Monday, March 23, 2009

Laws Don’t Make Any Difference To Outlaws

Life within a bikie gang is an entirely different world to the one which most of the rest of us know, and I am not going to pretend that I have any kind of special insight into what goes on, or how the extraordinary events in Sydney up to and including the fatal brawl at the airport can best be dealt with. Most of the time that world and ours are separated by the choices that we make in our lives, but when violence between rival outlaw groups begins to randomly spill over into public places where we usually feel safe then the safety of our own illusions is quickly shattered. At this point the threat to public safety has become completely unacceptable.

It would be tempting to resort to heavy handed tactics, both at the operational police level and at the government level in seeking to address this challenge. One option often discussed is a change to the law making it possible to nominate particular clubs or gangs as being unlawful, making it an offense even to be a member. This approach has been tried in South Australia and has proven to be more difficult to put into practice and still is not actually working. Another approach is to increase specific police powers to facilitate their investigations. Such a law, although not specifically introduced to deal with the bikie gang problem, is the bill to increase the police powers for covert searches.

There are difficulties with both of these approaches. The problem with increasing police powers is that care needs to be taken as to how those powers can be exercised and against whom. It sounds good to say that secret surveillance will be used against thugs and murderers, but the truth is those same powers can be used against ordinary people who may have made a mistake or even done nothing wrong at all. The bill which is currently proposed makes it possible for a suspect to have his premises entered and searched without his knowledge, without the police having any conclusive evidence of wrongdoing. When the word suspect is used it makes it sound easily justified, as if it’s better to be safe than sorry, but there is no protection for the wrongfully accused.

The government is not claiming that this proposed new law is specifically aimed at bikies, but it Police Minister Tony Kelly has said that it is the sort of power that would be useful to police in this case. Perhaps it would, but we should not allow ourselves to fall into the trap of being scared into approving a law which undermines our right to privacy on the spurious grounds that it somehow increases our safety and security. The risk is that in making the police more powerful so that they can protect us from criminals we make them so powerful that no one can protect us from the police, should they ever be tempted to abuse their powers.

As for the South Australian approach of literally outlawing outlaws, it would seem to be a waste of time. Any criminal gang, by definition, already has no regard for the law, and while such a move might make their existence more difficult, it is not going to make any difference to their criminal activities. While I said that I have no special insight into that particular world, it would seem from various reports that there is a new element inside that world which not only has no respect for the law, but also for the existing bikie culture. As long as that is the case the authorities will continue to confront an enormous challenge, regardless of how many laws they pass, although in the long run it is the motorcycle clubs themselves who have the most to lose. In the long run it is their continued existence which will be threatened, not that of the general community.

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