Stanhope / Needle ‘veto’ claim proves offensive and false

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LIKE columnist and fellow former Assembly colleague Michael Moore, I too am disappointed by the failure of the ACT government to introduce a needle-exchange program in the Alexander Maconochie Centre.

Jon Stanhope
Jon Stanhope.

I have been provoked into looking into the question of why there isn’t a NSP in the AMC by the following statement in “The Canberra Times” on April 20 on behalf of Corrections Minister Shane Rattenbury purporting to explain why he had not established a NSP:

“When the AMC opened, the minister responsible, Jon Stanhope, provided a veto power to CPSU in the enterprise agreement. This meant a NSP could not be introduced without agreement from staff. Subsequent Ministers have been hamstrung since that time”.

This statement is false. I was offended by it, not just because it is false (Shane Rattenbury is, after all, just another politician) but because in a meeting with him two to three years ago, held at his request, I told him that I had never done any such thing.  

I told Rattenbury that all I had done was agree that the government would consult with staff. I therefore consider the above statement as tantamount to calling me a liar.

I accordingly lodged an FOI request in which I sought a copy of “all documents of whatever description related to the granting of a so-called veto to prison officers over the decision to introduce a needle program in the AMC”.

The documents subsequently released to me confirm that at no stage did I, or indeed anyone else, ever grant staff at the AMC a “veto” over the decision to establish a NSP.  

It seems that the CPSU has, by repeatedly but erroneously insisting that it has a “veto”, managed to bluff the current crop of ministers and officials into believing that it does.

The document trail confirms that from the outset all that was ever agreed to was a right to be consulted. The following are some examples:

  • From Greg Friedewald (Chief of Staff to the Chief Minister) to Robert Gotts (the senior officer within the Chief Minister’s Department who had carriage of negotiations with the CPSU) dated March 30, 2007: “Robert, the CM agrees: he says all he agreed to was a promise to consult, not to write in a commitment as firm as that proposed by the CPSU.”
  • From Robert Gotts to Greg Friedewald, April 2, 2007″ “Some words below. This protects future decisions that aren’t the CPSU’s to make and limits any agreement, essentially, to the OH&S issues that they can fairly be concerned about”.
  • From Robert Gotts to Renee Leon (director-general of Justice and Community Safety), August 13, 2007: “I’ve attached the email trail from the CM’s office around the development of the words. The intention was to limit the involvement of the CPSU to how, rather than whether, a needle exchange is implemented”.
  • From Renee Leon to Liz Beattie, August 7, 2007: “The issue of the clause in the draft custodial agreement re needle exchange was discussed between ministers yesterday. Minister Corbell has advised me that the Chief Minister did not at any time agree to a clause that would subject a possible needle exchange program to AGREEMENT of custodial officers. He agreed that they should be CONSULTED on any such program.”

Having been unable to unearth a single document to support the claims by Rattenbury’s office that I, or indeed anyone, had granted the CPSU a “veto” over a needle program in the AMC, the FOI officer handling my request wrote to Robert Gotts, who is still employed in a senior capacity in the ACT Public Service, apparently seeking to confirm that every document within the scope of my request had been located. Mr Gotts responded, on May 17, in the following terms: “I was responsible for the negotiation of that Enterprise Agreement. I am not sure whether I could put my hands on any documents that related to the negotiations. However, my memory of this accords with Mr Stanhope’s.

“The needle exchange was a point of contention, with the tension around a determination by myself and other government negotiators not to lock future governments into any fixed position. The clause was only to consult on the issue of a needle exchange, there was no right of veto.”

The only remaining question then is to try to understand the behaviour of the minister and his office.

Is it that they simply didn’t do their homework and/or have been suckered by the CPSU into believing that it had in fact been granted rights that are in fact fictional?

Does the fact that the CPSU is the largest union affiliated with the ACT Branch of the Labor Party, with the greatest influence over ALP appointments and pre-selection, play on the minds of ministers in their dealings with the union?

Is it, heaven forbid, that Rattenbury simply doesn’t care whether prisoners in the AMC contract life-threatening diseases because they are refused the full suite of preventative care available in the community?

Only Rattenbury knows the answer to these questions. The next time I bump into him I will ask him which it is and let you know.

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Jon Stanhope
Jon Stanhope was Chief Minister from 2001 to 2011 and represented Ginninderra for the Labor Party from 1998. He is the only Chief Minister to have governed with a majority in the Assembly.


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