Bikers and lawyers are united in a stand against laws they claim are unconstitutional
AT first glance, Finks bikie club member and tattoo shop proprietor Frank Perram might seem an unlikely aficionado of the doctrine of the separation of powers.
But across Australia, bikies such as Perram have been boning up on constitutional law as they step up a legal and political campaign against laws being introduced state by state that allow them to be jailed for up to five years on the basis of secret evidence that cannot be tested in court. They say it's a struggle winning public support.
"Some of our blokes are saying 'I'll go to jail if I have to', and I tell them nobody cares," Perram says. "I tell them you're not standing up for whales or asylum-seekers. As far as the public is concerned you're just a scabby bikie who deserves to rot in jail."
Despite public antipathy, the United Motorcycle Council, representing 12 clubs including the Finks, Hells Angels, Rebels, Comancheros and Bandidos, has won powerful backing from civil libertarians and lawyers who argue the laws are in breach of the Constitution because they treat courts as the tools of government and deny the right to a fair trial.
"My honest opinion is it's completely un-Australian," Perram says. This is a judgment he is seemingly qualified to make. In 2004, Perram was awarded an Order of Australia for his charitable work for the community.
A successful businessman who previously ran a Ford dealership on Sydney's north shore, he has been a donor to surf lifesaving clubs on the northern beaches, to which he says he's contributed more than $400,000.
He works with local youth support groups finding jobs for juvenile offenders. He also set up the Melissa Walters Foundation, named for a Sydney girl who lost her arm in a boat accident, to raise money for trauma victims who have no access to insurance, compensation or financial support.
But in the past year or so, Perram has found that no one wants his money. "It's this idea that there's not a good biker in the world and it's all drug money, and [bikie clubs] make themselves look good by donating money."
He recently went to a surf lifesaving function on the northern beaches and was told they didn't want his donations. It was the same when he sought a loan from his local bank branch, where the Finks deposit the takings from their tattoo parlours.
Bikies in NSW have been feeling the heat since March last year when a vicious brawl broke out at Sydney airport between members of the Hells Angels and Comancheros in which Hells Angel Anthony Zervas, 29, was allegedly bludgeoned to death.
Ten days later, the Crimes (Criminal Organisation Control) Act was rushed through parliament with minimal debate. The act, which is modelled on similar legislation in South Australia, allows the police commissioner to ask the Supreme Court to declare any organisation whose members are accused by police of criminal activity and regarded as a threat to public safety and order. The declaration can be based on so-called criminal intelligence, classified police information that cannot be revealed to the affected parties or their lawyers.
The evidence may be heard in secret and the judge does not have to give any reasons for a declaration. Members of declared organisations can then be subject to control orders that prevent them associating with each other and prohibit them from working in a range of fields, including hotels, security, bookmaking or motor vehicle sales or repairs. The penalty for a breach is two years in jail, or five years for a second or subsequent offence. It's this that Perram calls un-Australian.
"Nobody should be able to tell anyone they can't talk to somebody else. It's just ludicrous. As for secret evidence, they can make up whatever they like."
Criminologists and law enforcers question whether the laws are necessary and how effective they will be. Bond University criminologist Paul Wilson says figures from the law enforcement assistance program show that violent crimes carried out by motorcycle gangs represent only 0.3 per cent of all crime.
"There is no evidence that supports the effectiveness of tougher laws targeting groups rather than individual criminals," Wilson says. On the contrary, "laws which criminalise groups as a whole, such as bikies, increase the probability of more public violence".
He cites the experience of Quebec in Canada, where the outlawing of motorcycle gangs in the 1990s led to prison riots, arson attacks, bombings of police stations and dozens of murders.
Queensland's Crime and Misconduct Commission has advised the Queensland government to abandon its plan to adopt similar laws. It says anti-consorting laws are known to contribute to police corruption, and argues that enhancing existing powers, such as confiscation of criminal proceeds and telephone tapping, would be "more effective in disrupting organised crime networks than legislation to outlaw" them.
The new laws are unprecedented except for the counter-terrorism laws from which they borrow. The NSW legislation allows the police commissioner to target not just bikies but any "particular organisation", and defines an organisation as any group of two or more people.
"It opens up the potential for government to arbitrarily apply these criminal association laws to any political opponents or religious groups to whom it takes a dislike," Wilson says.
Critics say the potential for this has been demonstrated in South Australia, where the police commissioner has said anti-bikie laws may be used against a Christian doomsday cult, Agape Ministries, whose premises were raided in May, when police found a stockpile of weapons and explosives.
The NSW act allows the attorney-general to choose which judges will administer it, a feature described by NSW Director of Public Prosecutions Nicholas Cowdery as the "unfettered power to stack the hearing of applications", which he says is "extremely dangerous and potentially open to serious misuse".
The legislation dispenses with the normal rules of evidence and lowers the burden of proof from beyond reasonable doubt to the civil standard, on the balance of probabilities. Perhaps most controversially, it allows police to rely on criminal intelligence that must be kept secret on the grounds that disclosing it might endanger an informant or a police operation.
