Labor’s fire service rejig goes pear-shaped

30 March

Labor's plan to reorganise Victoria's fire services is in tatters after two Liberal MPs – who asked to be excused on Good Friday for religious reasons – made a miraculous reappearance at the end of a marathon Parliamentary session and voted the bill down.

Government MPs and crossbenchers in Parliament’s upper house were in uproar after the two Liberal members, who said they needed to leave and had been "paired" with two Labor MPs, suddenly returned to the chamber on Good Friday morning.

Labor's upper house leader, Gavin Jennings, said it was disgraceful the pair had broken their promise not to be there.

He said there was "pleading and praying in the Parliament last night" from "people who prayed in front of us and begged us to let them go".

These MPs had "right at the death knell" of the vote "smugly returned to the Parliament to betray parliamentary convention".

The controversy erupted after a marathon sitting of Parliament starting Thursday stretched into Good Friday – the first time the upper house had ever sat on that day – to vote on the government's fire services restructuring bill. The Coalition strongly opposes the legislation.

Liberal MP Bernie Finn told Parliament late on Thursday, in debate about Labor pressing on with its legislation despite Easter, that he did not want to work on Good Friday because of his religion.

“Even when my birthday falls on Good Friday, I do not celebrate it on Good Friday,’’ he said.

In a similar vein, and just after the clock had ticked into Good Friday morning, another Liberal MP, Craig Ondarchie, also indicated he did not wish to be in Parliament House.

"This is the day that my Lord was crucified. I do not want to be here," Mr Ondarchie said, before accepting a pairing Labor had offered.

A “pairing” is an unofficial agreement in politics that, when an MP is unable to attend a vote, a member from the opposing side of politics will also withdraw, so numbers remain matched.

The government offered pairs to the two opposition MPs, with Labor ministers Philip Dalidakis and Jaala Pulford excusing themselves from the vote.

Just before the vote about 11am on Good Friday, Mr Ondarchie and Mr Finn returned to the chamber.

After their return, Labor’s bill was defeated 19-18.

In a post on social media – since deleted – Mr Finn said he had accepted a pair from the government early on Good Friday morning and went home.

"At 8am this morning, I received a call requesting my presence in the chamber for one vote," he wrote. "I drove into Parliament, voted, then left." He said in doing so, the Opposition had "saved the CFA".

Mr Jennings said the government “had generously offered those pairs because we had members praying in the parliament last night to be with their families and be with their church communities on the most holy day on the Christian calendar”.

“And those people who prayed in front of us and begged us to let them go, returned after we had given them a pair – right at the death knell, was when they returned, to betray parliamentary convention.”

Mr Jennings said the government was now "considering all parliamentary avenues" to push the firefighting legislation through.

Crossbencher Fiona Patten, from the Reason Party, described the Liberal MPs' return to the house as "ball-tampering of the highest order".

She said the conduct had made it difficult for minority parties to work with the Opposition.

But shadow attorney-general John Pesutto said the public was unconcerned with Parliament's pairing arrangements.  They cared about "community safety and the ability of our fire services to operate well", he said.

Mr Pesutto said Labor had set its own precedent this week by denying a pair to Australian Conservatives upper house MP Rachel Carling-Jenkins when she had to withdraw from Parliament because of illness.

“She said very clearly and publicly that she was a 'no' vote. Daniel Andrews tried to exploit her illness to pass this terrible legislation through the parliament,” Mr Pesutto said.

Ms Carling-Jenkins never asked Labor for a pair, its upper house whip Jaclyn Symes said.

Under questioning from reporters, Mr Pesutto – one of the Opposition’s senior MPs – said he was not aware if Mr Finn or Mr Ondarchie had attended church on Good Friday.

He said Parliament should not have been sitting at all because Dr Carling-Jenkins was absent, and because it was Good Friday. "Daniel Andrews tried to ram this through because he thought he could exploit an opportunity."

Opposition Leader Matthew Guy tweeted that he was proud of his colleagues.

“Am so proud of my upper house colleagues and the MPs who stood up for our CFA today and defeated the Andrews government plan to smash it up.” he said.
 

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