When governments are given extraordinary powers, particularly those which allow for the proscribing of individuals and organisations, they invariably abuse them. So it will be with the proposed New South Wales anti-bikie laws, announced yesterday by that State’s Attorney-General, John Hatzistergos.
Mr Hatzistergos is boasting that his laws will be even tougher than the illiberal South Australian Serious and Organised Crime Control Act, passed last year. Mr Hatzistergos’ proposed law will allow for a court to proscribe an organization like a bikie gang, without giving that organization any opportunity to be heard on the matter. Even the rabid South Australian Premier Mike Rann and his Attorney-General Michael Atkinson give organizations the right to put their side of the story to the Attorney-General before he or she bans them.
This whole business of proscribing organizations and the consequences that follow from such an action, such as making it a jailable offence to be even seen with a member of a proscribed organization, is inherently dangerous. It allows governments to outlaw any group of people it deems to be troublesome. Green groups, unions, even human rights protest organizations can be banned under the existing South Australian and mooted New South Wales laws.
This is because the definition of “organisation” is broad and deliberately vague. Under Section 10 of the South Australian law — the New South Wales law will include a similar provision — an organization can be outlawed for either of two reasons. Firstly, “if members of the organisation associate for the purpose of organising, planning, facilitating, supporting or engaging in serious criminal activity,” and secondly, if the organisation “represents a risk to public safety and order in this State”.
What is an “organisation”? It is “any incorporated body or unincorporated group (however structured)”. “Serious criminal activity” not only means offences such as rape, murder, assault and fraud, but any other offence that the government decides should be deemed to be serious.
It is does not take too much of an intellectual leap to see how these sweeping powers could be abused by government. One example would be environmental protest groups. If that group’s members engage in damage to property, trespass on to land, or resist arrest — common enough offences committed by some environmental activists — and a government comes under pressure from corporate interests and the police to curtail this group’s influence, then the easiest thing would be to proscribe them. This would then mean that any time any two or more members of this environmental group gathered they would commit a serious criminal offence. If someone joins the group simply because their motivation is to save the planet, they are deemed to be a serious criminal.
Unions too, could find themselves on the wrong end of these laws. Their industrial opponents, be they other unions, or employers, could lobby government to proscribe a union that was at the militant end of the spectrum simply for political reasons.
Last year the UK government used anti-terrorism laws to freeze the assets of Icelandic banks, even though there was not the remotest connection with terrorism. Expect to see similar abuses of power in Australia, or at least in New South Wales and South Australia. A prognostication fortified by the fact that we lack an enforceable bill or charter of rights in this country to curb the excesses of the Executive.