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My daughter and I take on NSW Treasurer during firefigher wages dispute

Kate vs Costa

| The following was an article written for the FBEU annual magazine, the NSW Firefighter. It documents the story of an impromptu protest that sent ripples through the NSW government. I wrote it in 2008 when I was a State Committee of Management official of the FBEU, Sub-Branch Secretary for the Illawarra. My daughter was ten years old. She’s almost finished high school now, and this story is something that not only we share together, but 6500 NSW firies claim it as theirs as well – and so they should.

At the time, the FBEU was in the middle of a wage negotiation which was restricted by the ALP’s wages policy. That policy not only set a limit of 2.5%, but laid a foundation for later governments to use that and go even harder (which they have). This particular wages dispute was particularly difficult and ended up in a work value case in the Industrial Relations Commission. We ended up gaining more than 2.5%, but we had some important consultation and agreement clauses taken off us.

There’s another point in this story. Union officials like me are often labelled as pro ALP when we question the actions of Liberal and conservative politicians. This is a perfect illustration of how myself (never been a member of a political party at this point) and my Union (unaffiliated with any party) have a history of taking on both sides of politics if we deem it reasonable and/or necessary.

I wrote recently about the victory FBEU members had for workers compensation protection in 2012 through strike action. This is another example of what we can do if stand up for ourselves. We face hostile right wing governments who are moving against workers and the most vulnerable in our society at present. How will we react? My message – you fight and you’re in with a chance. Soft, reasonable tactics can only get us so far. Militant action has always been the way of the worker, and the way to get real results. Thanks for reading.

NSW Treasurer Michael Costa takes on the FBEU….and a 10 year old

[Originally published in the FBEU NSW Firefighter in 2008, written by Darin Sullivan]

It was your average morning in the Illawarra, the sun was shining and the birds were singing. Then, without notice, a cloud drifted in from the North and a slight odour wofted in from the same direction. It was the arrival of Labor party cheer in the form of a NSW Treasurer, Michael Costa. He had been sent down for a quiet PR day in the city of Wollongong. He forgot that he was wearing the stench of his ‘State Wages Policy’, which attempted to restrict the wages of public servants to less than half of inflation, around his neck like an old, outdated, daggy tie.

It was Thursday 14th August 2008, and my phone rang about 0900 hrs. An informant told me that Costa was arriving for a doorstop at WIN Stadium with Local ALP member, and to consider rallying the troops for ambush. I sent an SMS to the Illawarra delegate network, and an SMS to local media. I rang the local fire stations for support and jumped in my car. My daughter, Kate, had been home sick all week with a cold. She was all but mended, ready for school the next day. No other carer at home, she joined me for the crusade. I had no choice.

When I arrived at WIN stadium, the local fire crews happened to be carrying out a training exercise with a hydraulic platform ‘cherry picker’ called a Bronto, and checking hydrants (I have loyal workmates). Some off duty members had answered the SMS call with FBEU shirts and banners and were waiting at the ready. Local news crews were already theretoo, keen to see what was going on. With 45 min preparation, the trap was laid.

I addressed the group. I explained that this must remain a peaceful protest, and that our goal was to have a one on one with Costa, to let him know how unhappy we were with his wages policy, and what pressure it is putting on our wage negotiations. I also warned them that he is well known for taking on protesters, and trying to stir them up. Separately I counselled my daughter to stay by my side, just watch and listen, and that she didn’t need to do anything. She was safe, and she knew it. Every firey there would protect my daughter like I would theirs. There’s not a safer child in the world than one protected by my comrades.

As the Treasurer approached in his vehicle the temperature dropped, and that smell got stronger. It was clear to all, ‘He’ was coming……

The members stood in the driveway as he pulled up. Costa signalled to get out of the way. The firies were unmoved.“We want to talk to you about our wages”, one firey said. “Get out of the way”, said Costa. “No, we aint movin!”, replied the firies.

Costa got out of the vehicle and started shaking hands like a rock star until he finally realized, these weren’t fans at all, these were……working people! It was to late for him to retreat from the ‘unwashed’, he had to speak to the ‘commoners’.

