(Extract from a memoire. The MFB sued over others. They won’t now).
Some of the cases at the Fire Brigade were out of this world. A fire truck on display at a charity day for kids dying of cancer rolled over on TV and there was embarrassment and anger at Brigade HQ. They charged the man driving – who had surrendered the wheel to a mate – and the officer in charge – who was nowhere near the vehicle when it fell over. I saw no case against him and I dismissed that charge at the close of the evidence of the Brigade. I had to give a suspension to the man who should have been driving – his name was Whelan. During the hearing, I got them to take me for a ride on one of these vehicles with both counsel. As we got going, we passed a handsome woman who had been in the tribunal room. I was told that she was the wife of the officer who had been charged – and the mother of nine children! When the hearing resumed, I asked counsel for the Brigade what penalty he would seek if the charges were proved. Dismissal. For both? Yes. I wondered how this would go down in the people’s daily – a fire brigade officer, with a stainless record after 20 years, and the father of nine children, had been fired for giving of his spare time to attend a charity for kids dying of cancer, for an accident that he had nothing to do with. I also wondered how long it would be before the comrades returned to work. The case of Mr Whelan was hardly less interesting. He had grown up with the guy that he gave the wheel to. They had been garbos together. They had both therefore had experience in driving large heavy vehicles. But while Whelan went from being garbo to firie, his mate went into business and became very successful and very rich. He also became committed to charities. He gave evidence before me, and he was very impressive. I met both these guys twice later. One was at a football presentation that the union had invited me to. (It was a VFL function; the comrades are not toffs.) The secretary was late – as usual. I was directed to a table. The guy next to me asked if I knew who he was. ‘No, mate’. It was Mr Whelan! I cursed the secretary for being late, but Mr Whelan and his mate (the charitable ex-garbo) and I got on very well. The second meeting was at the greatly favoured San Remo. (Well, the union could not be accused of being duchessed.) It was a packed house. It was a living wake held in honour of Mr Whelan before his expected death from cancer. I told him that I was honoured to have been invited, and I meant it. It was a very generous and decent gesture of both Mr Whelan and his mate – and the union. But the UFU decided that it did not want any more of this disciplinary process. And it was allowed to die. From time to time, I would tell management that they could get in trouble for doing nothing. But there was a high turnover of CEOs. After some years of silence, management got the courage to charge a firefighter with having obscene material on an MFB computer. The material was vile for its abuse of other races and faiths – including Islam. There was no defence. It should have been disposed of in two hours. It dragged on for days as the government intervened. The accused did not turn up on day one. On day two, senior counsel for the accused said the accused had not been there because he had a message from the minister’s chief of staff saying that the matter would be adjourned. It’s just that no-one asked the tribunal or was told of its hostility to any kind of adjournment. No-one seemed to question the propriety of this kind of political interference in a statutory process that was meant to be both public and independent. They all just looked serenely stupefied. At one stage I asked a simple question of those in charge of the prosecution – six lawyers left the hearing to consult – for quite some time. This was an appalling fiasco in an essential service. No one seemed to understand just how serious the offence was relating to Islam. They seemed more interested in the offence to Nicky Winmar. (I was sufficiently troubled to refer the issue to ASIO, but when they referred me to the federal police, I gave up.) The man should have been fired, but I thought that would mean he was paying the price of dreadful incompetence on both sides. Instead, I was fired. I then had to sue to recover my retainer, which I did with interest and costs, but only after the Brigade had spent taxpayers’ money in taking every dead point that vacuity could unearth as they trashed any possible suggestion that the Crown should behave properly in litigating with one of its subjects. Then they had complained that I had acted unethically. That too was groundless, but it took those responsible about two and a half years to get round to dismissing it. The whole aura of lassitude and incompetence was very unsettling and demeaning. By what I saw of the MFB, it must be one of the worst run statutory bodies in the nation. At one point in the last case a lawyer rang me one night saying that he was ‘a trusted adviser’ of the board of the Brigade. That was interesting. Until then, I had not heard of it. For about twelve years, I was vested with the powers of the CEO over discipline in a statutory corporation of an essential service and not once did any member of the board feel the need to talk to me.