Fire bill voted down after Opposition MPs reappear for vote

30 March

In a stunning last-minute breach of parliamentary conventions, two Victorian Opposition MPs have helped to defeat the Andrews Government's controversial fire services bill after a marathon Easter sitting.
For the first time ever, the state's Upper House sat on Good Friday while the Government sought to push through its bill to restructure the Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB) and the Country Fire Authority (CFA).
Before the bill was voted on, the Andrews Government offered a pair to Liberal Upper House MPs Bernie Finn and Craig Ondarchie on the grounds that they did not want to sit on Good Friday for religious reasons.
Pairing is an arrangement where a parliamentarian agrees to abstain from voting while a member of the opposing party is unavailable due to illness or other serious commitments.
But the Government said Mr Finn and Mr Ondarchie reneged, and reappeared for the vote while the paired Labor MPs were absent, giving the Opposition the numbers to defeat the bill.
Labor's leader in the Upper House, Gavin Jennings, said the two MPs had abused and sacrificed their religious beliefs for political gain.
"We had members praying in the Parliament last night to be with their families, to be with their church communities on the most holiest days in the Christian calendar," he said.
"And those people who prayed in front of us — who begged us to let them go — returned after we'd given them a pair at the twelfth hour … to betray parliamentary convention."
Senior Liberal MP John Pesutto said he understood the decision for Mr Finn and Mr Ondarchie to break the pairing arrangement was made by the Opposition's "leadership group".
"We stand as Liberals and Nationals behind that decision, because we today are proud to have supported and saved the CFA and thousands of volunteers," he said.
Pairing 'finished' in Victoria: crossbencher
Independent MP James Purcell said the move meant the long-standing tradition of pairing was likely "finished".
"There was a rumour going around [that] something was going to happen. We didn't have a clue what it was," he said.
"You actually fight these things as best you can and win or lose … [but] you play by the rules."
The Opposition said Premier Daniel Andrews had tried to use the Easter holiday and the illness of another crossbench MP to sneak the bill through.
Australian Conservatives MP Rachel Carling-Jenkins was hospitalised after illness forced her to leave the chamber on Tuesday night, but the Opposition said the Government refused to offer a pair.
Mr Pesutto said Dr Carling-Jenkins had indicated she would vote against the bill.
"[Dr Carling-Jenkins] maintained that she remained a no vote. Daniel Andrews ignored that and tried to seize the opportunity in the most sordid of ways," he said.
But Mr Andrews said Dr Carling-Jenkins had not requested a pair.
The Government's bill proposes to scrap the MFB, replace it with the new Fire Rescue Victoria and make the CFA a volunteer-only organisation.

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