ASA Position Statement on The Heiner Affair

Title: ASA Position Statement on The Heiner Affair

The following Position Statement has been approved by the Council of the Australian Society of Archivists and will today be distributed to selected media outlets.

Adrian Cunningham
ASA President



18 MARCH 1999


The public unfolding of the complex sequence of events known as the 'Heiner Affair' has been reported and reviewed in the press (especially the Weekend Independent) and in Queensland Government (Morris & Howard 1996) and Senate (Select Committee on Unresolved Whistleblower Cases 1995) reports. In addition, the Acting Chief Archivist of New Zealand, Chris Hurley, has prepared a detailed analysis of the Heiner Affair from an archival perspective.  This report, entitled "The Shredding of the Heiner Documents: an appreciation" can be found on the Internet at  In June 1997 the Australian Society of Archivists (ASA) issued a public statement on some aspects of the Heiner Affair.  The 1997 statement is attached as an a! ppendi x to this position paper.  More recently the case received national media coverage when Channel 9's Sunday Program aired a feature on the affair.

Since 1997 there have been a number of further developments in the Heiner Affair.  Most particularly, during 1998 it was revealed that the evidence which was collected by the aborted Heiner inquiry and which was subsequently destroyed included allegations of inmate abuse at the John Oxley Youth Centre during the late 1980s.  These and other allegations led to the establishment of the Forde inquiry into allegations of child abuse in Queensland Government institutions.  In light of these developments the ASA has decided to issue a position statement that updates and expands upon its 1997 public statement. 

The Australian Society of Archivists has been closely monitoring developments in the Heiner affair for many years.  It has a particular interest in promoting the cause of good recordkeeping and professional archival best practice.  As a notable example of failed recordkeeping, the Heiner affair compels the ASA to take a strong public position on the recordkeeping issues that the case has highlighted.

Aspects of the Heiner Affair which are of most concern to archivists have to do with making and keeping a full and accurate record of the conduct of government business and the basis on which government archivists give their consent to destruction of official records.  In 1990, Queensland's Cabinet requested the consent of the State Archivist for the destruction of records compiled by Noel Heiner during his 1989 investigation of the John Oxley Youth Centre.  Unbeknown to the archivist, access to the records was being sought in relation to legal claims arising out of the investigation.  The question arose whether the State Archivist should have prevented the destruction to protect an intending litigant's right to pursue his claim in court.  In the course of the 1995 Senate Inquiry, the Queensland Criminal Justice Commission, under attack for its handling of the case, claimed that these matters were not the State Archivist's ! concer n.  Our 1997 Statement was issued in large part to refute that claim.


The ASA's 1997 Statement on the Heiner Affair criticised the Queensland Government for:

The ASA stands by these criticisms, but now wishes to add to its earlier comments on the specific merits of the disposal decision and the lessons that can be learned from the experience.

This case highlights the difficulties associated with determining whether to retain or dispose of public records.  It is neither possible nor desirable to retain every single document created in the course of public administration.  One of the most important responsibilities, therefore, of government archivists is to determine which public records should be retained, which should be destroyed and when.

Although government archivists endeavour to acquit this responsibility with the utmost care and professionalism, the sheer volume of material that archivists are called upon to consider means that detailed examination of records during appraisal is simply not feasible.  In view of this, it is accepted professional practice for archivists to assess the significance of the function which the records document, rather than pass judgement on the individual documents themselves.  While hindsight will always reveal examples of incorrect appraisal decisions, archivists should endeavour to minimise the risks involved by instituting and observing appraisal policies and procedures that are consistent with international professional best practice. 

In relation to the Heiner case, it is the view of the ASA that, while the Archivist acted in good faith, nevertheless the appraisal of the documents did not conform to these standards of best practice and, hence, was not conducive to a more satisfactory outcome.  Firstly, the ad hoc nature of the disposal ruling highlights the fact that it was made in the absence of a relevant pre-existing records disposal authority.  Such ad hoc appraisal decisions were and still are not uncommon in State government archives.  It is, however, the view of the ASA that nowadays, in accord with the 1996 Australian Records Management Standard (AS 4390, Part 5 - Appraisal and Disposal), as far as possible all appraisal rulings should be made with reference to records disposal authorities.  Secondly, and more importantly, the speed with which the Heiner appraisal was conducted suggests that there was a departure from the usual orderly processes ! of appraisal that should occur in government archives.

In view of subsequent revelations which have led to the establishment of the Forde Inquiry, the continued relevance of the Heiner documents can now be seen in relation to allegations of a systemic failure in the management of the State's institutions and the treatment of those who were placed in their charge.  There have been many examples in Australia of systemic failure within government (Queensland's own Fitzgerald Inquiry being notable amongst other revelations).  Almost always, as Fitzgerald himself found, a recordkeeping failure of some kind is involved.  At best, records are badly kept and fail to provide the basis for internal review and reform or external scrutiny and audit of imperfect systems.  At worst, records were tampered with or destroyed to obscure evidence of mismanagement or misdeeds.  Where allegations of mismanagement and abuse cannot be sustained, good recordkeeping is the most reliable assurance ! the pu blic can have that government systems are working properly.

