Rough road: Queensland's tough new anti-bikie laws will be subjected to an array of legal challenges. Photo: Paul Harris
Queensland Premier Campbell Newman's so-called war on bikies reached a comic crescendo when a library assistant with no criminal record was jailed for a week without bail for being in a pub, a snake called Monty was confiscated in a dawn raid, and a public relations executive was harassed for doing her job. None of them is a bikie, although Monty – an unlicensed python – might be deemed a "participant in a criminal organisation" under a new criminal justice regime with the potential to arrest and imprison just about anybody.
Monty wasn't seen again after being seized during the raid on library assistant Sally Kuether's home in January, but Kuether, 40, has agreed to talk about her run-in with "justice" Queensland-style. The mother of three was the first woman caught up in the complex raft of anti-bikie legislation introduced by Newman and Attorney-General Jarrod Bleijie – a 32-year-old monarchist and one-time lay preacher – late last year. She now faces six months in solitary confinement for the "crime" of entering a hotel with her fiancÚ and one of their friends. "I've never done anything wrong in my life," she protests. "I'm not even a bikie. I can't be a bikie, I'm a chick!"
Kuether's unplanned walk on the wild side began on December 19 last year, her rostered Thursday off, when she and her fiancÚ, Phillip "Crow" Palmer, climbed aboard his Harley and went for a ride to the little town of Dayboro, north-west of Brisbane.
Rough justice?: librarian Sally Kuether and her partner Phillip “Crow” Palmer have both been charged under the new laws. Photo: Paul Harris
Amicably divorced from the father of their children, Kuether says she knew nothing about motorcycle gangs until meeting Palmer, 57, a patched member of the Life and Death club, last year. Not phased by his "Life and Death" forehead tattoo, she calls him a "big teddy bear". However, Palmer's club (with only a dozen members in Queensland) was one of 26 bikie groups declared "criminal organisations" under changes to the criminal code accompanying the new Vicious Lawless Association Disestablishment Act, or VLAD, part of Newman's campaign to drive outlaw gangs from the state.
Kuether and Palmer were joined on their ride by another Life and Death member, Ronald Germain, 61. Both men wore their club vests; Kuether (not a club member) wore a vest Palmer had given her that bore the words "Life and Death" and "Property of Crow". When they reached Dayboro, the trio entered a pub, drank two light beers each, and left. And that was it: the alleged crime had been committed, and was duly recorded on the pub's CCTV cameras.
Kuether says she had no idea anything was wrong until five weeks later, on January 24 this year, when armed police from the anti-bikie Taskforce Maxima pounded on the door of her home on Brisbane's bayside at 6.15am: "They were all in bullet-proof vests. They were just everywhere. And instantly it was like, 'Sit on that chair! Don't move!' I thought, 'What's going on? What have we done?' "
Brother in arms: Steve McCrohan joined the Rebels in search of the cameraderie he missed from his army days. Photo: Paul Harris
TV news outlets used footage of Palmer being taken away in handcuffs. Kuether, nursing her son's pet snake in a pillowcase, was taken in separately and charged with knowingly participating in a criminal gang in public, and remaining in a licensed premises while wearing a prohibited item. Police, lawyers and journalists have struggled to interpret the new, US-style association laws, so it's not surprising Kuether still seems to have no clear idea of what she's supposed to have done.
But police allege that by being with two members of a declared criminal organisation in a public place, she became a "participant", and because of the ban on three or more members of criminal organisations (which includes "participants") gathering in public, and another law forbidding the wearing of motorcycle club colours in licensed premises, Kuether had committed the alleged offences.
She was horrified to learn that, if convicted, a court would have no option but to imprison her in solitary confinement for a mandatory six months. With the automatic right to bail also removed under the new laws, Kuether had to spend six nights in the Pine Rivers Watch House before being granted bail release in the Brisbane Magistrate's Court. She is seeing a psychiatrist in a bid to overcome her fear of going to jail. "It's horrible," she says. "Being in prison is yucky ... and I couldn't be in contact with my kids. The whole thing has just done my head in."
Steve McCrohan: “Take away the uniforms and the rank structure, and the army isn’t dissimilar to a bike club.” Photo: Paul Harris
In March, outlaw motorcycle clubs and recreational riders lodged a High Court appeal through the United Motorcycle Council Queensland (UMCQ) to overturn sections of the anti-bikie legislation as unconstitutional. Court appearances by those charged under the new laws have been delayed until the appeal is heard.
As the name implies, outlaw bikies do commit more than their share of crime. Some of them are also brutish and menacing and given to fighting among themselves like pig dogs on speed, and most are about as welcome in contemporary Australian social settings as Ivan Milat or Martin Bryant. But do they really, as Queensland deputy police commissioner Brett Pointing passionately asserts, "have criminal activity as their core reason for being"?
