The establishment of the ACT’s anti-corruption body has been set back by the Canberra Liberals’ scuttling, for apparently political reasons, of the nomination of former ACT Chief Justice Terence Higgins as the Territory’s first Integrity Commissioner.
Chief Minister Andrew Barr, who supported Mr Higgins’ nomination, said the Canberra Liberals’ decision looked ‘nasty and very personal’.
“This will set back the process of appointment. It really is a question for the Opposition why they have disregarded the legislation and the process and made the decision they have,” he said.
“They will have to go back and do a process again. It will cost taxpayers a lot of money and it will cost more presumably to satisfy the political lust of the Opposition.”
The ACT Integrity Commission had been expected to start work from 1 July 2019 but Mr Barr said the Liberals’ decision would now mean an expensive delay.
A panel of three judges had nominated Mr Higgins, who was a member of the Labor Party, branch president and served on its National Executive between 1986 and 1987. He resigned from the party in 1990 when he became a judge of the ACT Supreme Court.
The nomination needs to be supported by two-thirds of the Legislative Assembly.
The legislation says that the Commissioner must be a judge or a lawyer for 10 years but cannot have been a member of a political party in the previous five years.
But Opposition Leader Alistair Coe appears to have redefined the selection criteria for the position, now saying that past presidents of any political party are not appropriate to be the Commissioner overseeing politicians and public servants.
“The inaugural Integrity Commission needs to be beyond reproach,” Mr Coe said.
“We must seek to avoid actual, potential or perceived conflicts of interest – I don’t think that this is too much to ask.”
Mr Higgins retired from the ACT bench in 2013 at the age of 70, but in 2015 was appointed a judge of the National and Supreme Courts of Papua New Guinea.
He was among the five Justices of the Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea who unanimously ruled that the Manus Regional Processing Centre breached the PNG constitution’s right to personal liberty, and was thus illegal.
ACT Greens leader Shane Rattenbury said he was dismayed that the Canberra Liberals would take such a hyper-political stance on this appointment.
“Former Chief Justice Higgins clearly meets the criteria set out in legislation. That includes that an appointee cannot have been a member of a political party in the past five years. As far as I can recall, no one proposed an amendment that would prevent the Commissioner from ever having been a member of a political party,” Mr Rattenbury said.
“The appointment was recommended by an independent panel led by Ken Crispin, who is the independent Standards Commissioner for the Legislative Assembly.
“As the Greens, we are aware of Mr Higgins membership of the Labor Party nearly 30 years ago, but we considered his extensive judicial experience, including more than a decade as Chief Justice of the ACT, to be more relevant.
“If the Liberals are prepared to be this vindictive on appointments, it makes you wonder what would happen if they ever became the government.”
A spokesperson for the Speaker, Joy Burch, said the selection process was ongoing and the appointment to the position of Commissioner could only be made through a successful passing of a motion in the Assembly.
The Speaker had determined that this motion would only be brought forward once two-thirds of the Assembly had provided their support for any proposed candidate.