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No need for more laws to contain bikie crime


It is difficult to feel any sympathy for bikie gangs, but Queensland's laws, which deem it a criminal offence for members of motorcycle gangs to associate with each other, should cause us to pause and ask if this is really how we want law enforcement conducted. The Newman government's latest move, the Vicious Lawless Association Disestablishment Act, is intended to prevent crime and increase public safety and security by disrupting and detaining people who associate with criminal gangs.

The question is whether this is a legitimate and effective way of maintaining law and order or whether it represents a draconian and dangerous form of government overreach. We believe it is the latter. The Newman government claims ''there is no alternative way to achieve the policy objectives''. We say that is nonsense.

First, Australia has numerous, long-standing laws that control interaction between people (such as an intervention order), but limitations on cherished freedoms should only be imposed when it is deemed absolutely necessary to preserve the safety and security of the community - and, even then, it should be done in very limited and tightly proscribed circumstances, and with judicial oversight.

The Newman government did not seek outside advice on these laws because, in its view, there was a pressing need ''to respond urgently to the significant public threat these associations pose in Queensland''. We do not doubt for one minute that some members of bikie gangs represent very real and serious dangers to the community. The gangs foster and enforce loyalty in extreme ways. They harbour violent members who commit unconscionable acts of violence, including murder. Several gangs, including the Rebels, Hells Angels, Bandidos, Comancheros and Gypsy Jokers, have demonstrated consummate disregard for the safety of others in public settings.

Separately, law enforcement agencies believe bikie gangs have developed highly organised, quasi-corporate structures to facilitate extensive criminal activities, including the manufacture and distribution of illicit drugs and weapons trafficking. Raids on bikie gangs in recent years have uncovered caches of high-powered firearms and other weapons, drugs, stolen property and significant sums of cash.

For all that, however, Australia's law enforcement authorities have, in the past 30 years, been given a wide range of surveillance methods to track criminal gangs and their individual members. They can tap phones, conduct covert surveillance, raid premises and seek court orders to freeze assets. Some investigating agencies, including the Australian Crime Commission, have extraordinary coercive powers of interrogation.

Tony Fitzgerald, QC, who headed a ground-breaking anti-corruption inquiry in Queensland two decades ago, recently described the Newman government's crackdown as a short-sighted effort to garner ''redneck support''. Similarly, a former NSW director of public prosecutions, Nicholas Cowdery, QC, believes the existing suite of federal and state criminal laws are sufficiently robust to deal with the threats posed by bikie gangs and their members. The Age agrees.

Legislators should aim their arsenals at offences that cause actual harm, or which threaten to seriously endanger the community. Introducing extra laws to harass people who have committed no offence, other than the concocted one of associating with someone else, may attract praise from some quarters but it is a dangerous exercise of government power.