8 April 2019

Integrity Commission veto sets back Canberra Liberals' cause

| Ian Bushnell
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Alister Coe

Alistair Coe will have to wear the decision to veto the nomination of Terence Higgins as the ACT’s first Integrity Commissioner. File photo.

The Canberra Liberals’ took a big backward step last week, resurrecting perceptions that the party is an outlier in ACT politics, rather than a party of alternative government.

Their decision to veto the appointment of former ACT Supreme Court Chief Justice Terence Higgins as the Territory’s first Integrity Commissioner, essentially because he was once a prominent member of the Labor Party, is not only petty politics (Chief Minister Andrew Barr called it nasty) but ignores the very legislation it helped pass in the Assembly to set up an ACT anti-corruption body.

The legislation clearly states that no one who has been a member of a political party in the past five years is eligible to head the new Integrity Commission. Mr Higgins left the Labor Party to go to the ACT Supreme Court in 1990, nearly 30 years ago.

There is no question Mr Higgins has had an esteemed career as a jurist, handling some of the ACT’s most challenging cases, and seemed a fine fit for this new role according to the selection criteria and the panel which recommended him.

But Opposition Leader Alistair Coe now says 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.”

This is not only a slur on Mr Higgin’s commitment to the rule of law and its institutions but ignores the reality that lawyers, for better or worse, are prominent players in the nation’s politics and that many on both sides have gone on to esteemed careers as judges.

It suggests that somehow Mr Higgins would be incapable of holding a Labor Government to account, but in fact the most effective opponent of the Barr Government appears to be former Labor Chief Minister Jon Stanhope, who has had no qualms about critiquing development and planning policies in particular.

Are we to believe that if the nominee was a former member of the Liberal Party, Mr Coe would be so concerned? Well now he has to be, and the decision could even set off a series of tit-for-tat exchanges that demeans our public life.

The end result of such behaviour can be seen in the US where such extreme partisanship has lawyers and judges labelled according to their perceived political affiliations, and appointments are no longer merit based. It is a culture that is poisoning its judiciary and causing many to lose faith in the rule of law.

One even has to ask whether the veto is also payback for a more recent decision involving Mr Higgins when 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.

Mr Coe has not raised any other objection apart from Mr Higgins’ history as a Labor Party official many decades ago, such as his age or that he may be too familiar with the ACT. Some have argued the Commissioner should come from outside the Territory.

One wonders now where another nomination will come from and when.

The Integrity Commission was due to start work in the second half of the year but that will now be delayed at considerable expense. The blame will be laid firmly at the feet of Mr Coe.

By focusing on bread-and-butter issues such as education standards, violence in schools, health and the administration of hospitals, planning and rates, and the blight that is bikie crime, the Canberra Liberals were at least making a go of it in what is fast becoming a one-party town.

By reverting to ideological hard ball, they risk being seen again as a bunch of hard-right un-electables who are unrepresentative of ACT society, and that is a bad thing for ACT democracy.

We need a viable Opposition that can be worthy of people’s votes and of forming Government. Sadly, Mr Coe’s decision will make it even harder for the Liberals at the 2020 election, and for him to survive as Opposition Leader, let alone be Chief Minister.

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The cat did it8:35 am 12 Apr 19

Given his concerns regarding the appointment of people with potentially partisan links to official positions, it would be interesting to know Mr Coe’s views on the the recent rash of administrative appointments by the Morrison Government.

HiddenDragon6:59 pm 09 Apr 19

It’s interesting to note that Mr Higgins was appointed to the ACT Supreme Court by the Government of then Liberal Chief Minister Trevor Kaine.

Having said that, a Commission with more than one Commissioner – perhaps three part-timers – might provide more scope for compromise between the Government and the Opposition, and also, importantly, allow for the appointment of at least one Commissioner from outside the ACT (to provide different perspectives, without necessarily knowing where the “bodies are buried”, so to speak, in this little part of the world).

A three member Commission has, of course, been the subject of criticism and contention in NSW, but might nonetheless be a useful model for the particular circumstances of the ACT.

Capital Retro12:33 pm 09 Apr 19

“Maybe someone should ask the Porritt or Howarth families what they think of the appointment.”

I am not aware of these cases but I do remember Phil Moore, a real estate agent now deceased who was ordered by an ACT lower court about 20 years ago to pay a large fine to the ATO after being convicted over tax offences. Phil appealed to a higher court to have the fine set aside as there were misgivings that he was harshly treated by the lower court.

Phil was a supporter of the Canberra Liberals and it was his bad luck I guess that Justice Higgins heard the case and sent Phil to goal for a long time for challenging his earlier sentence.

Zed with any luck might be looking for a new job in a couple of weeks, give him a run.

Mike of Canberra4:51 pm 08 Apr 19

Ian, your article is a series of dubious assertions, a number of which seek to brush over Higgins’ past official Labor affiliations while drawing meaningless parallels between him and the prominent activism of former Labor Chief Minister Stanhope. Higgins may well have no formal affiliations with the ALP but you have failed to come up with a record of judicial decision making in potentially politically sensitive environments that demonstrate his impartiality. Rather, you quote a PNG decision that tends to paint him as an unreconstructed leftie and opponent of the current Federal Government. Surely there are other judges or legal practitioners available for this role who have no history of political affiliations and can demonstrate impartiality in decision making. But no, Barr and company just had to go down the old partisan route. That’s where the fault lies – it’s fraudulent to put the blame on Coe for their failings.

Ian Bushnell, you ask the rhetorical question of Coe about whether he would be concerned about the nominee being a former Liberal. Why didn’t you ask him if he thinks Gary Humphries or Bill Stefaniak would be suitable? Gary has been out of the Liberals for almost 5 years in a judicial like role as deputy president of the AAT and Bill has been out of the Liberals even longer, sitting on ACAT.

You do raise a good point about other potential issues with Higgins. One of my first thoughts was that if he reached the mandatory retirement age for ACT judges 6 years ago, why shouldn’t he be excluded on age? The other one about being too familiar with the ACT is also good. As a former president of the Labor Party here, he could be too familiar with some of the Labor politicians who could potentially be investigated at some stage. The fact Coe didn’t think of these, or failed to articulate them if he did, doesn’t cast him or his staff in the best light.

C’mon, it was clearly an unsuitable nomination regardless of what you think about his merit.

This is the first selection of the position, the nominee needs to be someone who has zero ties to either political party, particularly when part of the role would be building trust that there was no hint of anything untoward going on.

“but in fact the most effective opponent of the Barr Government appears to be former Labor Chief Minister Jon Stanhope, who has had no qualms about critiquing development and planning policies in particular.”

Being biased against something is just as bad as being biased towards it. Stanhope’s recent commentary often sounds like relevance deprivation syndrome, particularly when he was responsible for a number of issues that he now rails against.

This highlights the issue we have in ACT politics.

We have a party whose selection of best available integrity commissioner was a former senior party member and a hopeless opposition who oppose the selection on dubious grounds.

Us Canberrans deserve a better quality of political representation that puts the community outcomes and quality evidence based analysis before ideology.

How about ditching the position, the taxpayer funded car, phone, inflated wage and the QANTAS lounge. Do we really need another fat cat bureaucrat devoid of personality

Capital Retro3:15 pm 08 Apr 19

“fast becoming a one-party town.”

It has been a one party town for nearly 20 years and there is no chance of the Liberals changing that while they have the “leadership” they currently have.

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