Friday, March 27, 2009

Easy Rider Is A Fairy Tale

There is something terribly attractive about the whole bikie mythology. It starts with the motorcycles themselves; big powerful machines, often customized to the point of being impressive and even beautiful examples of craftsmanship and artistry. The power and the freedom they both provide and represent have all the appeal of a Hollywood movie. Then there’s the outlaw image, the lifestyle of living free and bowing down to no man. This is especially appealing to our seemingly endemic Australian distrust of authority, and it’s one of the reasons why Ned Kelly remains a popular hero long after his time. They are fiercely independent, relying on no one to settle their scores on their behalf. Finally, there is the camaraderie. Bikies are brothers and are bound together in a way that is perhaps similar to soldiers, or others who have shared common adversity. Altogether, it is a powerful package which provides tremendous allure. The trouble is it’s all hogwash.

What we are seeing now in Sydney is so far removed from the “Easy Rider” fairytale that it should finally alert us all to the reality that if such a fairytale ever did exist it has long ago been supplanted by the thugs and hoods who are in it for the money that comes from drugs and prostitution. Apparently these so called outlaws are nowadays investing in property, wearing jewelry and fancy clothes, and getting about town as if they are rap stars. Well, some of them anyway. If there is anyone left these days who genuinely lives to ride and rides to live, they have been left in the shade by the gangsters.

Even if we were to be tempted to believe in the merits of rough justice and bikies dealing with their own disputes in their own way it should now be clear that such a state of affairs inevitably leads to chaos. Any use of force in a dispute inevitably leads to retaliation, and retaliation leads to escalation, until critical mass is reached and we see the kind of explosion of violence which took place last weekend at Sydney Airport. It’s not an isolated incident, and it won’t be the last until the fundamental problem is dealt with.

There are many issues arising out of this week’s events which need to be examined thoroughly. Airport security is one. Police powers and legislation is another. But the fundamental problem is that too many people fall for the false allure of the outlaw image, and too many believe that fear is the same thing as respect. The fundamental problem is that it is too easy to accept the existence of so called outlaws so long as they leave us alone, while in reality that only encourages them to flourish.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Bikies Who Choose To Be Outside The Law Can’t Claim To Be Unfairly Targeted

In the wake of the bikie brawl at Sydney Airport and the spate of shooting attacks in the past week, it would be entirely reasonable to ask if we are safe in our own streets anymore. It certainly appears that there has been an escalation of violence which has now gotten so far out of hand that it randomly and unpredictably threatens the safety of innocent bystanders. That being the case, it is equally understandable that the government’s first response is to dedicate more police officers to the task, and to follow up with new laws to confront the problem.

At the same time, those who call themselves outlaws now seem to be angered that the law is focusing its attention on them. People identifying themselves as either bikers or associated with bikers have called my program to complain that they are being unfairly targeted by the authorities because of an incident which was unplanned, and got out of hand. They have said it was a mistake. While it may have been a mistake, it is a mistake which cannot be undone.

While it would be unfair to describe all people who love bikes as thugs and criminals, it is clear that criminal activity is well entrenched inside the gangs calling themselves clubs. While they keep their activities within the confines of their own circle many people would be happy to leave them to their own devices. Traditionally, this is exactly the attitude that bikies have encouraged through a combination of fear and myth, which leads to a kind of “leave us alone and we’ll leave you alone” trade off. The problem is that such an attitude does nothing to change the fact that the drug dealing, the prostitution, the thuggery all remain illegal.

Having allowed matters to get so far out of hand that the public is now fearful for their safety, it should be no surprise to the bikies that the public is ready to strike back. To whinge about being unfairly targeted is to deny any responsibility or culpability for belonging to a world where being outside the law is seen as an honor, and breaking the law as a lifestyle choice. Well, it may be a choice, but it is a choice which carries consequences, and one of those consequences is that the community commands the right to curtail those activities.

While the move to outlaw gangs who already consider themselves to be beyond the law anyway may meet with criticism for undermining civil liberties, the Premier has announced that he is proceeding with introducing those laws as soon as possible. Along with the other controversial legislation currently before the parliament to extend covert search and surveillance powers to police, the Premier claims these laws will assist the police in putting a stop to bikie violence.

As I have said many times before, we need to be very careful about laws which increase police powers and undermine our rights to privacy and liberty. For that reason it is essential that appropriate checks and balances are imposed including judicial approval of warrants after presentation of evidence to indicate reasonable grounds for secret searches, and even then there are no guarantees that the privacy of innocent people will never be breached through error or abuse of power.

Nevertheless, it seems that the mood of the community is such that people are prepared to accept that risk if it means that random outbreaks of violence and drive-by shootings are stopped.

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.