CPDS Home Contact Professionalism: Chronological Summary

3 March 1999

To Members of the Legislative Assembly

The Heiner Documents: Why did the Public Service Also turn a Blind Eye?

In previous letters (eg 28/9/98 and 11/12/98), I argued the need for competence (rather than political opportunism) in the senior Public Service - to protect the Service's skill-base.

I should now like to point out that politically driven 'reform' of the Public Service can also weaken its concern for what is really in the public's interest which, at times, differs from political interests. This can be illustrated by the handling of the Heiner documents.

The Public Service 'Shuffled Papers' but Ignored What those Papers Actually Said

It has recently been alleged (Channel 9's Sunday program, 21/2/99) that:

  1. the Heiner documents contained serious allegations of child abuse;
  2. their destruction in 1990 under the Goss Government suppressed those allegations; and
  3. this matter indicates a serious systemic weakness in Queensland's public administration.

The documents had been assembled by a retired magistrate, Mr Noel Heiner, in investigations at the John Oxley Youth Detention Centre.

An inquiry into the handling of the Heiner documents was conducted for the CJC by Mr Anthony Morris, QC and Mr Edward Howard. Their Inquiry into Allegations by Mr Kevin Lindeberg and Allegations by Mr Gordon Harris and Mr John Reynolds (Parliamentary Paper, 1997) described a very complex process whereby the Public Service dealt with the Heiner documents based on considerations of administrative procedures and legislation. The inquiry found that it was 'open to conclude' that destruction of the documents had been unlawful.

However, more significantly, Public Service dealings with those documents were presented as only a process of 'paper shuffling' with no concern for the content of the documents or what this might mean for the interests of the public. Though some of this content now appears to have been worrying, the mostly innocent Departments with access to the documents also lacked the 'guts' to take up the question of whether those allegations had foundation. However it may be that 'turning a blind eye' gave comfort to criminal behaviour.

Why the Public Service might not Consider the Public Interest

Towards Good Government in Queensland, (copy with my letter of 25/8/98) pointed out (in Section 5) that post-1989 Public Service 'reforms' under the Goss government had favoured staff who were content with compliant 'paper shuffling', and often displaced those concerned with the real effectiveness of government (ie with whether it served the public interest).

This bias towards politically compliant 'paper shuffling' arose because:

  1. there had previously been a tendency in the Public Service towards unthinking compliance, presumably because the State was primarily a follower in its economic strategy (compliance with investors' needs) and in much public policy (where capabilities were weak). Even in the 1980s only a struggling minority had held the view that the Public Service had a duty to be concerned about whether the public interest was really being advanced by government policy and actions;
  2. post-1989 'reforms' foolishly targeted the Public Service as the problem, rather than asking it to achieve real goals. This reinforced the position of those who were happy to be 'busy' without concern for whether government really achieved anything, and made it difficult to know what capabilities were really needed. And political understanding of policy implementation dominated staff selection - though the knowledge and skills required for public service are broader and deeper than those required for political debate. Thus the practical effect of 'reform' was often to displace those with real capabilities and concern for the public interest, while the 'paper shufflers' flourished.

Dealings with the Heiner documents in 1990 were not the first occasion that Queensland's Public Service had failed to take up serious allegations, however this weakness had been greatly reinforced, rather than reduced, by 'reform' (ie a reduced skill base; even less concern for the public interest (ie less 'guts'); and a fixation on process rather than substance).

Note: The disinclination of officials to point out defects in political decisions and outcomes has been said to make corruption more likely (Davis B. 'Public Service Culture may Foster Fraudsters', Australian, 24/7/95)

Consider a Parallel

In previous letters (eg 4 August 1998) I highlighted, as a private matter of natural justice, an unresolved dispute with the Premier's Department about its damaging refusal in the early 1990s to allow merit to be considered in a grievance about senior staff selection.

Like the ineffectual handling of the Heiner documents, my dispute is a reflection of the fixation of the Public Service on procedure and its inability / unwillingness to deal with matters of substance. In particular:

  1. after the person investigating the above grievance had stated that he lacked the ability to assess merit, the Premier's Department effectively only allowed matters of procedure to be considered, and excluded substantive matters of best professional practice;
  2. my recent request to the Director General of the Premier's Department to resolve this dispute (attached to my letter of 4 August 1998) resulted in that Department referring only to procedural issues (eg a Fair Treatment Appeal which had been held in 1992) with no mention of the substance of what my dispute was actually about.

An aside: The 1992 Fair Treatment Appeal referred to by the Premier's Department found (in effect) that there was nothing unfair about a dispute resolution process in which one party is also the 'legislator' and 'judge', and uses those powers to prevent damaging evidence (ie about what was required to successfully develop an economy) from even being considered. In reality, I submit, one has to look at the current trial of Malaysia's sacked Finance Minister, Anwar Ibrahim, to find a process whose 'fairness' seems comparable.

In the early 1990s the Premier's Department refused or was unable to take development of the economy seriously, and various Departments apparently refused or were unable to do more than 'turn a blind eye' to the reportedly serious allegations of child abuse in the Heiner documents. Such failures (presumably there are other examples) damaged individuals and the public interest. They reflect a post-1989 'reform' process which in many respects reduced the ability of the Public Service to competently support government - a problem which can not be corrected without a 'new deal' for the Public Service in Queensland.

[Signed John Craig]