When proof goes missing

When proof goes missing

By Mark Chillingworth

Whistle-blowers need proof to right the perceived wrongs, but what happens when that proof is destroyed? Mark Chillingworth meets a former Queensland union official who has led a 13-year campaign to improve the status of records management at the State and Federal levels.

Whistle-blowers need proof to right the perceived wrongs, but what happens when that proof is destroyed? Mark Chillingworth meets a former Queensland union official who has led a 13-year campaign to improve the status of records management at the State and Federal levels.

Queensland's Capalaba is the iconic picture of Australian suburban life. Peach coloured brick homes with red and green roofs nestle amongst manicured lawns and topiary bushes. Yet this peaceful Brisbane suburb is home to a war against Queensland's State Government and its record keeping practices.

Meeting Kevin Lindeberg is like a scene from Patrick McGoohan's allegorical TV show The Prisoner from the 1960s, which took ideas from George Orwell's 1984 and mixed them with the vision of perfect suburban life. An average looking man lives in a perfect suburban setting. His street is peaceful; the only noise the gentle call of local bird life, little stirs. Like Patrick McGoohan's character, Lindeberg is conducting a quest to make the authorities justify their actions whilst normal suburban life carries on about him.

In 1960s cult TV show The Prisoner, the authorities acted, so they said, on the behalf of their citizens, but if you questioned their actions, the authorities treated you with cruelty. Lindeberg shares the traits of McGoohan's character; he is a normal citizen, but beneath the exterior of normality is a passionate man determined to ensure that public records are protected by Australian governments.

Lindeberg started his campaign in 1990 after becoming involved in an enquiry into a State-run juvenile protection facility. Known as the "Heiner Affair", after the magistrate who presided over the enquiry into the John Oxley Youth Detention Centre, Lindeberg has pursued his cause for 13 years. His latest missive is a detailed submission to the Federal Government's Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs. The 55-page document: Inquiry into crime in the community: Victims, Offenders, Fear of Crime, also focuses on the Heiner Affair.

It appears that Lindeberg's suspicions about the matter were well-founded: a decade after the enquiry into the John Oxley centre wound up, he has learnt that missing documents contain records about the alleged rape of a 14 year-old Aboriginal girl in the care of that facility.

Fighting the good fight

Lindeberg has become a champion to records managers not just in Queensland, but across Australia and the world. Yet he is not a records manager, or an archivist, but an ex-union official.

Kevin Lindeberg was with the Queensland Professional Officers' Association (QPOA), a union for public servants in the State. In September 1989 the Queensland Government began investigating complaints against the John Oxley Youth Detention Centre. The government's Department of Family Services appointed retired Stipendiary Magistrate Noel Heiner to investigate these complaints via hearings and produce a report for the department.

Lindeberg was assigned by his union to represent union member Peter Coyne, the then acting manager of the facility. As the union representative, Lindeberg sought access to crucial documents to brief himself on the matter. However, these documents which described procedures and staff records at the centre were no longer available. Lindeberg believes they were shredded.

Coyne was subsequently moved to a new position and dropped the case, however, the QPOA sacked Lindeberg in May 1990 due to a complaint from the Department of Family Services, which alleged that his behavior when seeking lawful access to the documents was inappropriate: "The particular charge used to dismiss me was that the union had a complaint from the Crown that I allegedly threatened the career of a public servant," Lindeberg says. "I learnt something I shouldn't have known and so they wanted me out off the case."

Separately, the Queensland Criminal Justice Committee said that it would not investigate Lindeberg's dismissal as it was outside of its jurisdiction; it appeared that Lindeberg was left stranded by the system.

However, he has stuck to the Heiner Affair because he had used the same legal rights in his union role. "I knew what the law said in relation to this. We requested access to these documents to pursue a particular regulation because we used that particular law in terms of industrial relations, we knew when we made that application we were on solid ground," he says.

It was only a decade later that he discovered the missing documents contained records about an alleged rape of the minor in the care of the government facility.

The fight

Kevin Lindeberg is not involved directly in the battle to clear up child abuse allegations, he is involved in the fight to protect government records from being abused by the government in power on the day. In 2003 it turns out that Lindeberg's campaign is directly related to the campaigns of others to have child abuse properly investigated and if there are guilty parties, to have justice served. But as he points out, justice cannot be served if the government records of complaints and investigations are no longer available to the accused, the victims and to the authorities.

Lindeberg says he is fighting for the role of documents and archives. "The whole business of when you can destroy documents is very important, but the Criminal Justice Committee (CJC) has argued that it is none of the archivist's business. They never told the archivists that the documents were wanted in court." He believes that the role of archivists and archiving has been demoted to being simply to decide whether a document has historical, not legal, value.

So why the fight?

"I believe the issues in Heiner in relation to the protection of public records and the protection of evidence is fundamental within the bones of any decent person who believes in the rule of law."

The entire affair has ramifications for the fabric of Australian society as it touches the pillars of our society, the government, the judiciary and the union movement - all central to the Australian way of life: "Who would want to be a union employee if every time you upset an employer you got sacked?"