South Australia's solicitor-general told the High Court during a recent hearing that criminal intelligence may include "all kinds of rumour and innuendo [and] potentially hearsay upon hearsay".
The new laws have yet to be implemented in NSW due to a High Court challenge to the SA legislation on which they were based. But bikies are feeling the full force of existing laws.
Police say Strikeforce Raptor, set up in NSW after the incident at Sydney airport, has made 724 arrests, laid 1552 charges, and seized 174 guns, $1 million in cash and large quantities of drugs.
Christian motorcycle groups, which account for four of the 18 clubs in the UMC, are concerned they're being targeted as well.
"It's well documented that not all [outlaw motorcycle groups] are criminals, but under this legislation they are treated as if they are," says Greg Hirst from the Brotherhood Christian Motorcycle Club. "We wouldn't be involved in the UMC if it was a criminal organisation. It's about a group of people trying to lobby against unfair and dangerous legislation [that] can be used and will be used to punish people who haven't been convicted of a crime."
Hirst says one Christian club member in South Australia was recently refused permission for a temporary liquor licence for a club event on the grounds that he was not a fit and proper person because he had a friend who was a member of the Finks, who have been declared in the state.
"He's not a criminal, he's a church person involved in Christian work, but just because he's a friend of a Fink, he was deemed not proper [and] he and his group are now targets."
The Vietnam Veterans Motorcycle Club says its members have recently been banned from drinking in RSL clubs while wearing their club colours. Club member Neil McLaughlin says last Anzac Day they were refused permission to lay a wreath at the dawn service.
"We are war veterans, we've got a right to associate, but under these laws we're falling into the same category as all the other motorcycle clubs, and that's a bigger insult to us than to any other club, because we put our lives on the line for this country," he says.
A real estate agent based at Camden on the outskirts of Sydney recently learned how easy it is to be branded an associate of an outlaw motorcycle gang.
The agent, who is also a justice of the peace and volunteer in his local bushfire brigade (and asked that his name not be published), had bought and sold property owned by members of the Rebels.
Last Anzac Day he went for a drink at a local hotel and parked his car outside a tattoo shop frequented by the Rebels.
Not long afterwards he says he noticed he was being followed by an unmarked car. He later was pulled over by two plainclothes police officers while driving home some clients.
"[The police] said their intelligence said I'm a known associate of the Rebels motorcycle club, and what was I doing at the tattoo shop. I was very uncomfortable, especially because I had clients with me," the agent says.
He went to the police station to ask them to amend their files to delete the reference to him as an associate of the Rebels, but believes nothing has been done.
"I'm not too comfortable about it because if it's on my intelligence and I get hassled about something, they're going to go hard on me because I'm a named associate."
Perram says he was once told that police intelligence identified him as an associate of a suspected criminal and said he had prior convictions for firearms offences and assaulting police.
"It was all wrong, it was just complete and utter fabrication," Perram says.
Perram and his fellow "scabby bikies" are now awaiting the judgment of the High Court, which concluded hearing arguments on the laws two weeks ago and is now considering its verdict.
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A who's who of motorcycle clubs
United Motorcycle Council of
AMBASSADORS (Christian). Motto: "He died for us, we ride for Him."
Motto: "F ... k the world. We are the people our parents warned us about." Took part in the 1984 Milperra massacre. Between 250 and 400 members.
DISCIPLES OF CHRIST (Christian). No known motto.
BLACK UHLANS. Once tipped to be one of the big-six gangs.
BROTHERHOOD (Christian). Established 30 years ago. Has strong political connections.
COMANCHERO. Also part of Milperra massacre. Bad blood with Hells Angels. About 80 members.
DIGGERS (military). All members have served at least three years in the armed forces.
FINKS. Active for more than 30 years. Named after the Wizard of Id cartoon character: "The king is a fink."
GOD SQUAD (Christian). Long-standing club linked to Concern Australia.
GYPSY JOKER. Australia's fourth-largest bikie gang, with 200 to 300 members.
HELLS ANGELS. Motto: "Hells Angels forever". World's oldest bikie gang, with about 250 members in Australia. Active in more than 30 countries.
LONE WOLF. Early member of the UMC. Based in Lismore.
NOMADS. Generally regarded as loose canons.
OUTCASTS. Motto: "Blue and gold and won't be told". Established in the 1960s. Membership fed by Pariah.
REBELS. Motto: "Outlaws elite". With an estimated 2000 members, it is Australia's largest, most notorious bikie gang. Insignia is a Confederate flag with a 1 per cent patch.
VIETNAM VETERANS. Motto: "Brothers together forever". Membership restricted to veterans of the Vietnam War.
Queensland, Western Australia and South Australia have state-based UMCs. Victoria has the Motorcycle Riders Association, Tasmania has the Tasmanian Motorcycle Council.