Comments by the Acting Chief Archivist of New Zealand, Chris Hurley (July 2004)


On 18 June last, the Bishop [HoR] Committee heard evidence (inter alia) from Beryce Nelson  who was the Minister for Family Services until the Goss Government came to power in Queensland, closed down the Heiner Inquiry, and destroyed the records. She was the Minister under whom the Heiner Inquiry was established.

The second committee - a Senate Committee (to which ASA has made a Submission) - is about a breach of privilege. It has very narrow terms of reference - not really concerned with the merits of Heiner. The Bishop Committee has much wider terms of reference and is probing the justice of the thing (as with the original Fitzgerald Royal Commission, stuff can leak out around the edges). Here is what Nelson had to say :

1. It is incorrect that the Inquiry had not been fully and properly established and therefore had to be wound up and that the evidence had to be destroyed.

2. It was set up when an election was about to be called, it was not appropriate to establish a full commission of inquiry.

3. We initiated a shorter term inquiry to give us preliminary findings so that there was room for an incoming government and an incoming minister to establish a full commission of inquiry.

4. Legal advice on its establishment was taken by the then director-general, Pettigrew.

5. The facility (JOYC) had been the subject of constant criticism.

6. Staff from the centre came to see her. They were worried about their positions if it was known they had come. "They were very intimidated. They felt very threatened".

7. There was a culture of concealment and collusion.

8. She was concerned over allegations of a sexual nature regarding the mistreatment of children at JOYC.

9. She believes the inquiry was not shut down to protect the innocent but to protect the guilty behaviour of some members of the AWU who were operating at the John Oxley centre at the time.

10. That union was the leading faction in the election of the Goss government and was a powerful force within that government. It remains the powerful force within the current government .

11. She thinks the incoming Goss Government acted out of fear and panic.

12. What Heiner was finding was so damaging against some key players at the John Oxley centre that it became a union catfight—it was the "fors" and the "againsts", and anyone that wanted to keep the inquiry going was just destroyed and pushed aside.

13. Nothing has changed in terms of that behaviour.

14. She has very little information available because most of it was destroyed, including departmental files.

15. The file that would have recorded the setting up of the inquiry and the nature of the inquiry is missing.

16. The state archivist was lent upon and basically was told to destroy the documents.

17. The archivist did not want to destroy the documents. A lot of pressure was applied to her.

18. At first she thought it was the naivety and the panic-stricken behaviour of a new government.

19. It is now clear "that there had been such significant criminal activity taking place and such serious public service misbehaviour that people had acted quite ruthlessly to protect the adults in the situation".

20. It was really a face-saving and concealment type exercise.

21. The whole thing was to avoid having a court case.

22. Fourteen or fifteen people subsequently died.

The Queensland defence has always been that there was no plausible reason for the destruction of Heiner's records by the Goss Government other than altruism. This argument collapses if a plausible alternative hypothesis can be sustained (not necessarily proved). Over the years, I have advanced at least one alternative hypothesis : viz. that the Government was participating in a continuing conspiracy of silence involving past and future governments and powerful forces within government, bureaucracy, and the unions which combined to keep systemic abuse as well specific instances covered up. The fact and extent of the abuse was established by the subsequent Forde Inquiry. That the Goss Government was complicit in a decision to go on covering up this abuse in the pre-Forde era and that the Heiner shredding was motivated by that conspiracy is a view sustained (though not conclusively established) by the Nelson evidence. I don't have to rely on these claims being established, it is enough that they create a plausible alternative hypothesis to the explanation advanced by Premier Beattie and his predecessors as the only "possible" explanation.

Whether her conclusions are correct is another matter. Nelson claims that she and her departmental head (Pettigrew) were amongst the good guys trying to clean things up while the incoming Goss Government joined the bad guys to keep a lid on it. The threat to Beattie is that he had Goss ministers involved in the shredding recommissioned into his Government and he personally has perpetually defended the Goss Government's actions.

Meanwhile, you should notice that the Archivist (Lee McGregor) is brought back to centre stage by this testimony. If she disagreed with the shredding and fought against it, as Nelson claims, she must have known what was in it or why it shouldn't be destroyed. If so, by resisting and acting under compulsion she was a hero. If she knew and acquiesced anyway, she acted badly. If she didn't realise what the issues were, and there was no collectively agreed bench-mark of professional behaviour to guide her, then we are all to blame.

All the best

Chris Hurley