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Consorting with intent


Jack Waterford

The introduction of consorting and anti-association laws will do little to address the ACT's bikie problems, which are all but non-existent.

A motorbike rider protesting bikie laws arrives on the front lawn of Parliament House on December 1 last year.

A motorbike rider protesting bikie laws arrives on the front lawn of Parliament House on December 1 last year. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Good to see that Rudi Lammers, the Sir Robert Peel of the ACT, and Simon Corbell, our first law officer have put consorting and anti-association laws back on the public menu.

This is a result of the great 2015 Bikie Massacree where a shot fired at a house in south Canberra is thought to have been associated with a dispute about the defection of a number of Canberra Rebels to the Comancheros.

Apparently there have been five mysterious shootings, (other than by policemen of wounded dogs, possums and kangaroos in the ACT) in recent times. Only one is thought to have anything to do with the bikie "crime wave", such as it is, which is not much. Nor is it any evidence of that invasion of the ACT by armed bikie drug dealers as a result of the disappointing failure of this jurisdiction to follow the moral panic in other states and territories in forbidding the association of any two people whom a commissioner of police, or perhaps a judge, considers to be a potential conspiracy to disturb the public peace at some future time.

Corbell has put a worried look on his face, and promised to consider any proposals formally put by police, after a softening-up campaign assisted by (I suspect) scripted questions put by broadcast journalists to Lammers. Lammers is is deeply concerned about the safety of decent citizens sleeping in their beds at night. 

When attorneys-general from the other states were individually whipping themselves into lathers of indignation about the bikie menace a few years ago, each passed differing legislation each claimed to be the "toughest" in Australia, Corbell stood firm against panic, and, in a more statesmanlike way than usual, did nothing at all.

Loud critics, particularly from the Liberal Party and police associations confidently predicted a mass influx of refugee bikie boat people, seeking to profit from the permissiveness of Corbell and our courts. If it has eventuated, I haven't noticed. (So far as anyone can see, the local tribal warfare, with or without gunshots, is native to the area, rather than a result of "foreign" invasion.)

Corbell's apathy, indifference and passivity in the face of the confected and bipartisan law and order "crisis" did not appear to spark any local crime waves, assuming that Lammers, ACT Policing, the judiciary or the citizenry would notice if they saw one.

Nor, (at least according to the opinion of some folk I know with an ear to the ground) has it made any difference whatsoever to the local supply of drugs, even the types of drugs that the gentlemen in question are said to manufacture and distribute, or ruling prices.  

The same snouts, incidentally, cannot think anyway of an occasion in which it could be confidently said that the activity of the AFP, or, particularly, its ACT Policing subsidiary had ever made the faintest difference to local supply or price. There are fluctuations but these can usually be explained by factors other than local police or customs activity.

This does not mean the ACT does not more than pull its weight in the consumption of illegal drugs, or in the persistence of the absurd farce of police pretending to think their activity can stop it.

Corbell may not be stampeded by the Lammers' campaign. To questions on Friday, I was told by a spokesman, "The ACT has consistently maintained the position that legislation that provides for the declaration or proscribing of certain criminal groups, such as outlaw motorcycle gangs, is not an approach it supports. This position is unchanged.

"The Attorney-General has indicated he is considering options to reintroduce a consorting offence in relation to people convicted of serious criminal offences. Any such proposal will be the subject of detailed public consultation prior to any final policy decision being taken. The attorney  has also indicated any such proposal would need to achieve a statement of compatibility under the ACT Human Rights Act."

"The decision to request development of policy options in relation to a possible consorting offence was made by the attorney prior to the recent shooting incidents in the ACT."

The AFP never responds to any questions I put to it, and did not last week. So I am not privy to whatever, if anything, is in the AFP mind about some crisis demanding strong and decisive action to stop bikies associating with each other.

I expect they want something draconian, the creation of new crimes of being potential villains, various legal short cuts including the reversal of the onus of proof, penalties that are heavier than whatever they are, and the sanctification of the opinion of some responsible official, say an ACT Police Commissioner about what "police intelligence" has led him to "believe".

