Queensland’s bikie crackdown and its associated legislative measures have polarised public opinion on the necessity and success of this approach. So with a High Court challenge to the new laws due to be heard, how was the anti-bikie strategy in Queensland framed, and what has it achieved?
An interim report by the Strategic Monitoring Team (SMT), the body responsible for the overall anti-bikie strategy, to the Queensland Security Committee in April 2014 outlined a six-pronged attack on outlaw motorcycle gangs (OMCGs).
These lines of operation include:
- legislative reform to deal with proposed threats;
- enforcement and prevention;
- denial of economic opportunities;
- engaging community support through targeted public relations strategies;
- restriction of criminal activity whilst incarcerated; and
- security and anti-corruption measures.
Not all bikies are criminals
One of the strongest arguments to support the Queensland government’s crackdown is that the overwhelming majority of bikies are supposedly hardened criminals.
However, data I obtained through Right to Information provides a more accurate picture of criminality within OMCGs. This data shows that the majority of bikies in the majority of clubs have no criminal history. If you include all OMCGs listed in the government data, it shows that approximately 60% of members have no criminal history.
The highest levels of criminality is limited to just two clubs, the Bandidos and the Lone Wolves. A number of the clubs proscribed by the legislation as criminal organisations don’t even feature in the government data. The data examined both confirmed and unconfirmed gang members under the generic term “participants”.
The lack of criminal enterprise in the gang structure
One of the premises used as justification for the crackdown was that OMCGs commit high-level, serious organised crime, and that they do that within the structure of a gang. It was to this end that the Vicious Lawless Association Disestablishment (or VLAD) laws were introduced. As Mick Niland, head of Queensland police’s anti-bikie taskforce, said:
[VLAD] is specifically designed to dismantle criminal organisations and based loosely on the RICO laws of the United States and Canada. In those countries these laws have been a success in dismantling large criminal gangs such as the Mafia in different states of North America. We will use these VLAD laws not only for criminal motorcycle gangs but criminal gangs the length and breadth of the state.
There has been a concerning failure of the VLAD laws to illustrate the criminal enterprise taking place within the gangs. Senior police struggle to provide any correlational evidence linking OMCGs to the epicentre of organised crime. Rather, they are just bit players – like many other criminal gangs. As the Australian Crime Commission says:
They are just one part of the organised crime picture in Australia.
In estimate hearings last month, Queensland premier Campbell Newman admitted that only 11 bikies – or 1% – of 1113 criminal gang participants had been charged under the provisions of the VLAD laws as having conducted criminal activity of behalf of the gangs.
Even after eight months of the crackdown, the share of organised crime offences – drug production, trafficking, supply, extortion, fraud and money laundering – was only 8.2% of total charges. But of more concern is that the SMT in April noted that approximately 8% of the charges laid during the bikie crackdown had failed to reach a successful prosecution.
Recent decreases in crime not linked to the bikie war
Both the SMT report and the public comments by government MPs have attempted to link the bikie war to reductions in general crime categories such as unlawful entry offences, robberies, assaults and frauds.
However, an examination of five months of police data from January 2013 to May 2013 for the Gold Coast and Logan areas reveals almost no bikie involvement in these crime categories. These figures were before the bikie crackdown, when bikie activity could be expected to show higher levels of criminality.
Also of interest is that 60% of these arrests were attributed by police to non-members – termed “associates”. Minor charges such as drug and utensil possession, breach of bail and unlicensed driving made up 42% of the total charges.
Police data shows that crime was already decreasing in Queensland in the 12 months prior to the introduction of the bikie laws. Also, despite claims of an 11% decrease in crime in Queensland, media and academics identified that the actual reduction in crime for 2013-14 was only 2%.
Marketing the laws
The SMT report refers to background briefings being given to journalists in an effort to reduce negative stories about the anti-bikie measures. Senior police have met with journalists and are actively marketing good news stories about the crackdown.
The closeness of the relationship is exemplified by this email (obtained under Right to Information) containing sensitive police intelligence, which a senior SMT member sent in April 2014 to one media outlet:
Your last piece on the CMG’s was right. Where have all the public supporters of them gone? Many have gone to ground for various reasons (like egg on their faces) … Attached is a PDF with the information and breakdown of CMG participants with Queensland Criminal Histories … also attached is the spin and facts sheets I have sent you in the past just in case you need it.
Within days, the Courier-Mail was trumpeting the story as an exclusive release by senior police designed to:
… be an embarrassment to civil libertarians and the Labor Party that seeks to wind back the tough new laws.
In reality, despite the claims from senior police, all of the results of crackdown could have been achieved without any of the laws. The bikie laws are punitive in nature and add no new powers for police to investigate criminal offences. This was proven when police rolled out a number of operations in early 2014 to give impact to the bikie war.
Most operations were not bikie-related. They all achieved their outcomes without relying on the legislation passed for the bikie crackdown. Two of them began more than a year before the bikie crackdown.
The High Court case
Despite the High Court’s preparedness to hear a challenge to the bikie laws' validity, almost all other Australian states are poised to roll our similar legislation to Queensland’s. This may represent a turning point in Australian criminal law. The man who introduced the current set of draconian measures, Queensland attorney-general Jarrod Bleijie, highlighted the danger of association laws in his speech against Labor’s proposed criminal association laws in 2009:
This bill is an attack on the right of freedom of association … While I agree that people need to be protected from organised crime, there must also be the protection of personal liberties such as the freedom of association … This bill encroaches on their personal freedoms and liberties. A government that tries to remove these freedoms and liberties is a government that is to be feared.
The anti-bikie measures also appear ironic in the context of the Queensland government’s recent resistance to broad-based, draconian measures in its fight against alcohol-fuelled violence. It has argued against the changes on the basis of “not punishing the many for the sins of the few”. Newman said:
We are going to target the troublemakers, not the majority. We are going to target the troublemakers and actually send a strong message to them that their violence and anti-social behaviour is not acceptable.
A cynical person might think that the liquor industry is not as easy a target as the bikies.