QUEENSLAND: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
ALP cannot escape Heiner affair
, October 27, 2007
Five retired judges, together with a Sydney QC and a senior law lecturer, have written to the Queensland premier, expressing their concern about the way the Heiner affair has been handled. Peter Westmore reports.Despite repeated attempts by the federal and Queensland Labor parties to bury it, the Heiner affair continues to cause embarrassment to Kevin Rudd and his federal colleagues, prompting a series of articles in the media, particularly in The Australian which devoted two lengthy articles on October 10 to say that there was nothing in the story.
The Heiner affair refers to the actions of the Wayne Goss Labor Government in 1990, in shutting down an inquiry by a retired Queensland magistrate, Noel Heiner, into the John Oxley Youth Detention Centre, and shredding all its documents. Mr Rudd was working as chief of staff for the Queensland premier at the time.
The inquiry had been ordered in 1989 by the then National Party Government. The inquiry heard of conflict between staff and management, and allegations of sexual abuse at the centre.
Over the past 17 years, a number of attempts have been made to find out why the documents were shredded. On at least two occasions, state or federal Labor Party people have tried to prevent the matter being addressed.Evidence blocked
The most recent occasion was last month, when National Party Senator Barnaby Joyce attempted to table evidence in the Senate, but the Labor Party blocked it.
In August 2004, the House of Representatives standing committee on legal and constitutional affairs, chaired by Liberal MP Bronwyn Bishop, conducted an inquiry into crime in the community which, among other things, recommended that a special prosecutor be appointed to look into the Heiner affair.
All Labor members of the committee resigned before the committee's report was tabled, with one of them describing it as "highly politicised", while the then premier of Queensland, Peter Beattie, denounced it as "a political stunt", although most of its recommendations had nothing to do with the Heiner affair.
Kevin Lindeberg, then an official of the Professional Officers Association, and who represented the manager of the youth training-centre, has been engaged in trying to get answers to these questions for many years.
Mr Lindeberg was dismissed by the union in the early 1990s, in part for pursuing this matter.
He said, "In January and February 1990, my union member, the manager of the Detention Centre, sought to access the Heiner Inquiry documents, insofar as they were about him…. He also indicated that he might take defamation action. As his union organiser, I was required to protect his industrial interests."
Mr Lindeberg said the manager's solicitors and two trade unions placed the Government on notice of foreshadowed court proceedings. The State Government was told not to destroy the evidence.
"The relevant February/March 1990 Cabinet submissions, copies of which we now hold, divulge that all Cabinet members in attendance were aware that the documents were likely to be required as evidence in a foreshadowed judicial proceeding.
"Crown Law advice, which we also now hold, reveals that the Cabinet, and Crown Law, knew that the records would be discoverable upon the serving of the anticipated writ. By other evidence spoken in the media, we know that at least one Minister, if not all, were aware that those public records contained evidence about the known or suspected abuse of children at the Centre."
The Goss Cabinet decided that the Heiner inquiry should be terminated and all documents shredded, reportedly on legal advice that the inquiry was not properly set up and that documents might be used in a civil action.
Even if this were the case, why the Queensland Cabinet in 1990 should have become involved in a dispute among staff at a juvenile detention centre has never been answered.
Five retired judges, together with a prominent Sydney QC and a senior lecturer in the law faculty at the Queensland University of Technology, recently wrote to the premier of Queensland, expressing their concern about the way the affair had been handled, and, particularly, the destruction of evidence which might be used in a subsequent legal action.
Their extraordinary statement followed a lengthy investigation by the leading NSW barrister, David Rofe QC, who concluded that there were 67 alleged unaddressed prima facie criminal charges that needed to be addressed.Public interest
Although these events happened 17 years ago, the authors of the statement said that "any claim of 'staleness' or 'lack of public interest' which may be mounted now by Queensland authorities not to revisit this matter ought to fail".
They added, "Neither the facts, the law nor the public interest offer support in that regard. However, should such a claim be mounted, we suggest that it would tend to be self-serving and undermine public confidence in the administration of justice and in government itself …
"We believe that the issues at stake are too compelling to ignore.
"We suggest that if the Heiner affair remains in its current unresolved state, it would give reasonable cause for ordinary citizens, especially Queenslanders, to believe that there is one law for them, and another for executive government and civil servants. We find such a prospect unacceptable."
They urged the Queensland Government to appoint an independent Special Prosecutor, as recommended by the House of Representatives committee in 2004. At the time of writing, there had been no response.- Peter Westmore