In the lead-up to "Can Do" Campbell Newman's unprecedented legal crackdown, it's easy to see how people got that impression. On the Gold Coast, especially, bikies seemed out of control, with turf wars, fire-bombings, shootings, stabbings, and the now notorious mass brawl outside a Broadbeach tapas bar on September 27 last year. Sparked by a typically dumb-arsed dispute over a girl, the Friday night melee led to 30 charges, including affray and riot, and has been acknowledged as the catalyst for Newman's outraged response.
Yet the brawl itself amounted to little more than a few bruises and a lot of noise. What stung authorities was footage viewed around the world of outnumbered police, in Queensland's richest tourism zone, wandering helplessly about the fringes as the bikies went at it.
"That was just terrible vision," says Dr Terry Goldsworthy, a Bond University criminologist and former Queensland policeman. "On that night there were reportedly only 48 police working on the whole Gold Coast, which I find amazing, given there are more than 800 police in the area."
Goldsworthy spent eight of his 28 years in the police as a detective inspector with the Gold Coast criminal investigation branch, where bikie gangs were part of his beat. The ex-cop says the VLAD regime is over-the-top, undemocratic and unnecessary, and that with extra police and resources, existing laws would have done the job. He believes police numbers on the tourist strip weren't being properly utilised, and that this emboldened the bikies. "I don't know why this was allowed to happen," he says, "but [the Broadbeach brawl] added to the perception of police not being in control. This led to the government having to be seen to be tough on crime, which is always a vote winner."
Under the VLAD regime, which cost $20 million to implement, 120 police have been dedicated exclusively to the bikie wars. Yet Goldsworthy says he can't think of one "big hit" by police that couldn't have been accomplished without the new laws: "The interesting thing is the laws haven't achieved the public approval level expected, and have turned out to be quite unpopular."
He puts this down to the petty nature of the early arrests, and the way they were zealously "marketed" by the government. "People saw a lovesick librarian running around in a pub with a bikie jacket on and thought, 'Well, who cares? Where is the serious criminal enterprise going on there?' "
For those old enough to remember, Sally Kuether's ordeal also evoked Queensland's bad old days of the 1970s and '80s, when innocent bystanders often became collateral damage under the corrupt Joh Bjelke-Petersen regime. Back then, the demagogue premier's catch-all response to critics was, "Don't you worry about that!"
Dormant paternalism rang out anew last December, when Taskforce Maxima detective Brendan Smith urged people with bikie friends to abandon them forever: "It cannot be socially acceptable to be a friend of a bikie. You have to learn it is not on in Queensland."
While rushing through the VLAD changes, Newman and Bleijie (both fulsome admirers of the late Bjelke-Petersen) also amended legislation to give Bleijie the power to over-rule courts and keep serious sex offenders in prison indefinitely. As condemnation grew, the pair responded, just as Bjelke-Petersen might have, with furious attacks on their critics as "apologists" for criminal bikies and paedophiles.
Newman and Bleijie attacked the judiciary, defence lawyers, academics and civil libertarians. They attacked unions and other groups for suggesting the association laws could be used as a political weapon against virtually anyone, even though the VLAD Act defines "association" as meaning "... any group of three or more persons by whatever name called, whether associated formally or informally and whether the group is legal or illegal." They then went on to effectively neuter the Crime and Misconduct Commission, the key institution to emerge from the corruption inquiry by Tony Fitzgerald, QC that ended the long, dark Bjelke-Petersen era in the late 1980s.
But unlike Bjelke-Petersen, Newman and Bleijie are poll-driven politicians. And when the new laws failed to crack the complex "criminal networks" they seemed to believe were operating from bikie clubhouses – nabbing instead people like Kuether, and five Rebels (three from the same family) held for weeks in solitary confinement for allegedly being in their local pub at Yandina – they sensed a PR disaster.
When the Yandina arrestees began styling themselves as folk heroes, and marketing "Yandina Five" T-shirts (Kuether wore her "Dayboro Three" version to the interview), Newman and Bleijie attacked PR woman Margaret Lawson, the owner of Cole Lawson Communications in Brisbane, apparently in the belief that she was behind the bikie fightback. "If the Yandina Five got someone to brand up some T-shirts, it sure as hell wasn't on my advice," Lawson tells me. At that stage, she says, all she'd done was organise a press conference for the UMCQ (the group funding the High Court challenge) and write a few press releases. For this, she was set upon by Newman's beaverish army of spin doctors.
Lawson, 35, is no closet radical. She generally votes conservative, and once worked as a Liberal National Party (LNP) media adviser, but makes no bones of her opposition to the new laws. In the past she's worked for the UMCQ in other states, including South Australia and NSW, where High Court challenges led to the overturning of less severe versions of the VLAD regime. In 2009, Lawson's company even briefed the LNP opposition about the civil liberties implications of the Bligh Labor government's Criminal Organisation Act, which also sought to control bikie gangs.
