COURIER-MAIL: A Political Kill [Indiscretion ends a political career]

Queensland's Children's Commissioner Norm Alford quit this week in the face of a Criminal Justice Commission investigation and revelations by The Courier-Mail. Michael Ware reports

IT ALL began with the ramblings of a "drug-addicted transsexual". A man whose motives some tried carefully to dress up, using the subtlest of insinuations, as the perverse retribution of an unrequited love.

But it ended with the political killing of a champion for children's rights.

The ordeal has put the Queensland political system and the public through the sausage-grinder after a Criminal Justice Commission report this week forced ousted Children's Commissioner Norm Alford to resign.

The Children's Commissioner's role was always going to be a tough one, with Alford making it clear his mission was to rid the state of paedophilia and protect the rights of children.

"In my early 20s, when I was at university, I became shocked and acutely aware of the billions of hungry mouths in the world," he said. "I took a decision then that I wouldn't marry and contribute to the numbers of hungry mouths but I would do what I could to help the children already on the Earth."

Within nine months, he was attacking the CJC and police for failing to aggressively combat paedophile networks -- immediately putting him at loggerheads over files alleging official misconduct in relation to paedophilia.

On such a daring path he was bound to make enemies -- and he did in abundance. Not from the scores he helped but from those within politics who appeared to resent his uncompromising agenda.

But Alford also had -- and has -- his backers who cling to the wispy vestiges of a conspiracy or, instead, struggle with their personal reconciliation of the enigma that is Norm Alford.

They are trying to fit the man they knew as a bold adversary for children's rights to the now-bloodied image of the flawed public official.

Alford, 65, is a gentle, affable man who came from a small country town called Traveston, near Gympie. A man who, it was reported, was the dux of his high school, and a prestigious Fulbright scholar who became a teacher and administrator.

His career in the public service took him through the ranks of the Education Department, rising to become deputy director-general before taking a voluntary redundancy in 1990 with the change of government, only to return in 1996 as a researcher for the National Party family services minister. From there, he became Children's Commissioner.

Even today, he maintains a strong interest in Traveston, where he owns five properties, as well as two houses in Brisbane's "old money" suburb of Graceville.

He was not viewed by many as the ideal man for the job of Children's Commissioner, and even he admitted that he was not prepared for the role, telling the public service's in-house magazine 18 months ago that he "wasn't ready for the experience".

As a servant of government, Alford achieved much. As Children's Commissioner, he did not resile from what he believed had to be done for the sake of what's right.

In the performance of his official functions -- the watchdog over the treatment of children by government and the community -- it's hard to find an occasion when he wavered.

This week, however, it all fell apart -- not so much because of his public role, but more because of the fact it had intersected with his private life.

Alford quit over an alleged drug and misconduct scandal which has enveloped his former office.

An interim CJC report claimed a member of his staff -- a 22-year-old man with whom Alford has admitted having a physical relationship -- had allegedly used Alford's government-supplied car to deal drugs and allegedly used government computers to download pornography.

The young man was Michael Birnie, whom Alford met when the youth was a 17-year-old attendant at the McDonald's fast-food restaurant in Toowong Village. Alford, then working at various universities, helped Birnie with his tertiary applications.

But it was later, as Children's Commissioner, that he employed or, at the very least, allowed to be employed on his staff that same young man.

He then compounded his mismanagement by actions that suggest he protected and sponsored Birnie once he was given a junior administrative officer's job: twice reacting oddly to complaints of the young man's alleged wrongdoing.

From the first day of his appointment as Children's Commissioner, there had been a smear campaign against Alford, for his role was an unpopular one, with faceless political advisers whispering mean-spirited nothings to journalists in the parliamentary gallery at the time of his 1997 paedophilia report.

The attacks quickly became public, though, when he stoutly challenged the CJC and successive governments' histories of combating child sex issues. War erupted between his office and the anti-corruption body, with the Labor Party's forces on the flanks.

And when allegations against him were made to his office and the police by a transsexual man who had befriended Birnie at a popular gay hotel, Alford claimed it was yet another smear campaign.

But after a 16-week investigation, the "smear" has produced a case the CJC says Alford must answer. Meanwhile, police continue criminal investigations into unresolved allegations about Birnie's "unlawful drug-related activity" and pornography.

The scandal started brewing last August, when the transsexual called the Children's Commission and made allegations about Birnie, drugs, the Commissioner's car and the Commissioner.

As the CJC puts it, "rather than immediately refer the matter to the CJC, (Alford) directed that an internal investigation be conducted" into the young man with whom he had a physical relationship.

The transsexual also went to the police, who launched a secret investigation. Alford gave the names of purported drug dealers, which the transsexual had provided, to a police assistant commissioner, unaware he himself was under investigation.

About two weeks later, with the matter coming increasingly to a head within his own office, Alford bundled up his "investigation", including exculpatory statements for himself and Birnie, and sent it to then CJC chairman Frank Clair.

Alford's lawyer claims that in the three months after he gave his file to the CJC, the Children's Commissioner "had not received a reply from the CJC" and at no time "did the CJC in any way criticise any action" he took.

