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Emergency Services Minister David Elliott ‘insults’ volunteer firefighters just three months into the job

Martin Lill, son of stud farmer Stephen Lill, who lost more than 200 stud cattle in the fire. Photo: Jacky Ghossein Stephen Lill with his prized bull Valentino that had to be put down after being injured in the fire. Photo: Jacky Ghossein

Only three months into the job and Emergency Services Minister David Elliott has upset some of the very people he is in the post to represent.

Volunteer firefighters along with landowners who lost property and farm animals in the Wambelong Fire on “Black Sunday” in January 2013 say they are insulted by comments made by the minister at a recent conference.

The problem came when he was asked at the Rural Fire Service Association conference about the NSW upper house inquiry into the fire that claimed more than 50 properties. It appears to have widened the rift between the Volunteer Fire Fighters Association, which represents only volunteers, and the Rural Fire Service Association which represents paid staff as well as volunteers.

Among 29 recommendations called for by the all-party inquiry led by Shooters and Fishers Party member Robert Brown was one requesting: “That the NSW Rural Fire Service formally recognise the Volunteer Fire Fighters Association as a legitimate advocacy organisation representing volunteer bushfire fighters, and duly consult with it on policy and operational matters.”

The RFSA says it “strongly opposes this recommendation”.

Mr Elliott in a YouTube video is heard to say: “I haven’t read the inquiry’s report, I’m familiar with the inquiry, I am familiar with one of the recommendations which I certainly don’t agree with, which some of you may know, at the risk of sounding political, suggest that a competing organisation to yours be given some sort of standing.

‘I’ve never met them, I’ve never heard of them, I haven’t found anybody who is a member of them, but um..I..ah…..I hope that wasn’t too political Shane [a reference to RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons at the conference]. Was that too political?

“I know there are 29 recommendations and I’ll be…we’ll be certainly looking at them but…I’ve sat on parliamentary inquiries, please don’t assume they know what they’re talking about.”

Inquiry chairman Mr Brown said the minister had come very close to being in contempt of Parliament.

“It is extremely distressing for those people affected by the fires, who may see the minister’s comments as being derisive and or dismissive of their distress and the disaster,” he said.

“I am that incensed by his remarks that I will refer them to the deputy premier, Troy Grant, and I will also write to the Premier about this. Bringing the committee system into disrepute was not very smart.”

Farmer Stephen Lill, who lost more than 200 stud cattle that burnt to death when the fire leapt out of the Wambelong National Park, said he was “disturbed” by the comments made by the minister inferring the committee “didn’t know what they were talking about”, he said.

“I am also deeply concerned by the very pointed put down of the VFFA and their members by the minister.”

Volunteer Group Captain Warren Kimber, who has been closely involved with investigating the events at Wambelong, said he thought the minister’s position was untenable.

“I think he is completely out of touch. I am sure he has lost the faith of a lot of country volunteers through his stupidity,” he said.

The Volunteer Fire Fighters agreed that the minister had not yet had time to meet them despite several requests but disputed the suggestion that he had never heard of them. They referred to a letter from Mr Elliott to the association’s vice-president Brian Williams received 29 May and signed by Mr Elliott which concerned future location of the RFS headquarters.

Brian Williams said the comments made the minister look immature. “He has made comment on the inquiry of which he has admitted he hasn’t read the findings and insulted the rest of his colleagues by saying inquiries don’t always get things right,” he said.

“For the minister to make those comments is an insult to the people that were on the panel. I think he owes the people of Coonabarabran an apology and the parliamentary members on that committee an apology. Who briefed the minister when he said he hadn’t read the findings?”

In a statement to Fairfax the minister said individual volunteer firefighters provide valuable expertise and work closely with commanders during emergencies and said his comment was a light-hearted remark.

“I regularly consult with volunteer and employee representative groups,” he said. “However, commanders of the emergency services agencies have ultimate responsibility to protect the people of NSW and I have full confidence in their ability to do so. I don’t understand why a parliamentary inquiry would suggest any commander of a combat agency be required to consult with an association of volunteers during an active operation.

“As a former chair on parliamentary inquiries, I also attempted humour about them and I think those in the room understood it to be a light-hearted remark. The government is considering the Wambelong fire report and will respond to its recommendations next month.”

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