A court order was needed to declare any organisation "criminal" under Labor's legislation, yet Bleijie in opposition railed against the potential loss of personal liberties involved. "A government that tries to remove these freedoms and liberties," the former conveyancing solicitor warned back then, "is a government that is to be feared."
Five years later, with the political tables turned, Newman and Bleijie made a series of public statements suggesting "criminal gangs" had hired a "spin company" to "paint a false picture of innocence" and "spin a message of innocence and fear" on their behalf. Lawson says they didn't need to name her company: it's the only PR firm engaged by UMCQ.
Newman's media advisers urged journalists to investigative Lawson's firm and its supposed "links" with "criminal gangs". One journalist rang around her corporate clients asking about her work with bikies, and a friend of Lawson's with LNP links was pressured by an adviser in the party's head office to get her to "pull her head in" over the issue. "I have other friends who work for people friendly with Campbell Newman," says Lawson, "and Campbell's friends were suddenly asking my friends about me, like what was I getting paid and all that."
Also marching into the fray was Brigadier Bill Mellor, a friend and former army colleague of Newman's, controversially appointed by the premier to command the anti-bikie "whole-of-government Strategic Monitoring Team". Lawson says Mellor's separate team of spinners told journalists that she'd "spread misinformation" about bikies in the past. "That was just bullshit," she adds, "but it still ended up in a News Ltd column."
The bullying reached a familiar frenzy when Des Houghton from The Courier-Mail got involved. A sort of Deep North Andrew Bolt without the lucid moments, Houghton has been on a constant feed from Newman's office over the new laws.
Lawson: "When Houghton rang me, he was semi-abusive from the start. The issue for him was that I was, 'Taking money from criminals!' I told him I got paid by Irish Bentley Lawyers, from a trust account containing donations [for the appeal]. And he was like, 'Well, where's the money from? How do you know it didn't come from criminals?' I told him a number of unions had donated to the trust account, and he said, 'Well, they're all criminals! So you just admitted you take money from criminals!' "
Lawson shakes her head. "I was almost in tears. I tried to reason with him, but it was just impossible." The damaging attacks on Lawson's company ended only after she sent a cease and desist letter to Newman threatening legal action.
As Brisbane's only daily print newspaper, Rupert Murdoch's Courier-Mail sets the news agenda for the state. And since last year, when it underwent a change of editorial management, the paper has been squarely behind Newman on pretty well every issue.
The propaganda feed to The Courier-Mail is best illustrated by an unresolved investigation involving the acting chairman of the Crime and Misconduct Commission, Dr Ken Levy. Soon after the new laws were enacted, Tony Fitzgerald, QC, jolted from his preferred obscurity, dealt Newman and Bleijie a series of resounding whacks in a Courier-Mail opinion piece: "... parliamentarians ... don't have a mandate to give effect to prejudices and ill-informed opinions, ignore ethics and conventions, or attack fundamental values such as personal freedom or essential institutions such as the judiciary".
Fitzgerald argued that repressive laws weren't effective, and that "laws which erode individual freedom and expand a state's power over its citizens are fraught with peril. Although free societies provide opportunities which criminals can exploit, in totalitarian states the worst criminals are commonly those in power."
Newman responded by getting Levy, of the supposedly independent anti-corruption Crime and Misconduct Commission (now called the Crime and Corruption Commission), to write his own opinion piece in support of the new laws. Levy did this, after some apparent reluctance, in an article published by The Courier-Mail last October: "The Attorney-General and the Premier ... are taking the strong action that is required."
Levy was asked at a sitting of the Parliamentary Crime and Misconduct Committee (PCMC), whether he'd had discussions with "anyone from the government" before submitting his article. Levy denied that he had. A few days later, he contacted the PCMC to say he'd made an "error", and that he had been contacted by Newman's senior media adviser, Lee Anderson. But he denied that Newman or anyone from his office had asked him to write the article.
Then Anderson gave evidence to the PCMC that he had approached Levy on Newman's behalf and asked him to write the piece. Anderson said he'd proposed the theme of the article to Levy, "prepped" him for a possible interview with the newspaper, and suggested Houghton as the journalist Levy should speak to. Houghton's interview with Levy ran the day before Levy's opinion piece, and concluded: "Mr Levy said the Newman Government crackdown had rocked the criminal gangs."
Two days after Anderson's stark contradiction of Levy's evidence, with calls growing for Levy to resign, Newman instead used his huge government majority to sack the entire PCMC, claiming it was biased against Levy. The following morning, Houghton posted Levy's defence of the VLAD regime on his Courier-Mail "Pineapple Politics" blog site, with the comment: "Here is a re-run of the popular essay by CMC boss Ken Levy that so upset supporters of the criminal bikie gangs."
