Attorney-General Jarrod Bleijie.

Attorney-General Jarrod Bleijie has gone too far. Photo: Glenn Hunt


Populist governments need an enemy.

That isn't a quote from Macchiavelli, but a repeat lesson from Queensland politics.

As we enter the third week of the Newman government's 'war' on bikies, the body count is nil.

But chalk up several rushed pieces of legislation, and the theatrics of some club members laying down their colours.

Of course 'bikies' are not real enemies. Nor are a handful of sexual offenders who have served their time. It is behaviour and systemic risk, not caricatures, that require policing and corrections.

Real enemies exist only in war-time. Wars however cost lives, and waste massive resources. So governments and the media sometimes construct lesser levels of enemies. 'Goodies' and 'baddies' are essential in this, especially in selling a simple narrative.

In recent days, we have been treated to cheesy, two-dimensional profiles of Attorney-General Jarrod Bleijie as 'Boy Wonder'. Mr Bleijie may be young, but he's not a figment in some superhero show. He's just the latest in a line of very cluey politicians inflated by power.

With their insignia and hyper-blokey get-ups, bikies almost step off the cartoon pages. Don't mistake me. Gangs waging battles against each other to racketeer is no comic matter. But our criminal legislation is already voluminous enough.

Promising to build a special prison for motorcycle gangs means building a gulag. Since gathering gang members under one roof is potentially counter-productive, the prison has to be modelled as repressively as possible, lest its inmates communicate with each other!

Do we really want the Vicious Lawless Association Disestablishment Act? This act literally turns 'any group of three', who associate to say possess a drug, even one like marijuana, into 'vicious lawless associates'.

Yes, that could include your teenage son and his mates. For such an offence, a judge could be required to sentence them 15 years, without parole.

Do we really want an Attorney-General empowered to appeal, to himself, against a court order to release a sex offender who has served his allotted time?

The answer is that many of us do. These laws are sold, unexamined, to deal with bogey-men. We are asked to trust the executive with great power. It's good politics, but it's bad principle. And law without principle is like driving without a map.

The Newman government does, of course, have real opponents, though few are in Parliament. It has the union movement, a declining force now facing an intricate legislative noose. A couple of months ago the government straitjacketed unions' political campaigns.

Last week, centuries-old common law rights of injured workers were reduced. And in the next few weeks, the government will enact a 252-page Fair Work Harmonisation Bill. Much of this is machinery. But two illiberal provisions stand out.

The government will be able to appoint industrial commissioners for as short a term as one year. A tribunal whose members have no security has its independence imperilled. But this law will go beyond breaching that general principle.

Government bodies are the usual respondents to state-level industrial disputes. Imagine hearing a protracted dispute, knowing that one party to the case will soon decide if you keep your job. This risks putting the commission – and government – in an impossible position.

It will also become an offence for an employer to agree with an employee to forward her union dues out of her wages. Yet your superannuation contributions or your health insurance will be payroll deductible. This will criminalise a purely private agreement, just to niggle unions.

Debt, critical levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases: here are today's real problems. But to name them is to highlight the political difficulties in addressing them. These are abstractions to most people. We can't see a debt mountain, public or private. Nor can we touch greenhouse gases.

Populists sometimes try to align these problems with caricatured enemies. Think profligate treasurers, irresponsible banks, and polluting industries. But these problems are too large. Not just large in the sense of big. They are large because they implicate us all, as part of the problem.

Government spending represents services, infrastructure and fellow citizens' jobs. Mountains of private debt include your neighbour's negatively geared loan. And global warming involves our collective consumption of energy.

With such complex problems, there are no cartoon enemies. Liberal democracy takes time. It involves a willingness to share power, to listen, to respect complexity, to know the limits of law. It requires a diverse media, and an attentive electorate.

Queensland, after 154 years of self-government, still has trouble handling the nuances of liberal democracy. That's not a lament. It's an historical truth.

Graeme Orr is a professor of law at the University of Queensland