Judges, police officers, corporate regulators, crime commission bosses and even a spymaster: our assortment of powerful Law Enforcers sure is a motley crew.

But there’s one thing that binds them together: the crucial role they play in upholding the rule of law in Australia. Our society could not function effectively without them.

You may not be familiar with some — or even most – of the names on our list. But here at The Power Index we think these individuals are all worth knowing about. Despite the extraordinary powers they wield, our Top 10 Law Enforcers all too often slip below the radar and evade scrutiny. For the next fortnight, we’ll shine a light on who they are, how they got to the top and how they’ve performed since they got there.

What can they do?

  • Keep us safe — not just from theft and violence, but from terrorism. Since 2000, four major terrorist plots have been disrupted in Australia by police and their intelligence partners.
  • Knock down government policies. Boat loads of asylum seekers would have been sent to Malaysia by now were if it were not for the High Court’s intervention.
  • Lobby governments to change laws. Senior police officers, for example, advise governments on law-and-order issues and fight hard behind the scenes for more powers and resources.
  • Invade our privacy. Since 9/11 ASIO, our domestic spy agency, has been granted sweeping new powers to intercept telephone and online communications.
  • Keep the corporate giants honest. Our regulators can apply tough sanctions to companies that engage in deceptive conduct or collude with their competitors.

What gives them their power?

  • Position. Law enforcement organisations are extremely hierarchical, so power tends to concentrate at the top.
  • Political connections. All of our Top 10 Law Enforcers are government appointees and — with the exception of High Court judges — can be removed by the government of the day. So it pays to keep pollies of both persuasions onside.
  • Longevity. It’s impossible to change the culture at an organisation like a police force or intelligence agency overnight. The longer you stay around, the more likely you are to have an impact.
  • Timing. Take the High Court: some years there are a rash of contentious cases and others not.

Where are the women?

The absence of any women among our top 10 continues the trend of male dominance in our Power lists. (Only three of our first 40 power listers have been women — that is to say, less than 10%.)

That’s not to say there aren’t any Australian women in significant law enforcement positions. Victorian Chief Justice Marilyn Warren — the first female state or territory chief justice in Australian history — only just missed out on the list. And there are, of course, two female justices at the High Court: Susan Kiefel and Susan Crennan. Over at ASIC, Belinda Gibson is second in charge to Greg Medcraft. We can’t be so positive about the world of policing: there are currently no female chief police commissioners in Australia

New kids on the block

There’s been a big shake up in the world of law enforcement over the past year — particularly along the east coast where Victorian police chief Simon Overland and Director of Public Prosecutions Jeremy Rapke both resigned amid controversy. Overland is yet to be replaced while John Champion has just been appointed to the DPP role. In NSW, two law enforcement legends retired earlier this year. Supreme Court Chief Justice Jim Spigelman stepped down after 13 years in the job while DPP counterpart Nicholas Cowdery bowed out after 17.

The same goes for the corporate regulators. Greg Medcraft and Rod Sims are still finding their feet at ASIC and the ACCC respectively after being appointed in May this year.

Peter Fray

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