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Law disorder in Campbell Newman's Queensland

  • 18 June 2014

All is not well in the Sunshine State. Campbell Newman's government is running a strong 'law and order' line, and there's nothing new in that. Governments often find political advantage in being tough on crime.

In the process, they sometimes think something is to be gained by having a go at the judges for being out of touch and for being soft on crime, and by taking practical steps to toughen them up. Judges are well used to this sort of commentary and political bravado, getting on with their job of sentencing offenders, ensuring that the sentence matches the crime and the circumstances of the criminal.

Fortunately, we Australians live under constitutional arrangements which guarantee, more or less, that executive government is popularly elected, with the ministry being drawn from the party or parties enjoying a majority in the lower house of parliament (or in Queensland, the only house of parliament). Our judges are not elected and they enjoy independence from the executive government once appointed, in that they can be dismissed only by vote of the parliament determining proven misbehaviour.

The risky part is the judicial appointment process.

The appointment of High Court judges sometimes excites strong political interest because those seven constitutional luminaries have the final say interpreting the division of powers between the Commonwealth and the states. The appointment of state judges rarely excites strong political interest, though often accompanied by lots of speculation and interest from within the legal profession. Even the appointment of a state chief justice is usually a matter of only passing interest for the public.

When Jim Spigelman decided to retire as chief justice of New South Wales in 2011, a routine set of consultations with the legal profession took place, with the state Attorney-General Greg Smith then issuing a mundane press release announcing the appointment of Tom Bathurst and appending a matter-of-fact CV of the appointee's legal expertise and experience.

In February, Newman made the long awaited announcement that Paul de Jersey, the long serving chief justice of Queensland, would be the next governor of the state. Newman said he would take time to appoint a new chief justice, in line with a promise to be more consultative: 'We will be consulting with senior members of the legal profession in Queensland. Obviously I will also be asking his honour for his opinion and we'll make an announcement when we've undertaken that process. But we're going to listen