By Misha Ketchell, Crikey editor

What sort of checking of candidates does the federal government do before it appoints a new judge? Their competency? Their character? Their legal record?

Yes … and in today’s contentious industrial climate, their politics.

Crikey has been given a detailed account by a senior solicitor in a large Melbourne law firm of his conversation – held in recent weeks – with an advisor from the office of the Attorney-General, Philip Ruddock. The advisor, Alan Anderson, who is a Liberal Party member and op-ed columnist, was conducting a reference check on a Sydney QC who is being considered for appointment to one of Australia’s two top courts, the Federal or High Court.

Anderson phoned the lawyer and asked a series of routine questions about the barrister’s legal capacity and personal attributes. Then, according to the lawyer, Anderson said: you’d “understand” that we wouldn’t want to appoint someone who would “rock the boat.” The lawyer said he didn’t understand the question and asked Anderson whether he was referring to rocking the boat over the Work Choices legislation. According to the lawyer, Anderson replied: “You’ve got it in one.”

We called Anderson yesterday and asked if it was the usual practice to probe the political views of potential judicial appointees. He said that while it is not appropriate to comment on private conversations, the claim that he’d made a political inquiry needed to be refuted. Anderson said that he has never asked about the political leanings of a potential candidate and has never used the phrase “rock the boat on IR” in any such conversation.

The lawyer insists his account of the conversation is 100% accurate.

Australia doesn’t have a US style public confirmation system for the appointment of the most senior judges in our judicial system. In view of the current political climate, maybe we need one.