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Queensland's 'war' on bikie gangs goes too far

Posted Wed 16 Oct 2013, 3:03pm AEDT

The Newman Government's proposed bikie laws shred the rule of law. It's dangerous stuff but the question that must concern us all is, why stop at bikie gangs? writes Greg Barns.

The Liberal National Party government of Queensland Premier Campbell Newman yesterday introduced new laws as part of its 'war' on bikie gangs that might make even Russian president and renowned authoritarian Vladimir Putin blush.

And because the Newman government dominates the state's Legislative Assembly, and there is no upper house to scrutinise proposed laws, the dark image of Queensland as a repressive state, engendered by the excesses of the government of Joh Bjelke Petersen 40 years ago, is well and truly alive again.

Queensland Attorney-General Jarrod Bleijie yesterday introduced into the Parliament the Orwellian named Vicious Lawless Association Disestablishment Bill which the government says is "designed to severely punish members of criminal organisations that commit serious offences".  

Essentially it means that if you are associated with a bikie gang and commit a crime "for the purpose of participating in the affairs of" that organisation you will be declared a 'vicious lawless associate' and you get a further 15 years mandatory imprisonment on top of the sentence imposed on you; and if you hold an official position in the organisation you get another 10 years imprisonment on top of the 15 years. 

The manifest horrendous injustice of these proposed laws is borne out by these examples.

A member of a bikie gang commits a theft by stealing a car.  If that person had no prior convictions they might only get three months jail.  But the court will have no choice but to impose at least 15 years imprisonment on that person. Similarly in the case of a person who is found in possession of drugs. No magistrate or judge should be asked to participate in such cruel outcomes.

Oh and you only get parole if you cooperate with police!  Since when has the parole system been about becoming an appendage of law enforcement?

Then there is the Tattoo Parlours Bill which the Newman Government wants to use to close down tattoo parlours because it thinks that bikies use such establishments for criminal purposes.  Like other pieces of legislation built on the premise of prohibition this one could lead to police taking bribes in exchange for turning a blind eye.

And finally the Criminal Law (Criminal Gangs Disruption) Amendment Bill which again discriminates against members of bikie gangs by increasing penalties for them if they commit certain offences. 

If you are convicted of affray and you are a member of a bikie gang you get a mandatory six months imprisonment, irrespective of your role in the fracas. You get a mandatory one-year prison term if you are convicted of seriously assaulting a police officer. But what if the officer assaults an individual?

This Bill also creates new offences, carrying a mandatory one month jail term, concerning bikie gang members associating together and promoting or recruiting their organisation.

And where is the Newman government going to put all of these individuals once they are convicted?  In a bikie gang only jail where prisoners will be locked in their cells for 23 hours a day, and given no rehabilitation. 

Such conditions of detention offend against Australia's international human rights obligations such as the Minimum Standards on the Treatment of Prisoners. 

Furthermore, persons held for 23 hours a day in their cells suffer enormous psychiatric and physical harm and the Queensland government will rightly face legal action by prisoners for that damage.

The Newman government's shredding of the rule of law is dangerous stuff indeed.  Why stop at bikie gangs?  Why not amend the relevant legislation – or better still bypass the Parliament by simply introducing regulations - to include members of environmental NGOs, trade unions, community groups, asylum seekers? 

Some will say that this notion is farfetched.  They are wrong. 

Legislation which allows government to crush the rights of individuals in one context is easily used in another.

In countries like Malaysia and Singapore old colonial laws designed to stop the locals from getting uppity have been parlayed by contemporary governments to jail opposition leaders.  In the UK the former Labour government of Gordon Brown used anti-terror laws to freeze the assets of Icelandic banks during the GFC.

The Newman Government's proposed mandatory terms of imprisonment for members or associates of bikie gangs are utterly antithetical to the purpose of punishment in a society that supposedly subscribes to the rule of law – that is, fairness and certainty. 

As the former High Court Chief Justice Gerard Brennan observed; "Criminal sanctions are purposive, and they are not inflicted judicially except for the purpose of protecting society; nor to an extent beyond what is necessary to achieve that purpose". 

To jail a person for 15 years simply because when convicted of an offence they are a member or associate of a bikie gang, could never be said to be purposive.

Queensland has never been a bastion of liberty but the Newman Government's 'war' on bikie gangs has taken a truly sinister twist with yesterday’s announcements. 

With a rubber stamp parliament and a supine media being facts of life in the sunshine state, the only force that stands against these proposed laws is the legal profession.  It is up to it to at the very least find creative ways to protect individuals from an out of control executive government.

Greg Barns is a barrister and a spokesman for the Australian Lawyers Alliance. View his full profile here.