Coast Guard Noosa boat as huge seas are whipped up by a tropical low off the Queensland Coast.
Coast Guard Noosa boat as huge seas are whipped up by a tropical low off the Queensland Coast.

Vital volunteers quit ‘in droves’ over lack of clear future

THERE is mounting pressure for the State Government to face the Blue Water Group recommendations – which might change forever the future of volunteer marine rescue services – regardless the vote’s still out on how well the review was conducted and how viable its recommendations will prove.

Lachlan Millar, Shadow Minister for Fire, Emergency Services and Volunteers, is the latest to criticise the Palaszczuk government for the delay.

“They have kicked the future of volunteers into the long grass,” he said.

“Nearly two years after the Blue Water Review into Queensland marine rescue operations our volunteers remain completely in the dark.

“(They) deserve rock solid assurances and answers on the service they provide, as do Queensland boaties and recreational fishers throughout the state.”

The Shadow Minister said frontline volunteers - from the State Emergency Service as well as the Coast Guard and Volunteer Marine Rescue - were “choosing to walk in droves”.

“In Queensland we have seen more than 1000 SES volunteers quit as well as 19 branches close up since 2015,” he said.

Mr Millar said the Fire and Emergency Services Minister Craig Crawford had a review into the SES “on his desk waiting to be signed off and made public” as well as the Blue Water Group recommendations.

Mr Millar was speaking in support of LNP Keppel Candidate Adrian de Groot who weighed in on the Blue Water debate in May.

At that time, Keppel MP Brittany Lauga said no decision had been made because “the government has made its priority addressing the issues arising from COVID-19” – that is, keeping the people of Queensland safe.

“The federal and state budgets have been postponed and there hasn’t been an opportunity to provide a response,” she said.

But Mr Millar said the Palaszcsuk government was “hiding behind COVID-19.”

“People in Queensland elected them to do a job so they need to put a bit of effort in and get on with it,” he said.

“Why is it the Rockhampton council and the Livingstone and Central Highlands can bring down a budget during COVID-19 but the State Government can’t?

“At this rate, the State Government won’t have a budget before it goes to election on October 31.”

Another appeal for action came from state president of Volunteer Marine Rescue Queensland, Graham Kingston.

In particular, he demanded answers from the Minister for Emergency Services regarding the marine rescuers’ legislative protection.

“While the SES and Rural Fire Service are protected by special legislation, marine rescue organisations have no such indemnity protection, despite serving the community in the same way,” he said.

He pointed to two potential problems with the Civil Liability Act 2003 (QLD) which defines activity “conducted in good faith”.

“VMR fears that volunteers may well be forced to face the trauma of an experimental court case to find out if the legislation even applies to a particular situation,” he said.

“SES and RFS volunteers are never at risk of being placed in this position.”

Ironically, the question about volunteers’ indemnity, if the Coast guard were to lose its not-for-profit status, were among the initial concerns raised by Central Queensland Coast Guard volunteers who argued against the Blue Water Review and its outcomes.

“There is a feeling of distrust in the government taking control of the Coast Guard and, if that happens, there may be volunteers who walk away,” said a participant during a May meeting.

Coast Guard council chair Robin Hood accused the VMR or “creating a scare campaign” to push the Blue Water Review agenda, and said the Coastguard remained “openly opposed” to the plan for a single entity marine rescue unit in Queensland.

“It’s an impossible mission,” he said.

“As a national entity they can’t take us over without buying us out and getting the approval of 75 per cent of our members… and for what?”

Coast Guard sources continue to state the Blue Water proposal for a single entity will impose a “loss of identity, heritage and history” on community members who have built the volunteer service since 1961, without making a “scrap of difference” to public welfare.

Mr Hood envisioned a future in which the Coast Guard could supplement its flagging fundraising income by offering the public courses in boating safety as well as first aid and radio operations.

But Mr Kingston said volunteers had “no hope” of keeping their flotillas in the water.

“In addition to the cost of the vessels, there’s the expense of keeping equipment and other perishable assets up to date,” he said.

“The only alternative to a State Government-funded entity was to attract a large corporate sponsor which was attempted in the past but nobody in the sector would have a bar of it.

“Not everybody will be happy with the Blue Water outcomes – there will be compromises – but until the Cabinet says yay or nay, everyone’s future remains very unclear.”

So what does the Shadow Minister for Fire, Emergency Services and Volunteers make up of the continuing debate between Queensland’s two marine rescue services over their future ‘post-Blue Water’?

“It’s up to the Minister to give both parties a fair hearing and work out a way forward,” Mr Millar said.

“If I’m lucky enough to be appointed following the election in October then that’s what I’ll be doing.”