31 judges pen open letter arguing for national integrity commission

17 May 2022 By Jerome Doraisamy

Just days out from the federal election, more than 30 former judges, including a former justice of the High Court, have called on Australia’s political leaders to establish an “urgently needed” national integrity commission.

The open letter (published overnight by Nine newspapers) espoused that the “widely-accepted case for a well-designed national integrity commission remains impregnable”, despite recent criticisms of anti-corruption commissions.

It was authorised by the Centre for Public Integrity and signed by former state and territory chief justices, judges of supreme courts, and courts of appeal, federal court judges, as well as former High Court justice Mary Gaudron.

The letter comes after Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s attack on barristers last week over the issue, during which he stood by his recent comments about the state’s Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) as a “kangaroo court”.

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“I don’t care if barristers and lawyers and others up there in Macquarie Street – not in the Parliament but in the barristers’ chambers – disagree with me,” Mr Morrison told journalists while campaigning in Sydney with NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet.

“They disagree with me all the time. I’ve never had much truck with them over the course of my entire political career.”

Those comments saw immediate rebukes from legal member associations. You can read Lawyers Weekly’s stories on those rebukes here and here.

In the open letter, the judges submitted: “Where billions are to be spent and significant power is available to dispense it with little oversight, greedy people with convenient consciences and powerful connections will ensure that, with the manipulation of their influence, they will obtain illegal or unethical advantage to the detriment of the interests of the general public. And they will do so by means which only a specialist anti-corruption body will have the skill and power to detect.

“A political solution via elections, the media, or the Parliament, as some suggest, has not produced consequences in real time even where there has been some exposure of wrongdoing. Without the commission we envisage, the right of Australians to have their taxes employed for the maximum national advantage will not always prevail over the corrupt exercise of power – that is, conduct of any person (whether or not a public official) that adversely affects, or could adversely affect, the honest or impartial exercise of official functions by any public official; or any conduct of a public official that constitutes or involves a breach of public trust.”

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Existing federal integrity agencies lack the necessary jurisdiction, powers and know-how, the open letter continued, to properly investigate the impartiality of decisions made by, and conduct of, the federal government and public sector.

“It also seems clear from the reports of numerous scandals that the educative role of such a body for both the federal executive and their staff as well as public sector employees is long overdue,” the judges noted.

The 31 former judges thus believe, they posited, that a national integrity commission is “urgently needed” in order to plug the gaps in the nation’s systems of integrity, and thus restore trust in political processes.

“Nothing less than halting the serious erosion of our shared democratic principles is at stake,” the letter warned.

“Such a body, if properly designed and led, can be entrusted to act fairly and in accordance with natural justice while having the powers necessary if corruption is to be effectively challenged. There must be conferred upon that commission a broad jurisdiction and strong investigative powers, including the power to hold public hearings, and respond to bona fide complaints from the public, so that serious or systemic corruption and misconduct can be adequately investigated and exposed.

“We urge you to use your influence in the next Parliament to ensure that a strong, effective and independent National Integrity Commission is established as a matter of urgency.”

The 31 former judges listed as signatories to the letter are:

  • Mary Gaudron QC, former judge of the High Court of Australia;
  • Michael Barker QC, former judge of the Supreme Court of Western Australia and of the Federal Court of Australia;
  • John Batt AM, former judge of the Victorian Court of Appeal;
  • Bernard Bongiorno, former judge of the Victorian Court of Appeal;
  • Margaret White AO QC, former judge of the Queensland Court of Appeal;
  • Stephen Charles AO QC, former judge of the Victorian Court of Appeal;
  • Geoffrey Davies AO QC, former judge of the Queensland Court of Appeal;
  • Howard Nathan AM QC, former judge of the Supreme Court of Victoria;
  • Alan Wilson QC, former judge of the Supreme Court of Queensland;
  • Ralph Simmonds, former judge of the Supreme Court of Western Australia;
  • Catherine Holmes AC QC, former Chief Justice of Queensland;
  • Geoffrey Eames AM QC, former judge of the Victorian Court of Appeal;
  • David Harper AM QC, former judge of the Victorian Court of Appeal;
  • Murray Kellam AO, former judge of the Victorian Court of Appeal;
  • Marcia Neave AO, former judge of the Victorian Court of Appeal;
  • Paul Stein AM QC, former judge of the NSW Court of Appeal;
  • Pamela Tate SC, former judge of the Victorian Court of Appeal;
  • Frank Vincent AO QC, former judge of the Victorian Court of Appeal;
  • Anthony Whealy QC, former judge of the NSW Court of Appeal;
  • David Byrne, former judge of the Supreme Court of Victoria;
  • John Coldrey AM QC, former judge of the Supreme Court of Victoria;
  • David Habersberger QC, former judge of the Supreme Court of Victoria;
  • Diana Bryant AO QC, former chief justice of the Family Court of Australia;
  • Margaret McMurdo AC, former president of the Queensland Court of Appeal;
  • George Hampel AM QC, former judge of the Supreme Court of Victoria;
  • Gregory James AM QC, former judge of the Supreme Court of NSW;
  • Betty King QC, former a former judge of the Supreme Court of Victoria;
  • David Kirby QC, former judge of the Supreme Court of NSW;
  • Ann Lyons, former judge of the Supreme Court of Queensland;
  • Peter Lyons QC, former judge of the Supreme Court of Queensland; and
  • Malcolm Gray QC, former judge of the Supreme Court of the ACT.
31 judges pen open letter arguing for national integrity commission
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