Chilling: Queensland’s war on civil liberties

‘Frankly, I don’t care how these people go to jail,’ Queensland Premier Campbell Newman declared. He was defending his attorney-general’s unprecedented attack on civil liberties, which was publicly announced last week and rushed through parliament in less than 24 hours.

Nearly every day since has seen a new announcement: mandatory jail terms, job bans, bikies-only prisons, even pink prison uniforms.

The focus for the latest law and order campaign is bikie gangs – a target so obviously and intrinsically evil that critics of authoritarian laws can be dismissed as hand-wringing macchiato-sippers. As Malcolm Farr (himself a motorcycle enthusiast) put it:

This is the sort of bogeyman story you tell to scare kids who don’t know better. It’s not a rational explanation of laws which could prove dangerous to anyone, whether bikie gang member or not, whether in broad daylight or when the darkness of the evening comes over … [Outlaw bikie gangs] are vile. But there is nothing they do which is not already covered by existing law. They are not inventing new crimes; they are committing the old ones.

These new laws are the latest in a series of state government attempts to circumvent civil rights, which can be traced back to a NSW law aimed at jailing a named individual. Through some creative interpretation, the High Court imposed a limit on how much the separation of judicial, legislative and executive powers could be blurred. Because the Commonwealth constitution allows federal judicial power to be vested in state courts, those courts must meet a minimum level of judicial integrity. The NSW law was ruled invalid.

Alas, the full extent of this Kable principle remains ill-defined, and the states have been experimenting with different formulas to see how far they can push. But so far, the core principle has held up reasonably well. In Victoria, laws drafted to be consistent with the High Court’s rulings haven’t been used by the police, because they are required to provide a court with evidence to support their claim that a group is a criminal organisation.

But the Newman government, unconstrained by an upper house or a functioning opposition, is prepared to adopt a more aggressive approach. The unconstitutional laws will be enforced until individuals fight to have them overturned. Already police are being threatened with the sack after questioning the legality of some of their orders under the bikie crackdown.

The barrage of surprise legislation is a deliberate strategy: ‘Legislation will be challenged; in some cases it may be overturned. But we will keep trying. We will come back again and modify it. We will try different approaches, every possible approach.’

Throw enough shit at the wall and some of it will stick.

Indeed, the Queensland laws have been drafted in scatter-gun fashion. None of the legislation is limited to bikie gangs. The Vicious Unlawful Association Disestablishment Act, for instance, includes references to ‘any other group of 3 or more persons by whatever name called, whether associated formally or informally and whether the group is legal or illegal’. The Queensland Law Society notes this could include sporting groups and book clubs; the onus will be on the accused, rather than the state, to prove that ‘the relevant association is an association whose members do not have as their purpose, or one of their purposes, engaging in, or conspiring to engage in, declared offences’.

This reliance on ‘declared offences’ is a concern. The initial list of crimes includes ‘unlawful sodomy’, which, thanks to the state’s homophobic age of consent laws, includes sex that would be legal in any other part of Australia. A group of young men who meet for sex would be liable to an automatic 15 years’ jail, with no parole and no judicial discretion.

The process of listing ‘prescribed places’ is similarly flawed. Most addresses specify unit numbers, while others are nominated broadly so as to include not only clubhouses but also nearby flats. The first two bikies arrested under the new laws were reportedly arrested after they arrived at home. Their flats were allegedly prescribed places, there is no grace period to allow them to retrieve belongings and make alternative living arrangements, and they now face mandatory imprisonment with no judicial discretion.

Meanwhile, the Finks’ clubhouse on the Gold Coast isn’t on the list, despite their relationship with the US Mongols club being given as one of the reasons for the rushed legislation.

Of course, the government will correct that oversight. These lists of declared offences and prescribed places are not fixed. They can be altered without parliament’s input, and there is no limit as to the nature of what is included. It is trite to cite Niemöller but he was right: while the operation of the laws will be tested on scary bikies, they can be quickly and quietly extended to other groups. The Newman government’s planned crackdown on G20 protests shows its disdain for civil liberties is not limited to criminal organisations.

Trade unions should also be worried. Bleijie is also in charge of anti-union laws so egregious that even the IPA has condemned them. It is not fanciful to suggest he might adopt similar tactics in his battle with two groups he despises, or that other conservative governments might take up the new weapons he is developing. Liberal Party propaganda is already linking unions to bikie gangs. The application of anti-bikie laws to unions is a real possibility.

One area to watch is the extension of ‘star chamber’ powers to break down solidarity within targeted groups. Bleijie’s Crime and Misconduct Commission will have unprecedented powers to jail anyone who refuses to answer questions – even if the commission is not investigating a crime, but merely ‘gathering intelligence’. The ABCC had weaker coercive powers – abused by John Lloyd and Nigel Hadgkiss, Abbott’s picks to head the revived agency — and it is certainly possible that Bleijie’s model will be adopted by the federal government.

The legal community is incensed. The Law Society says the laws are ‘going back to our colonial days’; the Council for Civil Liberties notes Bleijie ‘was a conveyancer before he went into Parliament – that lack of experience is clearly showing’. Even the lawyer who moved Bleijie’s admission to practice has condemned his protégé’s authoritarian tactics: ‘What’s on the agenda after bikies? Who else will be for the truth serum?’

