Australian Senate Hansard for 26th May 1997

Queensland: Document Archiving

This document has DRAFT status

Senator WOODLEY (Queensland)(10.16 p.m.)--I rise to speak tonight on a matter which has dogged my state and been before this Senate for some years. It concerns the shredding of the Heiner inquiry documents ordered by the Goss government to stop their use in litigation after the Crown had been put on notice of impending court proceedings in which those records were critically relevant and also after the Crown knew that the documents were being sought by a legally enforceable access statute.

This matter first came under scrutiny in 1995 by the Senate Select Committee on Public Interest Whistleblowing, chaired by Senator Shayne Murphy and of which I was also a member. There now appears to be further evidence referred to the Senate by the Queensland parliamentary Criminal Justice Committee alleging that the CJC misled our deliberations in 1995. I understand that the CJC's handling of what is also known as `the Lindeberg allegations' is to come under scrutiny in Queensland again by the Connolly-Ryan judicial review into the effectiveness of the CJC in the near future. Another announcement which is long awaited and rather overdue is an announcement by the Borbidge government concerning the estab lishment of a separate commission of inquiry to investigate this very serious affair in accordance with the recommendation of the Morris-Howard report.

My reason for speaking tonight is to inform the Senate of another important development which is of relevance to the federal parliament because of the international attention that the shredding is now attracting. I wish to inform the Senate that the shredding has now come to the attention of the International Council on Archives in Paris. It may be debated at an inaugural meeting of a subcommittee on electronic and other current records to be held at The Hague in the Netherlands on 18 to 20 June 1997. However, that is yet to be resolved within the ICA.

The International Council on Archives is a non-governmental organisation, acting internationally, which is concerned with archives and their role in the conduct of public and private activities, the protection of individual rights and the advancement of human knowledge and culture. Founded in 1948 at a meeting convened by UNESCO, the ICA was formally established at its first international congress held in Paris two years later in 1950. Its headquarters are in Paris. The ICA is a non-governmental organisation admitted in the category of consultative and associate relations with UNESCO, category A. It cooperates with other international organisations in implementing projects of common interest.

The management of our public records in Australia is a measure of the how open and accountable our governments are. It is a measure of our commitment to democratic principles and the rule of law and it is a yardstick by which we can be judged internationally.

During the course of our select committee deliberations, the role of the state and federal archivists, as represented by the CJC, was put on the public record. It was a position which Mr Lindeberg, the man at the centre of the affair, objected to quite vigorously at the time. The CJC's 1995 declaration has been subsequently roundly condemned by former chief Victorian archivist and former Australian ICA representative Mr Chris Hurley. He did a detailed analysis in March 1996. He now works at the national archives in New Zealand. Regrettably, our Senate select committee did not have the benefit of his expertise in 1995.

The issue at stake is essentially a simple one, but one of great importance. If the Crown or the state, through its statutory keeper of public records, cannot be relied on to impartially and independently protect public records from destruction when those records are known to be required for foreshadowed court proceedings or when it is known that they are the subject of a legally enforceable access statute, the due administration of justice is gravely imperilled. That is essentially what the Lindeberg declaration states in a document I wish to table later.

As a Democrat, I find it hard to think of anything more serious than the Crown or state deliberately shredding public records to thwart justice. One of Australia's leading Queen's Counsel, Mr Ian Callinan, described it as an unthinkable act. It is made much worse, however, when executive government uses and abuses the independent and impartial good office of a state or federal archivist to achieve that objective. Archivists should be protecting records in the public interest, not destroying them for any desired outcome of executive government or its agencies at the expense of individual lawful rights. It is fundamentally undemocratic and may breach criminal and administrative law in the process.

Archivists must be able to lawfully withstand pressure from any executive government and its agencies when incidents like this occur in the future. Former Queensland Police Commissioner Noel Newnham, now a lecturer at Charles Sturt University in Sydney, described this case as `monumentally serious'. He courageously, and quite properly, I believe, criticised the CJC's handling of the Lindeberg complaint and the cavalier manner in which that body treated him.

Let me conclude by saying this: it is totally unacceptable for any Australian government to send to the international community a signal that shredding public records to stop their use in court proceedings or to stop lawful access to them is acceptable conduct in our public and legal administration or in any aspect of public life at all. It brings our reputation as a nation governed by the rule of law into unacceptable disrepute.

The Queensland archivist, or any archivist, cannot operate above our courts and cannot be oblivious to the rights of individuals. While it is accepted that the Queensland archivist may have been misled by the Goss cabinet and others about the true legal status of the material she approved to be shredded, she certainly became aware shortly after the shredding, and did little to protect the public interest.

This is a serious matter. The current Queensland government appears incapable of properly resolving this matter. It is no wonder that the ICA is taking an interest in this case. I seek leave to table the Lindeberg declaration submission, dated 7 May 1997, so that honourable senators interested in this matter may read in greater detail why it has captured the attention of archivists throughout the world. I have given copies to the whips and there may be some problem. The government said they were happy with that.

Leave granted.

Senate adjourned at 10.26 p.m.

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