With the Senate about to (hopefully) launch an inquiry into the Heiner Affair (otherwise known as “Shreddergate”) it might be worth putting up a brief summary of how it got to this point.
In the late 1980s there were serious allegations (including allegations of child abuse) at a Brisbane youth detention facility (the John Oxley Youth Centre (JOYC)). In 1989, the Liberal-National coalition government led by Russell Cooper set up an inquiry to look into the allegations. The inquiry was headed by retired magistrate Noel Heiner. A new Labor Government came to power soon after.
Because of the nature of the allegations, including those leveled at staff of the JOYC, some of the material could have been considered defamatory. Normally those giving evidence to an inquiry would be protected but it seems that the Goss Labor government was not sure whether the Heiner inquiry had been properly constituted and whether witnesses would be protected. Certainly, it seems reasonable to assume that the government knew what was contained in the inquiry documents. The Minister for Family Services in the Goss Government, the Hon. Anne Warner, certainly knew about the alleged abuse. It was Warner who had urged the Cooper Government to set up the inquiry (see The Sunday Sun, 1 October 1989, p.18). It is difficult to believe that this knowledge (and more) did not reach the Goss Cabinet before it took the decision to shred the inquiry documents on 5 March 1990. It is difficult also to believe that the Goss Cabinet did not know that there was a realistic possibility that the evidence gathered was relevant for future police or other Crown inquiries such as the Criminal Justice Commission (CJC). The CJC did look at the matter but – it would seem – not in any meaningful way.
The allegations certainly appear to have had substance, as the recent out of court settlement with one of the complainants seems to demonstrate. The case involved the alleged pack rape of a 14 year old girl while in the custody of the State. It is a sad story that will no doubt come out before the Senate. This payment was not something that just happened “out of the blue”. The girl may not have been in a position to pursue her rights at the time, but as a woman, she did. The Queensland Police apparently declined to investigate. But the Government nevertheless settled.
That the Heiner affair has not simply withered away is due largely to the efforts of Kevin Lindeberg, the former trade union officer who represented some staff of the JOYC. As a whistleblower, Lindeberg paid the price that most (all?) whistleblowers do. But Kevin Lindeberg took the Heiner case to places that few other whistleblowers have managed.
The matter has been considered by Senate inquiries more than once (and addressed in the Senate by Senator George Brandis and former Senator John Woodley). In August 2007, a number of superior court judges issued a public statement, The Heiner Affair: A Matter of Concern, calling on Queensland Premier Beattie to appoint an independent Special Prosecutor to investigate the matter. Beattie rejected their call. Significantly, the judges stated that, on the matter of the shredding:
"…This serious inconsistency in the administration of Queensland’s Criminal Code touching on the fundamental principle of respect for the administration of justice by proper preservation of evidence concerns us because this principle is found in all jurisdictions within the Commonwealth as it sustains the rule of law generally…The affair exposes an unacceptable application of the criminal law by prima facie double standards by Queensland law-enforcement authorities in initiating a successful proceedings against an Australian citizen, namely Mr Douglas Ensbey, but not against members of the Executive Government and certain civil servants for similar destruction-of-evidence conduct. Compelling evidence suggests that the erroneous interpretation of section 129 of the Criminal Code (Qld) used by those authorities to justify the shredding of the Heiner Inquiry documents may have knowingly advantaged Executive Government and certain civil servants."
Premier Beattie resigned some two weeks later and the judges’ letter was subsequently served on new Queensland Premier, the Hon. Anna Bligh. She refused to act claiming, among other things, that the Heiner Affair had been thoroughly investigated by the CJC. (It certainly had NOT been “thoroughly investigated”, but that is a common “out” used by the Queensland Government.)
The matter did not go away. On 14 February 2008, documents (the 9-Volume Rofe Audit, the Judges’ Statement, The Heiner Affair: A Matter of Concern, and a 55-page legal summary) were served by Lindeberg’s solicitors on the ‘bipartisan-by-law’ Queensland Parliamentary Crime and Misconduct Committee (PCMC) requesting a review by an acting Parliamentary Commissioner into the CJC/CMC’s handling of Lindeberg’s complaint to the CJC in 1993. In his 2008 submission to the Tasmanian Joint Select Committee on Ethical Conduct, Lindeberg described the issues confronting the PCMC in its duty to reach a bipartisan decision (see Lindeberg’s article written for the Records Management Association of Australasia 2010 journal for a full discussion):
"In the opinion of senior counsel, the issues are very simple if the rule of law is to prevail. On the evidence supplied, there only needs to be found the low threshold of a suspicion of official misconduct to lead to the establishment of a full and an open inquiry to get to the truth. Such an inquiry, however, would not only rock Queensland to its foundations but the nation itself because it is known that the Prime Minister Rudd and Her Excellency Governor-General, Quentin Bryce, are adversely named in the audit. Amongst other things, six serving Queensland judicial officers are adversely named."
And therein lies the problem for the Bligh Labor Government.
If this matter had been dealt with properly years ago it would now be just a footnote in the history books. But few complaints that involve the public service or the Government are ever investigated properly in Queensland. The Labor Government seems to have a horror of possible loss of control, or that scrutiny of one thing can sometimes turn to scrutiny of other things that are best left unseen.
The sky will not fall if these things are opened to public scrutiny. Nor do those named have any special claim on protection. Future governments should take heed. The “no problems here” mentality of governments (of all persuasions) and public servants needs a radical overhaul. The open information systems of today’s society make accountability more difficult to avoid. More citizens should stand up (like Kevin Lindeberg and the woman in this case) and demand that governments and public servants be held accountable for their actions.
However, it can only be hoped that the girl (now a woman) who will be very much a focus of interest in the Senate inquiry, will not suffer all over again for the Queensland Government’s contempt for the law.