million in investment in training, facilities and vehicles since Labor has been in government,’’ he said.
‘‘So in these circumstances I am saddened by the union’s position, but I would say to union members and all of Canberra’s firefighters that the Labor government will continue to stand by them, to make sure they have the best wages, the best equipment and facilities, and the best response times in the country.’’
Although the UFU only provides a small amount financially to the Labor party, the timing of the decision is likely to be painful for the government in the lead up to the election in October.
Mr Livingstone said firefighters would put their support behind any politician who offered support in return.
‘‘The difficulty is that you’ve got firefighters being sent to more and more jobs that are not fires, and they are therefore less and less available to respond to fires,’’ he said.
‘‘The problem with that is it has a direct impact on firefighter safety and firefighter safety is not negotiable.’’
The latest budget failed to announced any new recruit colleges for ACT Fire and Rescue, despite plans to greatly expand the number of fire stations in the ACT over the next five years.
Mr Livingstone described the budget as the ‘‘straw that broke the camel’s back’’.
‘‘The motion came from the floor and there was a fair bit of discussion around it,’’ he said.
‘‘But the mood was pretty clear, Labor are supposed to represent workers and they’ve lost their way.’’
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