ACT News

Stalemate over needle exchange hampering prison officers' pay talks

ACT Chief Minister Katy Gallagher has called on the Community and Public Sector Union to progress enterprise bargaining negotiations for prison officers, before resolving a long-standing dispute on a needle exchange program inside Canberra's jail.

She said back pay and a new agreement for officers were being delayed by the debate over a needle and syringe exchange program inside the Alexander Maconochie Centre, first proposed more than two years ago. 

Back pay and a new agreement for prison officers were being delayed by the debate over a needle and syringe exchange ...
Back pay and a new agreement for prison officers were being delayed by the debate over a needle and syringe exchange program inside the Alexander Maconochie Centre. Photo: Michael Clayton-Jones

Ms Gallagher questioned the timing of the renewed debate this week, as government bureaucrats continued negotiations with union officials on the matter.

Corrective Services Minister Shane Rattenbury said the decision should rest with the independent industrial relations umpire and welcomed a meeting with Community and Public Sector Union officials.

On Wednesday, the union's deputy national president, Alistair Waters, used a Canberra Times opinion piece to call on the ACT government to "confront some home truths" on the proposed needle exchange scheme.

Mr Waters said the program could increase the spread of blood-borne viruses and facilitate the sharing of needles inside the prison and remand centre, where needles are used as currency and traded in the "informal economy".

"We've been working this through for years with the CPSU," Ms Gallagher said.

"They are fundamentally opposed to it. We're trying to work out if there's any way to reach agreement on it and, at the moment, it seems to be blocking up prison officers getting their back pay and getting their EBA sorted." 

Higher-than-average rates of hepatitis C within the jail meant the exchange was needed, Ms Gallagher said, and a trial inside the correctional setting was justified. 

"We'd like to do it with the agreement of staff and with the suitable protections that staff have raised ... we've got a model that does all that," she said.

"It is more a process of continuing to work through this, rather than forcing anybody's particular position, and that's the approach we've taken over the past four years and I'm not going to change it now." 

Mr Rattenbury acknowledged concerns among prison officers and staff, but said public-health benefits meant the government remained committed to introducing the program. 

He said the government would work with any ruling made during industrial arbitration but he remained optimistic a resolution could be found. 

The continuing "log jam" of the issue was unacceptable and a resolution was needed. 

"The government has advice that the current clause in the enterprise agreement around the needle and syringe program is impermissible so, on that basis, we've put a range of proposals forward as part of the negotiations to move past that and focus on practicalities of finding a model that works inside the jail that both delivers the public-health outcomes and is safe for the staff," Mr Rattenbury said. 

On Wednesday, union  ACT secretary Vince McDevitt called for the government to change the laws governing needles inside the prison.

He predicted it would be "flooded" by drug equipment under the government's plan.