These are bad laws even when they are aimed at bikies, and they must be overturned now, before they are normalised and used against the rest of us. But, as the Queensland government knows, polite outrage from civil society won’t change the laws, and neither will High Court challenges prevent all the intrusions into judicial power.

Ultimately, this is a political problem created by the collapse of the Left in Queensland electoral politics, and it won’t be rectified without grassroots organising to rebuild.

The best defence of your freedom of association is to use it.

Robert Corr

Robert Corr is a lawyer and legal studies teacher. He was previously a prosecutor in the office of the Commonwealth DPP.

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  1. I remember a very similar but longer piece published in VSTA news at the height of the Bjelke years. Written by a teacher, it gave a chilling account of how freedoms can be so easily eroded.

  2. Maybe it’s because we are living in such a ‘soft’ society that you are seeing these laws as so ‘hard’’, Robert. True, existing laws possibly do provide us from protection from bikie gangs but the obvious question this throws up has to be – then why haven’t they worked?
    When I see the legal profession falling over themselves protesting that attacking bikies is undermining all our civil liberties I find it a little ironic as this same group is usually responsible for keeping them on the streets in the first place. You can be sure that every time one is arrested under current laws there will be a host of legal eagles ready to defend them – for liberties sake of course, the fee for service is unimportant!.
    Why don’t we all just sit back and see how it unfolds, that would be novel for a change. If it works that’s great, if it doesn’t you can bask in the warm glory of being able to say I told you so!

      1. having seen first hand the Royal commission into Kings Cross I can tell you first hand that any so called organised crime or crimes on an ongoing basis with vast amounts of money has a lot to do with Police and other corrupt government officials being heavily involved. That is the only way they can truly exist. Gold Coast Police were caught in some major trouble only a year or so ago and it was also found a number of police were actually aiding and abetting the Outlaw clubs. If Police and Government officials and their friends were truly above reproach their is now way organised crime could exist .

    1. Chris, everyone is entitled to defend themselves against charges levelled against them. They do this by engaging a lawyer. This is our judicial system at work. The prosecution has a brief of ” evidence ” given to them by the people who ” investigated ” the crime. The problem is, that the investigators are getting lazy and want to take the easy way out and their evidence is now ” because I said so … “. Judges and magistrates won’t accept this as ” proof ” of a person committing a crime, so the police went to the Conveyancer General Jarrod and asked him to come up with another way of getting their conviction rates up, hence this ridiculous farce we are faced with now.

    2. you must be one of those lame peoplewho in the past have helped to destroy our civil rights human beings we have the right to be whoever we want to be just because we where our badge on our back doesn’t mean someone who wears it on their chest can tell us what organization we can be affiliated with not all bikies or bikers are bad people this is closed mindedness by ignorant people such as yourself that destroys humanity as a whole what’s next martial law please give it a rest …

  3. Soft society – yes we do, you are right. It is an over protected, used to following orders sit on your ass society. A society that learns nothing from history. Why haven’t the laws worked? For a whole range of reasons but instead of going into them (and I can if you like) look at the most restrictive, law focused countries in the world, are they places you want to live, are they places with no crime? No it is the opposite! Here is a really really silly idea…maybe we could education instead of laws and force to make a long lasting and real societal changes. Didn’t all our Mothers tell us to not judge a book by it’s cover? People crack me up we are happy to go to war to protect our freedom and yet we are always just as happy to give them away. If you haven’t read the Act you really should and you may change your mind. Remember an association is 3 or more people not just bikies…that means you and your two mates having drinks every couple of weeks after work. Hitler was voted in and then people just sat back and did nothing….

    1. I’m not sure who you mean by “people.” If you mean (say) socialists and Communists – Hitler’s foremost political opponents, the reason they didn’t “do anything” is because they were being imprisoned, beaten and killed within weeks. Hitler was not “voted in” to the Chancellorship – he was appointed, and Germany had ceased to be a functioning democracy some time prior to that.

      1. Of course, in Australia you can legally register for a peaceful protest, which will be carefully ignored.
        Now imagine people (with initiative) rallying in the streets to ACTUALLY protest, cause chaos, get the necessary attention to set things in motion.
        They will get imprisoned, beaten, and with sufficient escalation there would be casualties, most likely on the civilian side of course. And that would only take a day, not even weeks.

        And if you want to discuss functioning democracy, please explain why we ended up with a semi-sentient mollusc (Abbott) as PM?

        An interesting point is the reluctance of police force to enforce these laws. With the fear of losing their jobs, a lot of cops will simply go along and enforce this law as little as possible, which is nothing else but turning a blind eye on things.
        This legislation has severely damaged the integrity of the force, undermined its credibility and lastly, created corruption from within.
        And it only took days.

        Australians, in particular in QLD, have been pampered and nannied for decades into believing that giving up your freedoms for patronizing and laughable laws that “serve to protect you” (from oneself?) is a good thing.

