National bikie gang laws: the wrong approach

Bikie gang members in Adelaide last year protesting about laws aimed at breaking their organisations. AAP

Police across Australia have called for a uniform national law to deal with what they say is a severe criminal threat by outlaw motorcycle gangs.

The law would be similar to legislation in South Australia that aimed to break the ability of some bikie gangs to congregate and remove their capacity to build and maintain often heavily-fortified clubhouses.

The Conversation spoke with renowned criminologist Paul Wilson of Bond University about whether such laws would work and if there is indeed a major problem with bikie gangs in Australia that would require such stringent legislation.

Why is there a call for national laws now?

The call comes because it apparent that state laws are failing. They are failing for two reasons. Firstly because most don’t meet the High Court of Australia’s legal standards and secondly because state laws can be overcome by a person who the law enforcement authorities are interested in just moving to another state and mixing with the members of a particular bike gang.

The other reason is that there is a recognition that if there is a bikie gang problem, it is a national problem, not a state problem.

Will national laws be feasible and do you support them?

I don’t support state laws or national laws because I think it an ineffective way of dealing with what is called organised bikie crime. I would argue very strongly that these laws set a dangerous precedent because they target specific groups rather than individuals and that is an infringement on the right of all Australians.

I also oppose them because it opens up the potential for governments to arbitrarily apply these so-called criminal association laws to any political opponents or religious groups to whom it takes a dislike.

So once the laws are in place you can then apply them very easily to other groups that are considered to be a danger by society.

There is another reason why I disagree with them. If you look at the application of similar laws in places like Canada and the United States, then the evidence is that they have failed to significantly reduce crime rates, particularly in outlaw motorcycle gangs.

In Canada laws banned motorcycle gangs and clubs which lead to the institution of the state itself coming under attack. There were a series of riots in Quebec over the laws, two prison officers were killed, two people who were believed to be prison officers were seriously injured by automatic pistol fire. Seven bombs were placed under police stations.

According to Quebec’s Minister for Public Works and Government Services there have been 85 murders and 92 attempted murders related to the Quebec biker wars since 1992 together with literally hundreds of arson attacks and bombings.

That sort of evidence indicates that these sort of measures to control motorcycle gang related crime just haven’t helped.

If those kind of laws don’t work, what should we be doing?

One thing we need to say right from the start is that if you look at figures released by the Law Enforcement Assistance Program (LEAP) show that gang-related violence, including violence generated by street, ethnic and biker groups represents just 0.6 per cent of all crimes with biker related violence estimated to 0.3 per cent of all crimes.

Why do we need special laws to deal with 0.3 per cent of all crime? Let’s assume there is a problem with biker gangs or some people within biker gangs in terms of organised crime or peddling drugs, then I think the approach should be a strategy that emphasises national intelligence on these gangs and how they operate and about the individual involved and an attempt to target them.

What is happening now I think in terms of intelligence-driven policing is that it is state-based, targets groups rather than individuals and is therefore not very effective.

Are bikie gangs the danger they are made to be or the panic of the moment, similar to how we’ve seen Asian gangs and Middle Eastern gangs and “Underbelly” type operations seize media attention?

Often biker gangs are used as an excuse for any upsurge in crime. We need an excuse, we need a bogeyman, like Asian groups or the Yakuza or the Mafia. I’m not denying that there will be some biker groups, or other organised gangs, which are involved in heavy and unpleasant crime and most certainly there may be some individuals within some biker groups which are.

However tackle the criminal individuals and the crime problem, not the group. That is the way to approach it.

Are we headed for RICO or a return to consorting type laws?

Yes, I think we are. I think that is the real danger. I think the proliferation of laws relating to terrorism as well as these laws as together with the intrusion on privacy through the widening of wire-tapping and surveillance [mean] we are moving to a stage where it is a very different and far less private society that it ever used to be.