Why Australia needs to change its view of organised crime

Are authorities too focused on the usual suspects and missing the new and emerging markets in organised crime? AAP/Adam Marsters

Organised crime costs Australia approximately A$15 billion per year. The federal government’s campaign against the ice menace highlights organised crime’s danger to wider society.

International law enforcement agencies such as Interpol have recently highlighted organised crime’s changing nature. So what is “organised crime” and how has it changed? Are authorities too focused on the usual suspects and missing the new and emerging criminal markets?

International perspectives on defining organised crime

Law enforcement agencies have often been more focused on activities or enterprises of organised criminals rather than the markets that exist within the organised crime world.

International policing organisation Interpol frames its discussion of organised crime in terms of criminal activity:

Organised networks are typically involved in many different types of criminal activity spanning several countries. These activities may include trafficking in humans, illicit goods, weapons and drugs, armed robbery, counterfeiting and money laundering.

The UN Convention against Transnational Organised Crime suggests that organised crime groups have a number of elements. These include:

  • a group of three or more persons that was not randomly formed

  • existing for a period of time

  • acting in concert with the aim of committing at least one crime punishable by at least four years’ incarceration.

The motive behind any group is to obtain, directly or indirectly, a financial or other material benefit.

The Australian take on organised crime

Surprisingly, Australia’s National Organised Crime Response Plan does not define the concept of organised crime. However, it does identify six main threats:

  • ice use

  • growing use of technology to facilitate crime

  • criminal targeting of the financial sector

  • professional money laundering

  • illicit trade and use of firearms

  • the prominence of entrepreneurial individuals in illicit markets.

A number of pieces of legalisation help frame how Australia defines organised crime. These include the Australian Crime Commission Act and the Queensland Crime and Corruption Act.

The New South Wales Crime Commission defines organised crime as including serious crime committed in a systemic, organised or sustained way, that would likely have a significant impact on the community and involve substantial proceeds.

Elements of organised crime in Australia. Terry Goldsworthy

Is Australia looking at the right players?

Since 2013, Queensland has been targeting crime committed by outlaw motorcycle gang members, or bikies. Earlier this month, South Australia proposed similar laws to Queensland’s. State Attorney-General John Rau argued that these laws target organised crime.

However, a snapshot of bikies’ organised crime activity in Queensland may suggest that too many resources are being devoted to what could be best described as low-level players.

Data I have obtained from the Queensland government show that bikie gang members were found guilty of 4323 criminal charges between April 2008 and April 2014. In the same period, 2,537,223 total offences were reported to police. This means that bikie gang members were found guilty of 0.17% of reported Queensland offences.

The picture does not overly improve when organised crime-type offences are considered. Bikie gang members’ involvement is insignificant in totality.

Money laundering has rightly been considered as being at the centre of organised crime, yet not one charge of money laundering was made against a bikie gang member in six years in Queensland. Most of the crime that bikie gang members committed simply does not fit the nature of organised crime offences.

This focus on the easy targets has seen other highly profitable organised crime groups flourish. An ABC 7.30 report recently uncovered “boiler rooms” – sophisticated fraud operations that are running virtually untouched in Queensland. One insider claimed they were earning hundreds of millions of dollars.

Their discovery prompted the head of the fraud squad, Brian Hay, to call the Gold Coast a crime “mecca”. These criminals weren’t riding Harley Davidsons. They were working the phones.

Organised crime activity of bikie gangs in Queensland, April 2008-April 2014. Terry Goldsworthy, information drawn from data obtained by Right to Information.

A new world of criminal opportunity

In its 2015 organised crime report, the EU’s law enforcement agency, Europol, called for a new definition of organised crime. It observed:

The group structures that dominate fictional representations of organised crime are disintegrating and will increasingly give way to an organised crime landscape dominated by loose networks made up of individual criminal entrepreneurs who interact and conduct their business in a shared, and often digital, criminal underworld.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has recognised that organised crime has diversified and become more transnational:

Organised crime is not stagnant, but adapts as new crimes emerge and as relationships between criminal networks become both more flexible and more sophisticated, with ever-greater reach around the globe.

Queensland is holding a commission into organised crime to re-align its strategy and focus in combating it. The NSW Crime Commission acknowledges:

Organised crime groups undertake a wider range of criminal activities with greater complexity.

Today’s organised crime occurs through loose and undefined networks made up of criminal entrepreneurs and freelancers with little concern for group branding or loyalty. Their business model is increasingly digital, concealed by legitimate activity and global in reach.

Australia’s geographic isolation is no longer the buttress that it once was. Globalisation has made us an attractive and available target, as Prime Minister Tony Abbott recent noted. Australia’s approach to organised crime must move in sync with global activity and must be evidence-based.

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