The Queensland Opposition voted with the LNP to pass the new laws, but has since vowed to repeal them, saying they've gone too far and are "affecting innocent Queenslanders". Part of the grounds for the High Court challenge is that the laws were enacted without judicial review, thus dodging the normal democratic checks and balances.
"They are the most extraordinary and embarrassing set of laws that I'm aware of in Australia's history," says Zeke Bentley of Irish Bentley Lawyers. Bentley will lead the challenge (expected to begin in September) with Sydney barrister Wayne Baffsky, who won an appeal against similar legislation in NSW.
Of the 26 motorcycle groups declared criminal under the Newman legislation, only 14 operate in Queensland. They include the Bandidos, Hells Angels, Mongols/Finks, Nomads, Rebels, Black Uhlans and Odin's Warriors. "For the government to apply these laws to other groups [criminal or not], all it requires is a ministerial directive," says Bentley. He likens the laws to those used by military dictatorships: "The really sinister thing is that the exact people affected by them cannot protest in public or they'll be associating."
The association net will be spread wider from July 1, when tradies and others with past or present "links" to bikie gangs could lose their trading licences and their livelihoods under legislative amendments that formed stage two of the crackdown. Bentley says the amendments mean even tradies holding planning meetings at construction sites will be at risk: "If there's three or more guys present who've met a member of a motorcycle club, that constitutes an 'association' ... and could lead to six months' solitary confinement."
Since polling showed the unpopularity of the new laws, Newman and Bleijie have gone to ground on the theme, leaving comment to senior police. Both men declined to be interviewed for this story. In early May, police released government data professing to show that bikie gangs contain 30 times the number of criminals found in the broader community. At that time, 866 bikie gang "participants" had been prosecuted on 1986 charges since the crackdown, but no figures were given for charges against actual gang members.
Ex-cop Terry Goldsworthy says that although bikies commit more than their share of crime, it's not organised but "disorganised, stupid crime" involving mostly low-level drug, assault and driving offences. (Statistics for the 2011-12 financial year show outlaw bikies were responsible for less than 1 per cent of all offences reported in south-east Queensland.)
"The real problem police have," adds Goldsworthy, "is that they're not charging anyone for [being involved in] criminal enterprises within the gangs, which would indicate that bikies operate as individuals, and not as gangs with a common criminal purpose."
Former Australian Army major Steve McCrohan, 54, served in Rwanda and East Timor before being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He left the service in 2003. With his marriage over and his mind plagued by images of Rwanda's "human hell", McCrohan felt increasingly isolated. "After 26 years in the army," the vet explains in a Brisbane cafe, "I was just lost. I'm very much a male-oriented guy – I'm into man hugs and all that stuff, and I missed the mateship."
He owned a Harley but hadn't thought of joining a club until bumping into an army friend who'd become a Rebel. In 2005, McCrohan overcame his "reservations" and joined the club himself. Like many other alienated ex-servicemen, McCrohan found the bikie brotherhood reassuringly familiar. "Take away the uniforms and the rank structure," he says, "and the army isn't dissimilar to a bike club. In any big group of men there's always an element that sways to the wrong side, but for the Rebels I mix with it's all about camaraderie and good times." In 2009, when McCrohan was hospitalised after a mental breakdown, "the lads in the club wrapped their arms around me and got me through it".
He was back in hospital last October, this time for a knee replacement, when Newman appeared on TV spruiking his new anti-bikie laws. "He called us grubs, scum and criminals, and likened us to paedophiles," McCrohan recalls, grim-faced. "I lay there and just felt sick at the idea of one man dictating this agenda to the population. My parents were against me being in a bike club, but after these laws came in my mother said, 'Steven, you fight these buggers!' "
So he did, accepting an invitation from the ABC's 7.30 program to air his grievances about the laws in late January. A few days afterwards, McCrohan was told his security pass for entry to Brisbane's Enoggera Barracks military base (where he was president of a fellowship association for one of his old units) had been mysteriously cancelled.
An officer from Enoggera Barracks rang him and apologised, but could offer no explanation. "I know it had nothing to do with the fellowship group because I told them after the new laws came in that I wouldn't be quitting the Rebels, and they overwhelmingly voted me back as president."
Because association meetings are held at the barracks, McCrohan had to resign as president, cutting the last link with his army "family". A friend in the military suggested the federal Defence Intelligence Organisation might be behind the security withdrawal, but McCrohan hasn't been able to confirm this. "The whole thing just made me feel dirty," he tells me. "I'm not a criminal, despite what that wild west sheriff with the shit-eating smile [Newman] says, because I haven't done anything wrong. But mate, I still feel dirty."