Prime Minister Scott Morrison is facing pressure from within his own ranks to pay volunteer firefighters, as one Cabinet Minister questions the sustainability of unpaid brigades working for months on end.
As three large fires raged in his Gippsland electorate, Veterans’ Affairs Minister Darren Chester said there was strong support among his constituents to pay volunteers when they worked for extended periods.
Fires in New South Wales and South Australia are also continuing to burn after a catastrophic start to the fire season, and there are fears an imminent heatwave will again cause the blazes to spread.
Mr Morrison announced on Tuesday that volunteer firefighters who were Government employees would be given an extra four weeks of paid leave, and he encouraged businesses to follow suit.
But Mr Chester told ABC News Breakfast there was a need to have a conversation about compensating volunteers further.
He said it did not seem sustainable to expect firefighters to volunteer their time for “days, weeks and months” as a changing climate extends the fire season.
“Can it be sustainable in the longer-term when it’s actually required under these changed climatic conditions, to be out there in the field for days, weeks and months?” he said.
“That’s a long time away from your family.”
Mr Chester said one possibility was using the fire services property levy — currently collected by Victorian councils — to fund payment for volunteers on longer “campaign fires”.
He said “90 to 95 per cent” of constituents he had spoken to were supportive of that idea, and he was preparing a policy paper to take to his party in the new year.
Mr Chester’s comments followed Labor leader Anthony Albanese’s calls for an urgent meeting of state and federal leaders to discuss the bushfire threat and the possibility of paying firefighters.
Mr Albanese addressed media on Friday, reiterating that the volunteer ‘”ethos doesn’t put foot on the table or pay mortgages or rent”.
“The fact is wherever I have been this issue has been raised with me,” said the Labor leader.
“Now if you are a small business, a contractor, a private sector worker and you have not been able to earn an income for a period of months, common sense tells you that is not sustainable, and it’s time for a bit of common sense here.”
Firefighting services are run by the states and territories, and Mr Morrison said on Monday the government had received no requests from the states to compensate the volunteers.
Mr Chester said he had not raised the issue with Mr Morrison directly and his proposal was his opinion, not government policy.
“There’s no clash here between me and the Prime Minister,” he said.
“It’s a question of how to we maintain that strong volunteer ethos of a fire service, but understand that there’s these long-term campaign fires [that] take more than just volunteers, and how much pressure can we keep putting on them.”
“These fires, if we don’t get decent rain, could be still going in a few months’ time.”
Defence Minister Linda Reynolds, when asked about Mr Chester’s comments on Friday, said it was an issue that she’d just discussed again with the prime minister.
“It is an issue that the prime minister is acutely conscious of and he has been discussing with the premier of NSW and other state and territory leaders,” she told reporters in Perth.
“The prime minister understands that sometimes in circumstances like this volunteers go well beyond the leave that they have and come under financial strain.
“So the prime minister is looking at this issue further on how we can provide targeted support in these extreme circumstances so that our volunteers get the support they need to keep volunteering.”