Coyne breaks silence

by Chris Griffith
Published 4 September 1994 in The Sunday Mail


my face


Peter Coyne, the man on the receiving end of the Queensland Cabinet's controversial decision in 1990 to destroy documents sought for his private legal action, yesterday broke a four-year silence to speak exclusively with The Sunday Mail.

Four years on, the shredding event is suddenly a high-profile legal nightmare for the Goss Government , and a political "whodunnit" for the Queensland public. To date it is unresolved.

For the question remains - was the State Archivist, the Crown Solicitor, the Cabinet secretary, even the Goss Cabinet aware that on the 8th and 15th February 1990, Coyne's solicitors had notified the Family Services Department of his impending legal case, two weeks before Cabinet ordered the documents' destruction?

Or was the Government's legal advice that the documents could be destroyed compiled without any knowledge of his intentions?

It is now clear that Cabinet Secretary Stuart Tait made no reference to Coyne's impending legal action when on February 23, 1990, he wrote to archivist Lee McGregor seeking her advice on whether the documents could be destroyed and even encouraging their destruction.

"The Government is of the view the material which I understand includes tape recordings, computer disks, and hardware notes is no longer required or pertinent to the public record," Mr Tait said.

Last week Queensland Senators Warwick Parer and Cheryl Kernot told the Senate that any withholding of information and the resulting shredding could amount to "prima facie official misconduct", even a criminal offence, a prospect that on Friday led Mr Goss to dismiss Senator Parer as "that decaying septagenarian, Liberal Senator, Mr Parer". (He's 58).

Interwoven is Premier Goss's curt rejection on Wednesday of an all-party recommendation by the Senate Select Committee on Whistleblowing that his government "establish an independent investigation" into unresolved whistleblower cases - which includes the Coyne case.

"For me, the issue is in the past - it's dead," Coyne said yesterday. "I'm getting on with a new life and future, however this event has serious implications for the people of Queensland," he said.

Highly significant, Coyne says, is the secrecy agreement the Family Services made a condition of him receiving a "redundancy payment" in October 1992 of $27,190.

The bare facts of the Coyne case are now receiving wide media publicity. In 1989 the former National Party Government instituted an inquiry into the John Oxley Youth Centre, which Coyne managed.

Upon the Goss Government's election, new Family Services Minister Anne Warner prematurely ended the inquiry because it provided no legal immunity for its witnesses. Despite the inquiry's demise, the Family Services Department moved Coyne from the centre to "special duties" at Head Office, from where he said he was eventually declared involuntarily redundant.

In February 1990 Coyne, with the aid of his solicitor and Queensland Professional Officers' Association industrial officer Kevin Lindeberg, sought the Heiner Inquiry documents to seek damages from the Government, claiming the inquiry, while aborted, had led to Coyne's demise - a claim denied persistently by Ms Warner.

However Coyne was not only denied the documents. A year later, when he was made redundant, he was forced to sign a secrecy agreement which prevents him from discussing the shredding affair - even in an autobiography.

The document , obtained independently of Coyne, said: "The claimant will not canvass the issues surrounding his location from John Oxley youth centre, Wacol to Brisbane or the events leading up to or surrounding his relocation with any officer of the Department of Family services and Islander Affairs or in the press or otherwise in public."

Nor could he "permit or allow the events leading up to and surrounding his relocation to Brisbane to be the subject of any autobiography, biography or any published article," it said.

"The thing that struck me about it was there wasn't supposed to be any agreement - I was especially stunned these conditions were imposed," Coyne said yesterday.

"These secrecy agreements can be used as a means to prevent proper and legitimate discussion about issues of public concern - I think it would be proper under the circumstances for me to be allowed to speak free - but I cannot".

Coyne's $27,190 payout too did not pass without question. Last year Auditor- General Barry Rollason described its issuing as a "technical breach" because it was made without the Governor-In-Council's approval , a requirement the State Government has since dropped.

It consisted of $14,110 compensation for unpaid overtime, $34 for the cost of changing his phone number, $530 for additional train travel, $862 for work performed during leave in 1989, $10,000 for extra travelling time, $884 for loss of on-call allowance, $596 for loss of an extra week's leave, and $174 for the loss of telephone rental reimbursement.

Because of the agreement, Coyne has left the public running to Lindeberg, himself a victim of the affair having been sacked on the basis of, among other things, a complaint by Ms Warner which described his representation of Coyne as "inappropriate and over-confrontationalist".

"My biggest diappointment is the treatment of Kevin Lindeberg who's been left without a job for four years because of his own union's callous treatment," Coyne said.

" After his departure, no other union official was prepared to represent me adequately. There were occasions they wouldn't take phone calls from me, and they had meetings on my situation that they wouldn't allow me to attend.

"The union must look at some financial compensation for the hardship caused by his sacking. "

Life for Coyne, however, has been relatively positive. In January 1991 he operated a delicatessen business which, he said, was highly profitable. After selling it, he rejoined the public sector in another department as a social worker.

"It's now five years to the month from the first rumblings of the Heiner Inquiry to the present situation. The events of the last five years have sometimes been traumatic, especially as I have a wife, two children, and a mortage," he said.

"We certainly had a feeling of devastion back then, especially that empty feeling when you realise you've lost your career after working so very hard ."

On the other hand Coyne is bitter about the performance of the Criminal Justice Commission, which despite its pronouncements has allowed "the matter to drag on for five years without an effective resolution."

"The other thing I must mention is whistleblowing. I would be very reluctant to encourage people to blow the whistle," he said.

"Anybody who wants to blow the whistle must think long and hard about it, and must have strong support mechanisms as whistleblowing puts great stress on individuals, families, marriages, and your capacity to earn a living."

As for the political "whodunnit" - the issue of who in the echelons of power informed or failed to inform whom about his litigation - Coyne is reluctant to make any comment for fear of breaching his agreement.

Coyne's supporters say the Government should have let the courts decide the documents' fate, rather than relying on its legal advice.

Queensland Council for Civil Liberties president Ian Deardon yesterday said it was extraordinary that any government would dispose of documents which they knew could be directly relevant to proposed court proceedings "involving the government or any other party."

"In particular, the Government must table all outstanding documents including the Crown Law Advice on this issue, a practice it does do from time to time," Mr Deardon said."

by Chris Griffith