But on November 4, while he was being interviewed by The Courier-Mail, Alford rang Clair and spoke directly to him about the status of his information. It now appears Clair was necessarily circumspect.

Later that month, Premier Peter Beattie learnt of the matter and empowered the CJC to take over the investigation, which tried, unsuccessfully, throughout December and January to interview Alford and an "uncooperative" Birnie.

The CJC's governing body authorised use of the draconian "star chamber" on January 29 after Alford's lawyers notified investigators he would not speak to them of his own accord. During the star chamber's hearings between February 8 and 12, Alford admitted having a physical relationship with Birnie.

That proved a mortal blow.

IT'S an unexpected end for a Children's Commissioner who, before the furore, expressed a determination to "get on with his job", despite smear campaigns.

But as a long-surviving bureaucrat, schooled in the hard politics of the Bjelke-Petersen era, he well knew what was at stake, the level of scrutiny he would be under and the real meaning of accountability of government.

Wise in the ways of departmental politics, he spoke of personal victories over individual ministers in Bjelke-Petersen's former cabinets.

He was no innocent abroad.

In 1997, at the height of a tug-of-war over files about alleged official misconduct, he placed guards in his office to forestall any CJC raid. It was also he who repeatedly out-manoeuvred his own minister on a number of key issues while Children's Commissioner.

But as he stepped down this week, he said that he felt privileged to have assisted victims of child abuse through his office, saying: "I trust they will accept me into their ranks as a co-victim of systemic abuse."

While he made his enemies, though, Alford also made his friends and does not stand alone at this time.

Some of those he once helped, particularly from former children's homes such as Neerkol, have rallied behind him, calling themselves Alford's Army and have launched a legally dangerous attack on those they believe are behind his downfall.

The media also has come under attack. Critics have rejected the need for aggressive vigilance to ensure transparency in government and law enforcement. But when the Premier's advisers quip they do not advertise everything government does, when asked about a crucial review of crime-fighting agencies, many believe the need is clear, even when it comes to the Children's Commission.

The question now is who will take on the vital role of Children's Commissioner.

December 1996: Norm Alford, former schoolteacher and research officer with the department of Families, Youth and Community Care, is appointed by the Borbidge Coalition government as Queensland's Commissioner for Children -- the first such appointment in Australia. Alford's suitability for the position is questioned because he is a childless bachelor. He says this is the result of a decision he made as a young man.

June 1997: Alford refers two cases of alleged official misconduct by officers of the Families, Youth and Community Care Department to the Criminal Justice Commission. He attacks secrecy provisions contained in the Children's Services Act, saying they provide a shield for "unethical behaviour" by bureaucrats.

August 1997: Alford's report on paedophilia in Queensland is tabled in State Parliament and accuses the Criminal Justice Commission of failing to aggressively combat paedophile networks, and criticises the police Juvenile Aid Bureau and the Child Exploitation Unit for failing to give paedophilia a high priority. Alford says there is evidence that an interstate network of paedophiles, which included some high-profile Queensland figures, had been protected. A tug-of-war then develops between the Children's Commission and the CJC over files alleging official misconduct in relation to paedophilia.

September 1997: Alford upsets the people of Logan by calling the satellite city south of Brisbane "an unplanned social experiment" in a newspaper article. He also suggests, later in the month, that the State Government should consider castrating convicted paedophiles.

March 1998: Alford attacks the Families, Youth and Community Care Department for contravening the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, and says his office is receiving about 10 complaints a day about the department.

April 1998: Alford calls for adoption reform and suggests the Government consider laws which would terminate the rights of natural parents who had chronically abused or neglected their children.

August 1998: Alford's report on allegations of abuse at the Neerkol orphanage is tabled in Parliament. It claims the Families, Youth and Community Care Department hindered the investigation.

November 1998: The Courier-Mail reports that Alford is at the centre of a police, CJC and Crime Commission investigation into the activities of a junior administrative officer on his staff who is a close personal friend. The allegations relate to how Michael Birnie, 22, was appointed to the commission, and use of Alford's government-supplied car to allegedly deal drugs. Alford himself says that he is being targeted in a smear campaign by a "drug addicted transsexual". Alford says there has been no physical or improper relationship between himself and Birnie, and denies wrongdoing over Birnie's appointment. Alford agrees to stand aside and Birnie is suspended on full pay during the investigation.

December 1998: Investigations are intensified following the discovery of alleged child pornography on a Children's Commission computer. Photographs taken at Alford's home which suggest a "level of openness" between himself and Birnie are also said to exist.

February 1999: Alford is summonsed to appear before a CJC investigative hearing to answer allegations of misconduct.

March 1999: Birnie resigns from the public service. The Courier-Mail reports that Alford told CJC investigators under cross-examination during an investigative hearing that there was a physical element to his relationship with Birnie. Alford resigns on March 17 as Children's Commissioner, claiming he has been a victim of "systematic abuse" and has lost confidence in the CJC. "While maintaining absolute innocence of any wrongdoing, legal costs to date have been considerable and I simply cannot afford the further costs of pursuing justice through the legal system," Alford says in a statement.