He tried to explain his flawed anti-worker wages policy, but we were unimpressed. We stood toe to toe with the little man, and with my daughter under my left wing (pardon the pun), I told him “we were disgusted with his policy, disgusted with him and his government, and that we will follow him until he withdraws it, wherever he would go, we would be there”. His reply, “well what you have just heard is nonsense”. He was booed and heckled. He then uttered the famous words, “you are the highest paid firefighters in the country.” Firefighter Andy Coppin replied, “No we are not, that’s a lie!”. Andy was, of course, correct. The NSW treasurer was completely wrong. At that time NSW Firefighters were far from the highest paid firefighters in Australia. Costa’s PR guy suddenly started to sweat. He looked left, he looked right, but there was no retreat in sight. The whole time my 10 year old daughter was being held close by me, and like the media, she was enjoying the show.

“Yes you are”, he retorted as he looked into the TV news camera, “we have the highest paid firefighters in the country.” Yep, this guy can really dig a nice deep hole.

“Liar!”, yelled another firey. Then, a quiet voice piped up. My daughter being the public speaker at school, the debater, and never short of a word, decided to have a say. “Excuse me Sir”, she said. Silence fell upon the robust group, all looking down to the 10 year old with her arms crossed. “I’m only 10, and even I know that is a lie!”, she said with all the mannerisms of a mother, scalding a naughty boy caught doing the wrong the thing.

PICEDITOR-ILM

Costa leaned down toward her, finger pointed, “Well that’s a good line that your daddy taught you”, he said as the fireys anger began to grow. To Costa’s defence, he was not intentionally trying to intimidate here (he was us, but not her), but his mannerism looked really bad from a distance.

“Get away from her you mongrel”, the protective Brothers now taking exception to his reply. As Costa stood there, leaning toward Kate, virtually (and unintendedly) standing over her, the camera shutters clicked. No-one realised at the time, but his future in politics was slipping away with ever shutter click.

Costa tele photo 140808

Finally, he agreed to my request for an urgent meeting in Parliament and committed to that on camera, so we stood back and let him drive into the Stadium. Firefighters standing by in the elevated Bronto, concerned for the well being of the complex, sprayed the WIN stadium in a defensive measure aimed at washing away the foul stench of hypocrisy as it entered the building. We had done all we could to protect firefighters, and the local community from this man.

Kate did interviews for print and TV media the next day, telling a local TV reporter, “My dad and his friends are out there every day protecting us, and Mr Costa just sits in his chair eating cake – it’s not fair.”

The event had a positive outcome in relation to our claim as we had achieved an urgent meeting with the Treasurer, Treasury officials and fire department representatives two days later.

The Minister was sacked (ie allowed to resign) a few weeks later. We’ll never know the full impact of our involvement in his political disintegration, but some in the Labor Party told us at the time that this confrontation with a 10 year old girl was the final ‘nail in his coffin’.

As his sacking became public a radio station in Wollongong read out an SMS message sent in about the topic. It read, “Dear Mr Costa, don’t let the door hit you in the backside, as you leave – from Kates’ dad.”

Remember what I have said about politics, unions, and workers – you fight, you win.

Darin Sullivan

 

To view news footage of the encounter, visit:

FBEU vs Costa round 1

FBEU vs Costa round 2

About Darin Sullivan (1967 Articles)
President of the Fire Brigade Employees’ Union and a professional firefighter with more than 25 years’ experience. Father of two daughters, he lives and works on the NSW South Coast, Australia. He is a strong advocate for firefighters and emergency service workers with an interest in mental health issues and caring for those around him. He is a Director on the NSW Fire Brigades Death and Disability Super Fund and works with charities including ‘The Movember Foundation’. As a leader and activist he has long been active in the campaign for action on climate change. Now a Station Commander in the fire and rescue service in NSW and has decades of experience fighting fires, both rural and urban. He is passionate about highlighting the impact climate change is having on fire preparedness and fire behaviour in Australia, and the risks associated with inaction on climate change. Darin is also a spokesperson for the Australian Climate Media Centre.
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