16 February 2024

Union says new commissioner will 'definitely' solve problems in ACT's emergency services

| James Coleman
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Wayne and Wendy Phillips

ESA commissioner Wayne Phillips and his wife, Wendy. Photo: James Coleman.

There’s a new boss at the top of the ACT’s Emergency Services Agency (ESA), and those on the ground say he’s already made a difference – especially around culture.

Murmurs of a “blame culture” within the ACT ESA reached a head in March 2023 when the ACT Government’s Justice and Community Safety directorate ordered a review of the organisation by former Ambulance Victoria executive Professor Tony Walker.

The subsequent Walker Report, handed down in June, found a lack of trust among executives, no coherent vision for the future, bullying, and a general disconnect of communication between those on the ground and those in management.

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It reached the point that the TWU ACT called for the ESA to be dissolved and a new body formed, to be headed up by “someone who understands how to support and resource emergency services”.

Transport Workers’ Union ACT (TWU ACT) official Ben Sweaney says the new commissioner fills the bill by “listening, not telling”.

“He brings tremendous common sense and pragmatism to the job, and we look forward to what should be the foundation of hopefully industrial harmony in the coming years,” Mr Sweaney said.

ESA Commissioner Georgeina Whelan

Former ESA commissioner Georgeina Whelan resigned in September 2023. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

Wayne Phillips grew up in country NSW and has 32 years of experience as a firefighter, mainly around Sydney. Over the years, he worked his way into management, deploying strike teams during the 2019-20 Black Summer bushfires and becoming Chief Superintendent of NSW Fire and Rescue (NSW F&R) shortly afterwards.

Two years ago, he became assistant commissioner of corporate affairs within the ESA and was appointed acting commissioner following Ms Whelan’s resignation on 30 September. Since then, he’s been working to implement the 18 recommendations of the Walker Report.

“The ESA is a fantastic organisation, full of talented and hard-working experts who have a collective goal – to make Canberra the safest place to live and work,” he says.

“I am honoured to be appointed to lead the ESA through the next five years and am committed to working alongside our very capable emergency services leaders in our shared mission to keep Canberra safe.”

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He has already committed to initiate mandatory health checks for all operational firefighting staff “as a priority”, something the ACT Government first flagged in the enterprise bargaining agreement negotiations in 2020.

He says a big part of improving culture starts with “getting out of the office and walking around, saying g’day”.

“I think it’s really some basic things – listening, consulting, and acting on those … I don’t make decisions lightly. I’m a consultative leader. I’m a collaborative leader. I like to keep transparency about decision-making.”

ACT RFS firefighting

The new commissioner worked on the ground as a firefighter in NSW for years. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

The TWU ACT says there have “definitely” already been improvements on the ground since the new commissioner took the helm.

“What has improved is the communication and acknowledgement of where things haven’t gone well and how things can be done better. There’s been a dynamic shift in terms of ‘If things aren’t working, how do we make the work?'”

The union still remains hopeful for a standalone authority for ambulance services.

“What Wayne has demonstrated is that he will let ambulance govern its own operations and won’t interfere with the day-to-day operations.”

Mr Phillips and the ACT Government are confident the ESA can remain unified.

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