The Queensland government has announced it will introduce a new suite of laws designed to tackle organised crime on a much broader front than just targeting bikies. This follows the release on Monday of a report that recommended the state’s contentious anti-bikie laws be replaced with more workable ones.
So, what will this mean for organised crime in Queensland – and more broadly in Australia?
The Queensland laws have been held out as a model for dealing with organised crime. Other states, such as Victoria and South Australia, have rushed to implement similar anti-association laws.
What did the taskforce call for?
The anti-association offences and mandatory sentencing provisions are the two most contentious elements of Queensland’s anti-bikie laws. If the recommendations of the taskforce that reviewed the laws are followed, both would be replaced with new laws the government claims will be tougher, more workable and more readily enforceable.
This will be achieved by ensuring the laws are operationally strong and legally robust. According to the government, the new laws will be more likely to result in criminal convictions, which are absent currently.
The taskforce recommended replacing the anti-association provisions with laws similar to those in New South Wales. The NSW laws relate to convicted offenders associating with other criminals. Queensland’s current laws treat all members of a group the same – regardless of their criminality.
The taskforce proposed the mandatory sentencing provisions be attached as an aggravating circumstance to the primary offence. In essence, this would mean someone is punished for their criminality – not for being a member of a group, as is currently the case. In Queensland, if someone is convicted currently of a crime that can be shown to be linked to organised crime, their sentence is increased.
Control orders are set to be implemented for those convicted of organised crime offences. These orders would allow conditions to be placed on a person who has been convicted of an organised crime offence. The aim is to control their behaviour in the community so as to prevent, restrict or disrupt them from engaging in further criminal activity.
Have the laws impacted organised crime?
Queensland’s anti-bikie laws were introduced to combat organised crime, in particular the drug scourge. But drug-trafficking offences in the state have more than doubled from 372 in 2013, when the laws were introduced, to 752 in 2015. Drug possession charges have increased 40% since 2013.
Despite police claims of bikies being major players in the drug market, six years of data show they were charged with less than 1% of all drug-trafficking offences in Queensland.
The state’s Organised Crime Commission of Inquiry criticised this tunnel-vision approach:
… the focus upon – and resources solely dedicated to – the threat of outlaw motorcycle gangs by the QPS [Queensland Police Service] has meant that other types of organised crime have not been able to be appropriately investigated.
The taskforce noted that crime statistics gave a realistic view of bikies’ involvement in crime in Queensland:
On any view they do not suggest that OMCG [outlaw motorcycle gang] members were committing a large number, or a large proportion, of serious crimes in Queensland.
Other groups, such as the mafia, are now well-entrenched in various organised crime activities in Australia – including the ice trade.
Bikie laws’ lack of success
The success – or otherwise – and the necessity of Queensland’s anti-bikie laws can be broken down into a number of simple propositions.
With regard to general crime, the laws have not affected overall crime trends.
In its submission to the review, the Queensland Police Service noted that despite the laws having been in place for almost two years, the purpose for which they were created – dismantling bikie gangs – has not been achieved.
There are still plenty of bikies in Queensland. There were 920 members in Queensland as of July 2013. In June 2015, this stood at 882 members. Only a 4% reduction in bikie gang membership has been achieved – not the 17% claimed in the police submission. The police admit this reduction in numbers has had a limited impact.
There have been no successful convictions under the criminal association provisions in two years. Former Queensland attorney-general Jarrod Bleijie, who introduced the laws, said about the lack of court success that:
It’s important to realise that the … legislation was not necessarily always about conviction, it was about deterrence.
In reality, deterrence in the criminal justice system is achieved when you put in place an offence, people are charged and convicted in court, and then a punishment is imposed.
Implications for organised crime
The nature of organised crime has changed and become more fluid. It has outpaced legislation – such as Queensland’s anti-bikie laws – that is designed to deal with rigid structures.
The review taskforce is a substantial body of work undertaken with due consideration and wide consultation. This was missing when the anti-bikie laws were introduced.
There has been a realisation that bikies are just a small part of the organised crime problem. The laws required to tackle organised crime must be able to deal with groups other than just bikies.
An extra A$37 million will aid in the fight against organised crime.
The Queensland government has also recognised the need for an independent crime statistics body, such as the NSW BOCSAR. This should prevent police politicisation, which has been apparent in the anti-bikies fight.
This report, as well as the government’s promises, is a step in the right direction for dealing with organised crime as a whole, rather than just focusing on one small sub-group. The real test for the government will be whether the report’s recommendations can be successfully implemented.