The Fair Work Commission has defended its decision to sideline a commissioner who usually hears cases involving firefighters and allocate the dispute between Victoria’s Country Fire Authority and the firefighters union to a former left-wing unionist, who is accused of bias.
The handling of the case by Julius Roe, former national president of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, infuriated the CFA’s now-disbanded board and chief executive Lucinda Nolan, who quit after refusing to accept his recommendations.
CFA volunteers fear the recommendations give the United Firefighters Union of Australia an effective veto over operational decisions.
Responding to questions from The Australian to commission president Iain Ross, an FWC spokeswoman confirmed Nick Wilson, an industrial centrist who since being appointed commissioner in 2013 has issued dozens of decisions and orders relating to disputes involving the UFUA, was not allocated the case, in preference for Mr Roe.
Industrial cases are allocated by a “panel system’’ in which commissioners are attached to industry-specific panels. When the CFA application was lodged last October, Mr Wilson was the only Melbourne-based member of the government services panel that covers firefighting services with extensive experience in firefighter cases, the FWC confirmed.
The CFA, having failed to reach agreement with the union following protracted negotiations, applied for the FWC to appoint a commissioner to oversee a conciliated resolution to the dispute. Instead of calling on Mr Wilson, the head of the government services panel, FWC vice-president Joseph Catanzariti went outside his own panel and referred the dispute to Mr Roe.
Mr Roe is a member of the services and mining panel that looks after disputes across a wide range of industries, but not firefighting. He has extensive previous experience in firefighters’ cases between July 2010 — shortly after he was appointed by then workplace relations minister Julia Gillard — until late 2013.
Pressed to explain its case allocation, the FWC said: “In contentious matters it is generally appropriate to have conciliation and arbitration proceedings conducted by different members. The CFA matters were referred to Commissioner Roe for conciliation as he had extensive experience in dealing with Victorian fire services matters and the allocation of the matters to Commissioner Roe would leave Commissioner Wilson available to deal with any arbitral applications made in relation to the dispute. No party objected to Commissioner Roe dealing with the … application.’’
Despite CFA anger at the outcome of the conciliation overseen by Mr Roe, there appears no prospect of an arbitral application.
UFU Victoria secretary Peter Marshall and Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews have backed the recommendations and the government dumped the CFA board after it made its opposition clear.
Mr Andrews’s insistence that the CFA accept Mr Roe’s recommendations prompted former emergency services minister Jane Garrett to resign from cabinet.
Opposition Leader Matthew Guy publicly accused Mr Roe of bias and said his recommendations could have been written by the UFU. Mr Roe had defended his fairness and independence.
Within industrial relations circles, there is growing consternation about perceived political interference in the workings of the FWC and the decision to sideline Mr Wilson, a Harvard-educated former Fair Work ombudsman. Malcolm Turnbull has promised to legislate to protect volunteer organisations if his government is re-elected. Within the CFA, there is a push to establish an independent inquiry into how the entire case was handled.