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OPINION: It would be difficult to win a war with outlaw motorcycle gangs

Members of the Finks motocycle gang. Picture: Joe Castro

Members of the Finks motocycle gang. Picture: Joe Castro Source: AAP

ONCE more a Queensland Attorney-General has announced new measures to crack down on outlaw motorcycle gangs.

This time, Jarrod Bleijie has promised "the toughest (laws) in the world", a message designed to instil fear in members of those gangs and calm community concerns over the seemingly escalating gang-related violence on the Gold Coast.

But this week's announcement is the latest of a series of identical statements made by this government and its Labor predecessor, and after many years of trying, little has been achieved in the so-called war on bikies. What is going wrong? And what more needs to be done?

Since 2008, most states and territories around Australia have experimented with laws to prohibit criminal organisations. This idea first arose in South Australia, where then premier Mike Rann sought to ban the Finks motorcycle club in the hope this would end infiltration of Adelaide's club and drug scene by criminal gangs.

Then, after the shooting of a club member at Sydney Airport in March 2009, the NSW government introduced identical laws, which, according to then premier Nathan Rees, would "smash the gangs right away".

Queensland, along with other states, followed. But the South Australian and NSW laws were struck down by the High Court because of concerns over the process by which gangs were to be banned and infringements of basic human rights, including the freedom of association and the rights of the accused. Some of these concerns have since been addressed and Criminal Organisations Acts or similarly termed laws are now in place in most parts of Australia. Yet the biker gang violence continues.

Bleijie's new proposals include the introduction of anti-organised crime laws based on the US's RICO Act. RICO - the Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organisations Act - came into force in 1970 in an effort to combat organised crime. In short, this Act places tough penalties on criminal enterprises that engage in multiple, serious offences over a period of time. But RICO laws are unusually complex and often difficult to grasp for prosecutors and juries alike, which is why many prosecutions under the Act have been unsuccessful.

These laws do not fit well into Australia's criminal justice system and there is no evidence they can be successfully applied to prevent and suppress biker gang-related crime. Perhaps most importantly, there is no evidence this law can be successfully applied to prevent and suppress biker gang related crime. While RICO was used in the 1990s to arrest many members of New York's notorious Mafia families, attempts to use RICO against the Hells Angels and other biker gangs have largely failed.

Members show their patch, or colours, of the bikie gang Mongols MC (Motorcycle Club).

Members show their patch, or colours, of the bikie gang Mongols MC (Motorcycle Club).

Another Bleijie initiative is an incentive scheme by which members of the community can earn up to $500,000 for dobbing in members of biker gangs (by passing on information that may lead to their arrest and prosecution).

This idea has merit insofar as few persons within and outside the gangs are willing to work with police and report criminal activity for fear of threats and retaliation. But a comprehensive witness protection program may be a better, more sophisticated, and more sustainable alternative.

While many countries around the world are struggling to find the ultimate weapon in their war on organised crime, some models have emerged that are better and fairer than those in operation and proposed in Queensland.

One such model can be found in Australia's federal criminal law, where offences exist to punish those who direct a criminal organisation and who commit offences on their behalf. These provisions, introduced in late 2009, are based on identical provisions in the Canadian Criminal Code and comply with the international framework established by the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organised Crime. These offences also have the advantage that they apply across Australia and can be used in extradition, mutual legal assistance and other forms of co-operation with other countries. This means suspects cannot evade a prosecution in Australia simply by travelling overseas.

What is missing from the many new tough measures to combat biker gangs is a basic understanding of the causes, characteristics and consequences of the biker gang scene on the Gold Coast, across Queensland and around Australia. A distinction between the criminal elements in these clubs, and those who join for sheer joy of large motorbikes, is also lacking.

There is nothing criminal about being a member of a motorcycle club. It is another thing to sell drugs, engage in violent acts, or commit other crimes for a biker gang. The proposed measures do not recognise that difference.

Despite the hype around this topic, the organisation of biker gangs, their members and their activities - both legal and illegal - remain poorly understood.

Bikie gang members show their confidence before anti-association laws were overturned in South Australia.

Bikie gang members show their confidence before anti-association laws were overturned in South Australia.

What is needed in light of recent events is a thorough investigation and analytical research at a national level of what is behind the phenomenon of bikie gangs, and their frequent attacks and brawls.

And what is needed are solutions that are based on an understanding of the patterns and level of the biker gang scene and laws and measures proven to make an impact. are the only way to make a difference to this problem

Dr Andreas Schloenhardt is a Professor of Criminal Law at The University of Queensland and Visiting Professor at the University of Vienna, Austria.




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