Whilst other members of this community have stepped out of the limelight, Lindeberg took on the challenge to ensure that the missing document's in the Heiner Affair do not disfigure the face of Australian politics again. Now, with the handling of child abuse allegations a national issue in the wake of the [former] Governor General crisis, Lindeberg's fight could be about to be resolved.

It appears Lindeberg learnt something the state government would rather he didn't know. By pressuring his union employers to sack him, the government hoped it had removed the Lindeberg thorn from its side, but the trained opera singer with a strong interest in politics has become a recurring problem for them. Lindeberg has combined his interest in politics with his artistic flair and become a political cartoonist to subsidise his 13-year campaign.

It would be easy to assume that Lindeberg is only making life hard for the Queensland government because he was sacked from his job and he is bitter, but he denies this. "I don't hate; hate doesn't come into it. It is just a burning determination to see justice," says Lindeberg.

Lindeberg says the campaign has been incredibly hard on he and his family and indicates the strains that whistle blowers go through when they seek justice. "There has been an impact on my family; I am an outsider to the union movement and it has changed my life. As a whistleblower you are at war with your society, which is at peace. In financial terms it has taken about a million dollars in terms of salary and superannuation."

Other than cartoons, Lindeberg has not worked for the past 13 years, placing the pressure of being the family breadwinner on his wife's shoulders. Despite the pressures on his family, he says they are fully behind him and support his campaign because it is, he believes, for the right thing. "Heiner is about all the issues which go to making up a civilised society: "I have young children and I feel very deeply about ensuring that Heiner is properly resolved because I don't want my kids to be cynical and believe that government can get away with anything. I believe that government must be held accountable.

"The question is, how fair-dinkum are our law makers about getting to the truth of the crime when it happens in their own ranks?"

His campaign to get the Heiner Affair, or "Shreddergate" as some call it addressed has not been enjoyable: "I don't particularly want to be here, but once you get involved in an issue like this, you have to got to see it through.

"This has been an incredible journey, it has been unbelievable. For me it has been a growing thing in terms of the extent of my understanding."

Net support

The Heiner Affair story has travelled worldwide and even has its own chapter in a US book on political scandals concerning records management. During his campaign to have this issue resolved Lindeberg has become well known to the records management and archiving community, despite not being a member. Later this year, an article written by Lindeberg with the help of Canadian archivist Dr. Terry Cook will be published in the Society of Australian Archivists journal Archives and Manuscripts: "I have had wonderful support from people. Heiner is a scandal of international interest, primarily through the Internet, and I have made contact with people throughout the world who have been seeking information," he says.

As a result of Lindeberg's campaign, the Heiner Affair has become part of records management lectures in the US, Canada and South Africa: "The lessons of Heiner has importance to other civilised societies where they believe that record keeping is important." Stalwarts of records management such as Dr. Cook at the University of Manitoba and Chris Hurley, as well as campaigning journalists such as Queensland's Bruce Grundy, have become his associates.

Lindeberg believes people are attracted to the Heiner Affair because it is the state engaging in conduct for which it prosecutes other people.

Federal issue

His latest salvo in the Heiner Affair is a submission to the Federal Government. The document uses the affair as its vehicle to discuss crime inquiries. In it he covers the issues of protecting public records, legislation to protect whistleblowers, the Queensland criminal code, what the Queensland Cabinet knew in the Heiner Affair and so on. Discussing the submission, Lindeberg says, "I try to write carefully and factually and with no emotion. I need to do that so that I don't lose my objectivity; because it is so easy for people to brand whistle-blowers: "It is a question of whether the House of Representatives has got the courage to face this honestly and fairly."

As Lindeberg has waded through the Heiner Affair to protect record keeping, he has discovered the child abuse scandal at the centre of the issue. As Dr. Peter Hollingworth has had to step aside, we are caught up in a national debate about the handling of child abuse scandals. It could be that the Heiner Affair and the Governor General issue converge: "Heiner should be viewed in the context of what has gone on inside the churches. They [churches] have known about criminal paedophilia inside their ranks and instead of looking after the kids, they have been more concerned about their own reputation and have been looking after the perpetrators," Lindeberg said of the similarities of the [former] Governor General issue.

But Heiner is primarily about record keeping. If he sees his campaign vindicated, Lindeberg could provide records management with a strong platform for the future. "I think record keeping is a greatly misunderstood and under valued profession, but the profession itself and Queensland government has allowed the role to be misrepresented."

As well as championing the record keeper, Lindeberg's campaign, and especially his submission to Canberra hopes to champion the whistleblower. As a whistleblower he says he understands the pressures it places on the individual and their family and all too often, despite doing the right thing, the whistle-blower is left stranded and destitute. "If people saw what has happened to me as a whistle-blower they would never do it. People risk basically everything and have effectively blown their employment, should a person who risks everything then be destitute?"

"People doing this are fundamentally important to the well-being of democratic society," he says. In his submission Lindeberg wants to see records keepers given enshrined independence: "We must ensure the independence of archivists, so they can stand up against the might of government." He suggests that a Records Manager should be on the same level as a Clerk of Parliament, Ombudsmen or the Auditors-General. "They are the keepers of the public records and they must be able to do it honestly. Public records are in the ownership of the people, not the government of the day."

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