The battle to win hearts and minds in Queensland’s bikie war

In the face of rising opposition to its anti-bikie measures, the Queensland government must find a way to cut through the rhetoric with facts and stop inflaming the debate. AAP/Dan Peled

One fascinating aspect of the Newman government’s “war on bikies” in Queensland has been the battle for the hearts and minds of average citizens.

In an attempt to convince the public of the threat – and the need for the unparalleled laws introduced to counter it – the government has engaged in a vigorous public relations campaign aimed at showing the menace of the criminal threat.

But as former US vice-president Hubert Humphrey noted:

Propaganda, to be effective, must be believed. To be believed, it must be credible. To be credible, it must be true.

So, has the campaign worked? Have Queenslanders readily accepted the laws?

The communication strategy

In political terms, reacting strongly to perceived criminal challenges is a popular public platform for any government to extend its crime-fighting credentials.

Last October, the Queensland government spent nearly A$800,000 on initial advertising to tell the public about the laws and what they were intended to achieve. The campaign included advertisements on television, in newspapers and online.

One of the government’s anti-bikie ads.

Earlier this year, a further A$500,000 tender was put out for a marketing firm to try to stop the rot that had set into the government’s campaign. The tender, according to the Courier-Mail, said that the government had:

…identified issues in relation to community attitudes and views about the measures taken…in response to criminal motorcycle gangs.

Implementation of the strategy and key message

Government figures, including state attorney-general Jarrod Bleijie, have said that the criminal gang laws have reduced Gold Coast crime since they were introduced last year. Bleijie claimed recently that:

The facts speak for themselves. Statistically we have seen major armed assaults, armed robberies on the GC [Gold Coast] reduced by some 43%, we’ve seen a reduction on personal assaults of 25%.

These are firm but fair laws and they are working.

In fact, Queensland Police Service (QPS) mypolice data from September 2013 to January 2014 shows there has been a 12% increase in relation to overall crime on the Gold Coast. The data also shows that since September 2013, all assaults (there is no specific category for “personal” assaults) have risen by 37% to 169 for the month of January 2014 in the Gold Coast area.

That the crackdown would also drag non-bikies into the battle was one of the myths Bleijie attempted to publicly debunk when the measures were first introduced.

This legislation will target only criminal motorcycle gang members. Other law-abiding motorbike riders have nothing to worry about.

Social media put paid to this claim when Jamie Evans, a law-abiding motorcyclist, posted a video on YouTube in which he was intercepted by police for the 21st time. The video went viral. QPS Commissioner Ian Stewart was forced to apologise to Evans and all recreational riders.

Stewart admitted these riders were going to be affected by the laws:

Some good people in the community, including recreational motorcyclists, are going to be inconvenienced and I’m sorry if that’s happened to Jamie.

Positive media presence

Perhaps more concerning is the poor decision-making on which cases to publicise. If you asked most people who the most important arrests of the bikie crackdown were, it would be the “Yandina five” (who met for a drink at a Sunshine Coast pub), the “ice-cream five” at Surfers Paradise, and librarian Sally Kuether.

None of these cases does anything to show the claimed benefit of the laws in fighting serious organised crime. Yet they have still dominated the headlines.

Even if there was a key message to get through, it simply cannot for want of positive media coverage. Police media advisers need to make more shrewd decisions as to which arrests and operations to publicise. As gatekeepers to operational outcomes and information, they have the power to do so.

The failure to get the key message out is even more remarkable when you consider that the bikies themselves have mounted no co-ordinated campaign of opposition. This is unlike in 2009, when the United Motorcycle Council of Queensland (UMCQ) employed a PR company, Cole Lawson, to challenge similar laws and engaged in a charm offensive.

Despite bikies groups having hired the same PR firm as last time, to date most opposition to the laws appears to be ad hoc and from a wide cross-section of society. Mainstream programs, such as the ABC’s advertising show The Gruen Nation, have also ridiculed the government campaign.

The Gruen Nation’s take on the Queensland anti-bikie ad campaign.

Who is your target?

Perhaps the government’s biggest mistake from a PR standpoint has been to widen the war from a small group who were widely perceived as criminals already (bikies) to include the general public. This was achieved by moving to regulate construction industries over alleged links to bikie gangs.

Not content with upsetting the blue-collar workforce, Queensland premier Campbell Newman labelled members of the legal fraternity involved in defending bikies as:

…part of the machine, part of the criminal gang machine.

To date, no lawyer has been charged as being a participant of a gang, nor under the anti-bikie laws. The comments provoked a blistering broadside from Queensland Supreme Court justice Peter Applegarth as he addressed a criminal jury:

And if, in the future, you’re acting as a juror in a different trial, ignore ill-informed comments about hired guns, comments which smear hard-working professionals who are doing their duty.

Some newspapers have been scathing of the government’s approach. Courier-Mail columnist Terry Sweetman, for instance, argued that:

… the Queensland government has backed itself into a corner where it can defend its laws only by denigrating its opponents and belittling the judicial system, which is our protection against arbitrary and discriminatory process.

However, not all is going the bikies’ way. Some commentators support the government’s line and being highly critical of any who criticise the laws:

The gangs seem to have won total support in the blogosphere from the snivelling Left and liberals in the law and media.

Queensland premier Campbell Newman and attorney-general Jarrod Bleijie are among those to make strong public statements in support of the anti-bikie laws. AAP/Dan Peled

The results speak for themselves

In reality, the most concerning statistic for the government must be the recent Galaxy poll, which showed that only 48% of Queenslanders surveyed supported the bikie laws, 7% were uncommitted and 45% were not in favour. Those supporting the laws dropped from 56% in November last year.

This loss of support is extraordinary given that we are talking about laws designed to target criminal behaviour: the kind of issue that the overwhelming majority of society would normally support.

Of those polled, 50% also think the laws are “too tough”, only 41% say “about right” and 56% thought thought the government had done a “poor job” of marketing the new laws. Finally, a poll conducted in Newman’s seat of Ashgrove showed 44% of voters were less likely to vote for the LNP because of the laws.

Such public sentiment is causing headaches not only for the government, but also for the state opposition. The ALP has tied itself in knots trying to adopt a position on the issue.

In the midst of all of this, someone should have read the sage advice provided by Hubert Humphrey. Perhaps then this media campaign would not have gone so badly off track.

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