Monday, March 30, 2009

Anti-Bikie laws and moral panic

State and territory governments across Australia are rushing new and dangerous laws onto the statute books to combat what has been deemed the latest public enemy: motorbike gangs. Australian media have been keen to play up the perceived problem with “spates of shocking violence” while governments across the nation rub their hands in glee with the opportunity to enact “tough anti-bikie laws”. However, there are justifiable concerns that these draconian new laws are open to abuse and are effectively the equivalent of anti-terrorism laws for domestic uses.

South Australia was the first state to introduce anti-bikie laws nine months ago based on similar Canadian laws. There gang membership can attract a prison sentence of five years. Announcing the laws in 2007, Premier Mike Rann said at the time they were designed to disrupt criminal activity, dismantle organised crime networks and discourage others from trying to set up in South Australia. Among the law’s powers are: giving courts the power to control with whom gang members can associate with, issuing Public Safety Orders to ban gangs from specified places, prohibiting the possession of hydroponic equipment such as high intensity lights and carbon filters, confiscating “unexplained wealth” and introducing a presumption against bail for gang members charged with serious or violent offences and breaches of control orders. Rann said there were eight known criminal bikie gangs with bases in South Australia with about 250 hardcore members.

The Biker Forum called the SA laws “the toughest anti-bikie laws in the world”. The writer was keen to make a distinction between motorcycle gangs and people who love motorbikes. The Queensland based “grotbag” said there are thousands of Gold Coasters who love to ride motorbikes. “Let's never confuse them with motorcycle gangs, those groups of mainly men whose illicit drug trafficking, standover tactics, extortion, money laundering, weapons trade and public disturbances have earned them a fearsome reputation,” he (or she) wrote. “Annual hospital toy runs on one day of the year don't make up for their criminal behaviour on the other 364 days.”

However Monash University academic and bikie gang expert Dr Arthur Veno said South Australia is undergoing a “moral panic attack” and called for the establishment of an independent commission against corruption. Veno said the SA legislation, implemented as part of the Serious and Organised Crime Act, was draconian and did not have any basis in fact. He said the Rann Government had labelled outlaw motorcycle clubs as public enemy number one despite the facts not supporting the assertion. “Crime attributable to bikie gangs as a proportion of total crime is extremely low - less than one per cent,” he said. “No one is saying that these clubs are criminal free, but the Rann Government and the South Australian Police are basically wasting taxpayers' money to target an element of society which is responsible for a miniscule amount of crime."

The new law has several problems. They provide the Attorney General with wide discretionary powers to deem organisations 'criminal'; they don’t adequately define organised crime; and they provide no appeals process for those organisations branded under the legislation. As well, the guilt by association provisions are a deep concern. Under the act, anyone who associates with “persons of a prescribed class” (a member of an outlawed organisation) can be convicted if they meet six or more times in 12 months. Though there are provisions for family members and employers, they can be overruled and a conviction carries a maximum period of imprisonment of five years.

There are reports that NSW’s proposed new laws are tougher still. Sydney Airport was the scene of the most prominent bikie attack recently when a man was killed at the domestic terminal on 22 March. Under Premier Nathan Rees’ new laws, motorcycle gangs would be outlawed, the type of employment bikies can seek would be restricted and police intelligence networks would be expanded. Once again it is a draconian solution to a noisy but, on the whole, tiny problem. As Arthur Veno says “in NSW, all gang crime accounts for 0.6 per cent of total crime. Now, how much resources do we want to pour down that tube?”

But the public (read: media) clamour “to do something about it” is proving too difficult for politicians to resist. On the weekend, the Northern Territory Police Commissioner called for similar legislation to outlaw bikie gangs. Commissioner Paul White claimed the groups would “stop at nothing." And were involved in murder, intimidation, violence, and stand-over tactics. This seemed to be a lot of activity for a small group. Even White admitted there were “only a dozen Hell's Angels members in the Territory.” Nevertheless he got his wish today. Attorney-general Delia Lawrie announced new laws saying she not want bikie gangs arriving from other states. The laws allow streamlined court orders so gang clubroom fortifications could be dismantled, place and membership restrictions, and a declaration process to outlaw certain gangs.

The Not In My Backyard attitude is now likely to spread to Queensland. As are the meaningless slogans. The State Government doesn’t want the Sunshine State to become a "safe haven" for outlawed motorcycle gangs while the cabinet met today in order to consider its own “crack down”. Newly re-elected Premier Anna Bligh accidentally left the cat out of the bag why the legislation was being fast-tracked. "New South Wales has decided it needs to act quickly, and I don't believe Queensland should be exposed in a context where New South Wales is acting,” she said. While Bligh meant legal exposure, her issue is media exposure and avoiding a reputation of being soft on crime. While governments prefer to deal with perception, the real bikie problem will only be driven underground. Meanwhile, we can fully expect the scope of the laws to be broadened to cover the next panic du jour, whatever that might be.

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