Appointment of ACT Integrity Commissioner, take two: AEC chairman pleases all politicians

By Stephen Easton

Wednesday May 15, 2019

Dennis Cowdroy

The ACT’s first independent public sector integrity commissioner will be retired judge and Australian Electoral Commission chair Dennis Cowdroy, who takes charge of Australia’s newest anti-corruption watchdog on August 1. 

Cowdroy’s appointment was endorsed by the whole ACT Legislative Assembly in a vote on Tuesday, so now only the formalities remain.

The new era of oversight for the territory government will begin a little later than originally planned, with the commissioner starting work one month after legislation establishing the ACT Integrity Commission takes effect. He will reportedly spend his first two months hiring key staff and making plans.

The slight delay follows the opposition rejecting the recruitment panel’s first choice, Terence Higgins, a former Chief Justice of the ACT Supreme Court. While impeccably qualified, his past membership of the Labor Party was a deal-breaker for the Canberra Liberals.

The Speaker of the Legislative Assembly, Joy Burch, is expected to make the appointment official closer to Cowdroy’s first day on the job. The Canberra Times reports further legislative amendments are likely to be introduced this week, aiming to give him time to get set up and find a chief executive before beginning operations.

The incoming integrity commissioner was a Federal Court judge from 2006 until his retirement in 2014, and has a lot of experience in administrative law.

As well as chairman of the AEC he is currently an acting judge of the New South Wales District Court, a deputy president of the federal Administrative Appeals Tribunal, an appellate member of the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal and an accredited mediator of commercial disputes.

In the past, Cowdroy has been an acting judge of the ACT Supreme Court, a presidential member of the federal Administrative Appeals Tribunal, judge-advocate of the Australian Defence Force and a member of the ADF Disciplinary Appeals Tribunal.

All of his decisions setting new precedent have been upheld by the High Court, according to a brief professional biography, and he is reportedly a shrewd property investor to boot.

Cowdroy joined the judiciary in 1996 as a member of the Equity Division of the Supreme Court of NSW, and was appointed to the NSW Land and Environment Court three years later.

The ACT legislation sets a high bar for the commissioner’s legal experience and disallows anyone who was either employed as a public servant, or a member of a political party, over the previous five years.

Higgins far exceeded all the prerequisites, having resigned his Labor membership almost two decades ago, before he joined the judiciary, but was a rather prominent member of the party as the first president of its ACT branch who counted Gough Whitlam as a friend, mentor and former client.

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