Queensland has introduced draconian laws designed to quash bikie gangs. Freelance writer Henry Belot asks if the laws are fair and effective — and if bikies will simply head south of the border.
Queensland motorcycle gangs may be the newly anointed public enemy number one, but they’re not taking their punishment without a fight. Bikies have told Crikey they are pursuing legal action against the Campbell Newman government as new anti-association legislation prompts many bikies to hand in their colours or head south.
But with other states considering similar draconian legislation, they might not find a safe haven in the southern states.
The United Motorcycle Council Queensland, formed in 2009 to resolve inter-club conflicts and covering the Hells Angels, Bandidos, the Finks and 12 other clubs, is seeking legal advice to overturn the Vicious Lawless Association Disestablishment Bill, which passed last week. The bill makes motorcycle gangs public enemy number one.
A spokesman for the council told Crikey the legislation, introduced by baby-faced Attorney-General Jarrod Bleijie, is about far more than criminals, crime or bikie gangs. “It’s about the government having the power to criminalise any person on a whim, and the possibility that this madness could go national is something that we should all be very, very scared about.”
The legislation, which passed after a marathon overnight session, grants Bleijie the authority to declare an organisation to be “criminal” — previously only the Supreme Court had that power. Should a bikie commit a serious crime determined to be in the interests of the criminal gang he or she is associated with, or carried out with other members from that gang, he or she will face an additional mandatory sentence of 15 years, plus the sentence for the crime itself, if convicted.
Office-bearers will receive an additional 25 years behind bars if convicted. Bikies will be sent to a bikie-only prison north of Brisbane, which will provide no gym facilities, monitor phones calls (except to lawyers), censor mail, and allow inmates just one hour of visitor contact time per week.
“The possibility that this madness could go national is something that we should all be very, very scared about” — Queensland bikie spokesman
It’s a piece of legislation that has civil libertarians, criminologists, and criminal lawyers concerned. Andreas Schloenhardt, a professor of criminal law at the University of Queensland, told Crikey the new legislation was rushed and did not give adequate attention to human rights. “This is policy-making on the run, pulling a new trick out of the hat each day. Has anybody asked Bleijie where these ideas come from? And how will they comply with freedom of association, presumption of innocence and fairness of trial?”
The Queensland government found the catalyst for action when a violent brawl between rival motorcycle gangs escalated on Gold Coast streets in late September, leading to 18 arrests. Bleijie boldly declared that “today is the day that we are saying enough’s enough”. But the UMCQ saw the timing differently. “Anyone who thinks the current Queensland government just drafted this legislation up on a whim and as a knee-jerk reaction to an incident a couple weeks ago is delusional — they’ve been saving this up for months, quite possibly even had it while they were in the opposition,” the spokesman told Crikey.
The UMCQ is hoping to challenge the legislation in court on those grounds. “There may grounds in the comments made by the premier. If the courts saw them in a certain fashion — that demonstrates little regard for due process and that could see him held accountable,” said the spokesman. “But we do not, as often reported in the media, have a war chest of funds available to defend ourselves in court.”
Even those who don’t ride have been targeted by the new laws. Two men were approached by Queensland Police in Emerald for being suspected bikies on Monday, with the police confusing their Sons of Anarchy T-shirts with the real deal. Nicola McGarrity, a director at UNSW’s Gilbert and Tobin Centre of Public Law, believes it’s a dangerous precedent; “this is exactly the kind of situation you find yourself in when you target someone for the colours they wear rather than the acts that they are committing.”
The Queensland precedent is being carefully watched by Victoria Police, which staged a state-wide raid on over 59 properties linked to the Hell’s Angels on October 10 following the introduction of laws that permit police to remove fortifications and surveillance from clubhouses. As it stands, The Criminal Organisations Control Act specifies that the chief commissioner can urge the Supreme Court to criminalise an organisation, but the decision hangs on whether the court can establish criminality beyond reasonable doubt. Victoria Police is now seeking legal advice on whether the state can follow Queensland’s example.
Greg Barns, a barrister and spokesman for the Australian Lawyers Association, told Crikey Queensland might be the tip of the iceberg. “Unfortunately, state and territory governments are currently trying to be more hairy-chested than the next and to outdo each other when it comes to law and order. The legislation won’t have a significant impact on criminal bikie gangs in Queensland — it will just drive the issue into other states and territories, which means that it will become the norm.”
With a number of bikies reportedly travelling south to escape Queensland’s crackdown, a trend confirmed by the UMCQ spokesman, McGarrity says NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell might also be keeping a sharp eye on his northern neighbour. “I’d be surprised if many other states don’t adopt similar legislations. Public rhetoric is enough to place pressure on O’Farrell. When it comes to law and order, rhetoric is what it’s all about.”