Be alert and alarmed by gangs in suits

Fear is irresistible for politicians -- but sometimes leads to over-reach. To one group of Queenslanders, that's what's happening in the state right now.

With President Barack Obama declaring that he is ready to extend US air strikes against Islamic State insurgents into Syrian territory, security forces around the world will be bracing for possible retaliations.

In Australia, ASIO director-general David Irvine is considering raising Australia’s terror threat alert level from ‘medium’ to ‘high’ for the first time since the alert scale was introduced by the Howard government in 2003.

When that four-level scale was introduced, the nation was told to be “alert, but not alarmed” in a campaign that featured TV ads and the famous fridge magnets bearing the same slogan.

In the intervening decade a lot of newspapers have been sold and a lot of tabloid current affairs watched by people who are, in fact, alarmed. 

Fear sells, and not only when it is related to terrorism.

The problem is, fear is irresistible for politicians -- blowing a problem out of proportion (and I am not suggesting this is the case with the Islamic State issue), and then offering a solution, is standard political strategy.

And when that happens, civil liberties and democratic principles can be trashed in the rush to “do something”.

Whether that has recently happened in Queensland is a case in point. The ‘fear’ there is over criminal gangs whose violent clashes have led the Newman government to introduce its ‘bikie laws’ to criminalise membership of gangs dealing in illicit drugs and firearms.

It’s scary stuff, but then so is the legislative response. Critics argue that the laws' reversed onus of proof, guilt by association, and the curtailment of freedom of association and freedom of speech are breaches of human rights, or even unconstitutional.

Amnesty International has gone as far as printing a hooded sweatshirt with spoof Hells Angels-style ‘colours’ on the back (that is, a large insignia) to highlight the ways the laws breach Article 7 and Article 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

These are, essentially, that “all are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law” and that “everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association”.

A group of motorcycle gangs is challenging the laws in the High Court, and a ruling from the court’s full bench on the laws’ constitutionality is expected in coming weeks.

The main challenge hinges on the way the laws allow the police, rather than the judiciary, to decide which gangs are ‘criminal’.

Members or associates of those criminal gangs -- there are currently 26 listed by Queensland police -- attract harsh mandatory sentences for a list of crimes, can commit a crime merely by being in the same public place, and can be detained longer without charge and searched without a warrant.

In the High Court hearings, the Newman government defence team was forced to admit that, for example, two Hells Angels members attending a third member's trial in court, would breach the laws and would have to serve mandatory prison sentences.  

The Newman government is at pains to portray the laws not as ‘anti-bikie’ but as applying to any criminal gang, with or without motorcycles.

The 23,000 strong ‘Ulysses’ group, for instance, was invited in for a briefing with the Queensland police commissioner when the laws were being formulated.

Although a large part of the Ulysses membership are ‘bikies’ who wear ‘colours’, they are in fact a harmless social group, many of whom turn up to the club’s events in cars.

Queensland member Rob White, who was at the meeting with the commissioner, says it was sensational headlines in the media that made the laws ‘bikie laws’, when groups such as his own could never be targeted -- arguing that 23,000 people were ‘criminals’ would just not be possible.

Nonetheless, smaller groups will be less comfortable with the laws, particularly as they are in a state that was once ruled with the help of a ‘criminal gang’ of politicians and police.

The extraordinary era of history that led to the Fitzgerald Inquiry in the late 1980s should not be forgotten -- it is not only hairy men in ‘colours’ who commit crimes against the community. Men and woman in suits can be very dangerous too.

By the time the Fitzgerald Inquiry was completed, the 20-year reign of premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen had been raked over and numerous allegations of police corruption and the misuse of police resources for political purposes exposed.

Police commissioner Terry Lewis was jailed for corruption, as were several members of the Bjelke-Petersen government.

The ‘special branch’ section of Queensland Police, which destroyed its records in 1989 before Tony Fitzgerald QC could get his hands on them, stood accused of a 40-year campaign of intimidation of political activists.*

Peter Beattie, who served as Queensland premier from 1998 to 2007, and who was tracked by the special branch in his youth, told Fairfax papers in 2010 that “ironically the politicisation of the police force by the Bjelke-Petersen government led to my arrest at the Springbok Tour protests and encouraged me into politics and in that sense I should be grateful to the police force of 1971”.

We will know within weeks what the High Court thinks of the Newman government’s response to the threat of criminal gangs (not only bikies).

It’s important to remember, however, that fear of a public menace -- be it terrorism, or gangs dealing in drugs and firearms -- can lead governments to over-reach.

Being alert, and alarmed by that prospect is part of living in a healthy democracy.

Footnote: Former Special Branch officer Barry Krosch told Business Spectator after publication of this article that while the Special Branch records were destroyed, "[Tony] Fitzgerald sent Barristers to inspect Special Branch files during 1988" and had no further use for them.