In relation to the Heiner case, the State Archivist has stated unequivocally that her assessment of the records did not reveal to her the existence of any inmate abuse allegations.  In view of that, we are not prepared to say that the appraisal was flawed on the grounds that she knowingly gave her approval for the destruction of material which ought not to have been destroyed.  Based on what we now know we are, however, prepared to state that the records containing allegations concerning treatment of inmates which were part of the Heiner documents should not have been destroyed.  It is clear from the Morris/Howard Report that the Archivist was alerted to the arguably defamatory nature of some of the Heiner documents, so the need for careful scrutiny from this point of view was greater than normal.

It is the view of the ASA that it is not unreasonable to conclude that political pressure was, at the very least, a contributing factor to the faulty appraisal processes that were observed in the case of the Heiner documents.  The Queensland Cabinet requested the State Archivist to give her approval for the destruction of the records within 24 hours.  Such a request from Cabinet is highly likely to have caused a departure from the more orderly and considered appraisal procedures which the community has a right to expect from government archives.  


The Heiner affair highlights two fundamental truths about which the ASA is emphatic:

1.      That government archivists are key agents of public accountability and that, as such, they must have an adequate charter including statutory independence from political or any other improper interference in the discharge of their duties and responsibilities.   Successive Queensland Governments have failed to enact the new archives legislation proposed by the Electoral and Administrative Reform Commission (EARC) following upon Fitzgerald's findings.  The ASA reiterates its earlier demand that the Queensland Government enact legislation which guarantees the role and future independence of the State Archivist in order to help ensure the integrity of the public record in that State.

2.      That government archivists must at all times endeavour to observe professional appraisal and disposal practices and procedures governed by an orderly regime of records disposal authorities and that, in particular, archivists should strongly resist any pressure to make hasty and/or ad hoc appraisal decisions.

For further information please contact Adrian Cunningham on 02/6212-3988.




The public unfolding of the complex sequence of events known as the 'Heiner Affair' has been reported and reviewed in the press (especially the Weekend Independent) and in Queensland Government (Morris & Howard1996) and Senate (Select Committee on Unresolved Whistleblower Cases1995) reports. It will not be repeated here. The ASA presents this public statement within the full context of the events of the Heiner Affair as they have unfolded since 1989.


The operation of a free and democratic society depends upon the maintenance of the integrity of the public record. Public records are a key source of information about government actions and decisions. They provide essential evidence of the exercise of public trust by public officials. This in turn helps ensure public accountability and protection of the rights of citizens.

In recent years there have been a number of instances of serious disregard for the integrity of public records in Australia. Some examples include those highlighted by 'W.A. Inc.' Royal Commission, the1994 destruction of Special Branch records in New South Wales and the so-called 'Heiner Affair' in Queensland. This trend is a matter of profound concern to the Australian Society of Archivists (ASA) and should also be of the gravest concern to society as a whole.

Archivists, as impartial and independent professionals, play a vital role in defending the integrity of public records. Cases such as the Heiner Affair highlight the fact that government archivists need statutory independence such as that afforded the Auditor-General.

The greatest threat to the integrity of the public record is the unwarranted destruction of important documents. The ASA strongly asserts that records should only be destroyed when an archivist reaches a professional decision that the financial costs of preserving and maintaining access to the records are not justified by their estimated ongoing utility, value and significance. In other words, records should only be destroyed when they are no longer required for the purposes of individual, corporate or societal accountability and reference. The process of disposal and destruction of public records should be orderly. It should be guided by established administrative procedures which in turn are based upon internationally recognised archival principles.


'The 'Heiner Affair' has revealed serious shortcomings in the management of public records in Queensland at that time. A number of significant details relating to the case have only come to public attention in recent months, most particularly with the release of a report to the Queensland Government of an investigation into the affair by barristers Anthony Morris QC and Edward Howard. It is the view of the ASA that these revelations have strengthened the case for new archival legislation within that State.

The Morris/Howard report reveals details of the case which are deeply disturbing to the archival profession in Australia. The report reproduces a letter from the Queensland Cabinet Secretary to the Queensland State Archivist dated 23 February 1990, which requested the Archivist's approval for the destruction of the records in question. The ASA notes the conclusions of the Morris/Howard report which state that the disposal authorisation issued by the State Archivist in response to this letter was made in apparent ignorance of the fact that the records were likely to be required for future legal proceedings. This deliberate withholding of vital information necessary for a fully informed disposal decision is inexcusable. The ASA strenuously asserts that archivists should not be treated as 'rubber stamps' by governments wishing to rid themselves of potentially embarrassing records. Records creators and managers must make available to the archivist! all p ertinent information relating to the ongoing legal/administrative significance of records subject to disposal determinations.

The ASA also wishes to place on record its absolute rejection of the argument which the Queensland Criminal Justice Commission placed before the Senate Select Committee on Unresolved Whistleblower Cases in 1995,to wit that archivists should only consider the historical significance of records when reaching a disposal decision. There are a wide variety of factors which might inform a decision to retain or destroy a particular set of records. These factors include, but are not limited to, the value of the records as evidence of financial affairs and obligations and the value of the records as evidence relating to citizen's rights. Any indication that records are likely to be required in future legal proceedings should, by itself, be sufficient justification to warrant the retention of the records in question.

The Australian Society of Archivists calls upon the Queensland Government to enact legislation which guarantees the future independence of the State Archivist, including protection from political interference, in order to ensure the integrity of the public record in that State.

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