T here is only one person standing between open warfare between Queensland’s judiciary and the Newman Government on the matter of the new laws to control bikie gangs – the Chief Justice, Paul de Jersey.
CJ de Jersey, both wily and wise, has been a Supreme Court justice since 1985 and got the top job in 1998. He has seen a succession of Premiers and Attorneys-General in his time and will undoubtedly see more before his scheduled retirement aged 70 in September, 2018.
Last weekend he did make some guarded comments about the controversy saying, “The public commentary bears a highly political flavour and thereby the courts should remain detached from that,” he said.
“(And) a challenge to the validity of the new (bikie) legislation could proceed in the Supreme Court, and that’s where challenges to grants of bail will be heard. (I) cannot by any public comment risk compromising the perceptions of the way in which the court discharges its duty in those situations,” he said.
The Chief Justice is first among equals and is not inclined to tell his fellow jurists what they can and cannot say even if he could but, clearly, his measured comments were aimed at them – in effect, he was telling Queensland judicial officers to pull their heads in.
Without a doubt, most if not all magistrates and judges resent governments restricting their independence in sentencing by, for example, imposing minimum mandatory sentences on those convicted. The new bikie laws do exactly that and the Newman Government is in no mood to compromise. They know they are on a winner with the public.
Some judges cannot help themselves from making comments which are easily exploited by the government and others as showing they are woefully out of touch with public sentiment. Judicial officers – unless they commit some horrendous crime – have a job for life and retire at 70 with a vastly generous superannuation. Queensland governments have to face the voters every three years.
Last week when sentencing a paedophile, District Court Judge Milton Griffin said, “I want to make it absolutely clear in this case the sentence I impose is not a sentence affected by any consideration of what might be said the public of Queensland wants.”
And just in case people didn’t get the message loud and clear that judges know best, he added, “Judges won’t be affected by what the public of Queensland want and to do so would be contrary to the oath of office.”
It wasn’t calculated in the slightest degree to dispel any notion that judges were living in ivory towers.
Meanwhile the second most senior Queensland judge, Court of Appeal President Justice Margaret McMurdo, has written to the Attorney-General Jarrod Bleijie urging him not to interfere with judicial discretion.
This letter, which mysteriously found its way to The Courier Mail, was written on 31 July after the government flagged dumping court-ordered parole and suspended sentences but before the new sex offender and bikie laws were introduced. She wrote that, “The interests of justice and the community are best served by arming judicial officers with the widest possible range of options when sentencing offenders. That is the way judicial officers can ensure the punishment fits the crime.”
Justice McMurdo thoughtfully attached to her letter a clipping from The Economist which highlighted that tougher sentences around the world were not reducing crime.
Bleijie’s tart response, “Everyone is entitled to their opinion” was about as close as he could get without descending to obscenities when dismissing the concerns out of hand.
As this debate rages, the Acting Head of the powerful Crime and Misconduct Commission, Dr Ken Levy, got the legal fraternity, the Opposition and sundry other usual suspects into a lather by expressing his support for the government’s bikie laws.
Dr Levy, who was Director-General of the Department of Justice and Attorney-General during the ALP reign, faced a grilling from the Parliamentary Crime and Misconduct Commission over his statements which he strongly defended saying, “I certainly don’t accept that being in an independent role requires me to disagree with the government on every occasion or that I must remain silent.”
Opposition Leader Anastacia Palaszczuk – a member of the Committee – said Dr Levy no longer had Labor’s confidence. The Committee chair, Independent MP Liz Cunningham, said she would not support a vote of no confidence in Dr Levy.
Divisions between the Police Union and the Police Commissioner – never far from the surface at the best of times - have also opened up over the bikie crackdown with President Ian Leavers appealing to the Police Minister Jack Dempsey to do more to protect officers from any bikie retaliation.
Leavers claimed that Commissioner Ian Stewart didn’t “have the will” to provide sufficient protection and that officers should be allowed to decide themselves if they could take home their guns to protect themselves and their families.
Stewart responded by saying that, “ … we have policies around this and we are happy to deal with any officer who feels the need to take their weapons home, particularly if it is around personal security.”
With the Newman Government hoping that bikies would get long jail sentences under the new laws, Queensland’s already crowded jails will be an even tougher environment from next May when smoking is banned.
Prison guards’ union secretary Michael Thomas has warned, “This is just putting more fuel on the fire and we have real concerns there’s going to be a crisis.”
For your average bikie, not being able to light up will be a far more provoking penalty than wearing the suggested pink uniforms.