        Now you have a nation of spineless cowards too scared of being actual human beings. We are a shame. And the government is happy with this.
        The government has no reason to fear any form of civil retaliation. We’re just gonna “take it easy, mate” and “have a bundy, aye”.
        Australia’s international image has been hitting new lows every day for a long time now, and for some magical reason it has gotten even worse.

        SHAME. Feel shame. YOU allowed this to happen. YOU.

        1. I do feel shame it is blatantly obvious that the govt of qld is entering into a phase where changes to legislation affecting civil liberties cam be put thru parliament in days. What can be done ? Would an upper house provide some checks and balances, can the law society provide a legal arguement to adjust or repeal legislation?

          1. What we need is a proper constitution with a real bill of human rites. That’s the only way we can stop government’s from taking our freedoms away.

  4. I hope these immoral laws get repealed. Any law which makes it a crime to essentially to associate with others or which imposes substantial mandatory prison sentences without giving room for judicial discretion is immoral, no matter how well targeted the law is. If these gangs are committing criminal acts, why aren’t members charged for those criminal acts? “They are not inventing new crimes; they are committing the old ones” I think that says it very well. This is a cop out of a law that puts aside the freedoms hard won during the 400 years since the English Civil War.

    My only criticism of this well written article is the reference to the Left and Right. As a conservative, I can promise you that this is unnecessary. These laws offend all decent people.

  5. I lived in Saudi Arabia for a total of seven years never, ever imagining that I would come home to this.

    Will we be back to the “good old days” of gathering in King George Square demanding our rights while police have been pulled from all over the state to control us? Who decides whether or not your social group or netball team fits the bill? How will we know if the property we want to rent isn’t listed as a prescribed place? What the hell is unlawful sodomy, and does it cover heterosexual and homosexual activities? When will stoning be introduced? It certainly doesn’t seem to be far off.

  6. This bad behavior is happening everywhere. Victoria,USA, Europe. I hope the police are stronger than the teachers. The teachers continue to administer the governments bad ideas.Australia’s version Campbell Newman is Henrich Himmler, Tony Abbot as the fuehrer and Rupert Murdoch as Lina Wertmuller on speed.

  7. I’ve been watching this same political behaviour unfold in the USA and been told by everyone that it won’t happen in Australia. Well this is the start of something bigger and it’s time to wake up

    1. The fact this could even include bands with a music message or any similar group is reason enough to wake up.

  8. In 1933 Adolf Hitler was voted into power in Germany, he persecuted the Jews put them in their own prisons because they were Jews.

    In 2012 Campbell Newman was voted into power in Queensland and is persecuting Motorcyclists and putting them in their own prisons, because they ride bikes.

    I wonder what part of Queensland society is next? who knows but a certain doctor had charges against him removed because of the cost, “too expensive to bring to justice a man who may have been responsible for the deaths and maiming of honest innocent citizens.
    He can say “I dont care how they go to prisons” however these people are being profiled and that is illegal, these people are being charged without probable cause and this is illegal, the next step is for the Queensland Police service to start wearing Black Uniforms, and goose stepping down Queens Street Mall ( soon to be renamed Das Fuhrer strasse. This person thinks he is doing the right thing but anyone who can think knows that this isnt the right way to go about it. We deserve better

  9. Has anyone wondered why there are so many bikies out there? If they are all as bad as some rabid politicians and journalists would have you believe, then under normal circumstances it would only be a matter of time before they all disappeared behind bars wouldn’t it,as happens eventually with all bank robbers, murderers ,drug dealers etc, but strangely this hasn’t happened…Could it be the case that they are basically law abiding , with the odd criminal involvement much the same as the police, the judiciary and more obviously the church..or any other group you might like to name… These new Queensland laws are just the posturings of a little would be dictator trying to ingratiate himself with a police force that was suffering from his cuts to manpower.

  10. Draconian and poorly drafted laws that impede basic liberties for an entire population are fundamentally wrong, and few would disagree with such a statement. However, there is another facet of this argument that is being treated as inconsequential when it is actually also fundamental to the issues under discussion.

    To pillory “bikie laws” while glossing over the acts which triggered those laws is also, fundamentally wrong. Bad laws must be contested, and loss of individual liberty must be fought to ensure that innocent people are not swept up in a fight they don’t belong in. It would be more helpful for some of this angst to be directed at helping identify where existing laws or processes are failing or proposing better legislation, should that be a solution.

    For all the argument about individual freedoms and ridiculous direct comparisons with Nazi Germany (comparisons that are inevitably faulted), what about discussion of brutal and bloody bashings at airports, public executions and barricaded bunkhouses that police SWAT teams cannot penetrate.

    Politicians and pressure groups can highlight how existing processes fail to deal with extreme elements, and use it an an excuse to promote their own ego or ideology. In doing so they will stamp all over the fragile freedoms we currently enjoy.

    The Libertarian ideal of personal freedoms is just that – an ideal. In a large society it will always be a battleground as the tension between individual safety and individual rights is argued and fought over.

    There is room for misuse and evil in these laws. However, they were not created in a vacuum, and any criticism of those laws should address this fact.

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