One can expect that after the passage of such legislation, a few spectacular raids, removal of the blood of the odd police officer and civilians who have been shot or shot themselves in the process, all ACT citizens will be safe again, not to mention happy at the exemplary quality of the most expensive and ineffective per capita police service in the nation.

So bourgeois a community has, usually, little enough crime, but rather than solving what it has, keeps asking for more things to be made illegal.

Perhaps the ACT could go backwards, rather than forwards in addressing the problem.

At the time the ACT was detached from NSW, we inherited that state's laws against consorting and being rogues or vagabonds. Its great catch-all provision was section 4, which could not only still be the thing against bikies, but, probably, clean up those pesky Aborigines at the embassy in front of the original Parliament House.

"Whosoever," section 4 begins

(a) having no visible lawful means of support ... .

(b) not being an Aboriginal or the child of an Aboriginal lodges or wanders in company with any Aboriginal ...

(c) being a common prostitute wanders in any street or public highway or behaves in a riotous or indecent manner in any place of public resort

(d) being a habitual drunkard thrice convicted of drunkenness within the preceding 12 months behaves in a riotous or indecent manner in any street, public highway or place of public resort

(e) is the holder of a house frequented by reputed thieves ....

(g) wanders abroad or places himself in a public place, street, highway court or passage to beg or gather alms ...

Shall on conviction before any justice be liable to imprisonment with hard labour for a term not exceeding six months.

The "booking" system against consorting, by which a person had his or her name written in a cop's notebook, and could be sent away for a year for consorting with known or reputed criminals, did not come into effect until after some of the "excesses" of the Razor Gangs in Darlinghurst, Sydney, in the 1920s, but, though the ACT was not experiencing gang wars over the distribution of sly grog and cocaine, they found their way into ACT law during one of the periodic revisions of the NSW Crimes Act.

Strictly speaking, not many (perhaps no) ACT person was ever jailed for consorting, though a number were booked, and the ACT Police had, during the 1960s and early 1970s a Consorting Squad, which focused on gathering intelligence about ACT criminals, in part by threats of charges under the consorting laws.

The ACT criminal classes were then, as now limited in number (at best about 0.5 per cent of the population), and, at any given time, a member of them was likely to be in the company of (perhaps even the spouse, workmate or close relation of) another actual or reputed criminal. The law, like most modern state bikie association laws, was no respecter of family ties, birthday parties, or casual encounters at the pub, so the threat of being booked was real enough, even if rarely carried through.

Alas, almost all blue-collar ACT criminals of the time were of a fairly low-rent sort,  organised crime in the district almost oxymoronic, and the intelligence, "mail" or inside knowledge garnered was rarely probative, even if occasionally useful in connecting the dots.

Crims, like modern drug fiends, being like they are, usually only accidentally inculpate themselves, but were often very forthcoming, under pressure, about the activities of others. 

The main benefit of the ACT Consorting Squad was in serving as a way of sending the best and brightest detectives on secondment up to Kings Cross in Sydney. Sydney had "real" crime, and, apparently, real detectives, and it was by association and experience with such people - men such as, for example, Ray "Gunner" Kelly, Freddy Krahe, and Roger Rogerson - that seasoned ACT police could learn the jargon, the ways and the professional cynicism. Few of those "blooded" by the experience seemed to be aware that their heroes had taken control of organised crime in the most literal of senses.

In those days, ACT Police dealt with the invasion of foreign troublemakers by what was called the Gundaroo Express - driving felons to the border and pointing the way north, south and west.

But, by the late 1960s, a few proto-Hells Angels established themselves in Dickson, the local media (including, I regret to say, this newspaper became hysterical) and a special, if informal police squad was established to encourage the gentlemen involved to look for business opportunities elsewhere.

Not to put too fine a point on it, the squad was deputed to give the bikies a thrashing whenever they saw them. Magistrates, even citizens, did not seem to mind much, even if the odd snivelling libertarian disapproved.

Official hypocrisy and public inclination to look the other way has, over the years, been a powerful factor in breaking that link between police and community which is critical to real law and order.