28 May 2024

Federal Court rules against firefighters in battle against Victorian Minister

| James Day
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AG Jaclyn Symes with Victorian firefighters

The Federal Court case involving Emergency Services Minister Jaclyn Symes (above) began in late January amid the Victorian UFU’s campaign seeking “proper investment in the fire service”. Photo: Facebook/Jaclyn Symes.

The Federal Court has dismissed the United Firefighters Union’s (UFU) claims for relief in its legal stoush with the Victorian Emergency Services Minister.

In November 2022, the union brought its case against state Attorney-General and Minister Jaclyn Symes after she “intervened” in a dispute between the UFU and Fire Rescue Victoria (FRV).

Ms Symes allegedly sought to prevent the government agency – under her remit – from agreeing to the UFU’s proposal for a new firefighters registration board.

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Since early 2021, the UFU and FRV had the mutual ambition of establishing an independent registration board that would maintain a register of Victorian firefighters personnel and qualifications.

As discussions progressed on the board’s form and content, the UFU lodged a dispute with the Fair Work Commission in March 2022, seeking help to resolve its issues with FRV.

In the lead-up to the Fair Work hearing, Ms Symes sent a letter to the Commissioner on 17 August, 2022.

The Minister claimed in it that while she was “supportive of the establishment of an appropriate scheme for firefighter registration in Victoria” – noting the pre-existing Interim Board operating within FRV – she could not “consent” to the UFU’s proposal.

“The costs associated with the operation of the Corporate Board under the Services Agreement will be borne by the Victorian Government,” she said.

She added that the agreement “fails to meet public expectations in ensuring transparency in meeting financial reporting obligations designed to prevent fraud and corruption and ensure accountability and transparency in the administration of public funds”.

Ms Symes went on to claim that her ministerial consent was required, under the Fair Work Act, for FRV to enter that agreement.

However, Federal Court judge John Snaden later found this was not true.

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Following the hearing where the commission reserved its decision, Ms Symes issued a Ministerial Direction under FRV legislation (19 September, 2022) that told the government agency not to enter into the proposed agreement with the UFU.

This spawned legal action with the UFU, which claimed that her letter and direction displayed conduct that was “unlawful, unconscionable or illegitimate”.

Yet Justice Snaden again found this to be untrue, and that Ms Symes’ direction was given validly under the FRV Act.

The judge resolved to dismiss the UFU’s claims for relief under the Fair Work Act, despite finding the union had standing to pursue it.

Justice Snaden said in his judgment that unless the court found the Ministerial Direction to be “invalid”, there would be “no utility in granting declaratory relief”.

In October last year, before the Federal Court matter, the Victorian Government established a firefighters registration board as an independent entity under the FRV Act.

The board is working on creating a registration scheme.

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