TEN years ago then South Australian premier Mike Rann declared he would run every last outlaw bikie out of his state.
Rann adapted the Howard Government’s anti-terrorism laws for the purpose, creating a new class of offence based on banning associations between members of proscribed organisations. Rann likened outlaw bikies to terrorists and figured he could proscribe the outlaw clubs as Howard did with radical groups, mostly Islamic, post 9/11.
Needless to say, he failed. His laws were struck down by the High Court and today there are more bikies than ever in South Australia while Rann has been relegated to history.
Under a short-term police blitz, numerous bikies had brief stays in jail but the business of organised crime has continued serenely on in the state. Hydroponic marijuana grown in South Australia is still shipped by the truckload to the rest of Australia and locals are able to source whatever illegal substances take their fancy. Overall crime rates are falling, but that was already happening prior to Rann’s war on bikies. The campaign has achieved just about zero and Rann’s successor Premier Jay Weatherill has barely mentioned the bikies since, according to local sources.
It looked a good ploy early on however. Rann’s thundering rhetoric captured cheap headlines in SA and emboldened other state premiers to follow suit with promises to run the outlaws out of town. Yet none has prospered, much less defeated the scourge. Rann often cited Howard’s failure to enact national gang laws as the reason that his campaign failed which of course was self-serving nonsense.
The supreme irony of the great bikie crusade is that by trying to eliminate them, politicians and police have made being a bikie fashionable again. Numbers have risen steadily to about 5000 patch members across the country and there is a much larger group of up to 250 000 people who are deemed associates or hangers-on of motorcycle clubs. Members of ethnic minorities who already perceive themselves as outsiders in society are joining in droves and transforming the make-up of some clubs as they begin to dominate chapters.
“For an army of disaffected youths in the suburbs who look for a sense of identity, it was suddenly cool to be in a gang,” says one club leader.
“If the cops and pollies were saying `stay away’ then it’s a sign that something attractive must have been going on. After all it’s not as if the state has much to offer these kids. If they have a criminal conviction they are often screened out of employment so the club is an environment where they believe people will accept them without asking questions. Many will never actually get in the club but it doesn’t stop them from hanging around,” he says.
I am reminded of this every time I see a young hipster sporting clobber based with bikie motifs including the distinctive three-piece rocker that outlaw clubs have called their own since the 1950s. It’s a brave man who would wear such stuff around real bikers. They might give new meaning to the term “fashion victim.” But it does show how what is forbidden quickly becomes the next fad.
The same thing happened in the US when FBI director J. Edgar Hoover went after the Hells Angels motorcycle club soon after its inception in 1948.
Hoover was certain that the MC was both a criminal organisation and a subversive group and spent years trying to shut it down. In the 1970s, the FBI went after the Hells Angels under the Racketeering Influenced Corrupt Organisation (RICO) statute and lost.
Senior members credit the FBI with helping turn the Angels into one of the most recognisable brands in the world. Far from having to recruit new members, the queue to join the Angels soon stretched around the corner.
The shared experience of standing up to the police and FBI helped bolster the unity and espirit de corps of the club. Doing jail time for the brotherhood is regarded as a sign of achievement in club life. And having jailed as many of the Angels as they could, US authorities found they had nothing left to punish them with. The police actions pushed the moderates in the clubs toward the hardliners. They turned a genuine counter-culture into a criminal sub-culture with an assumption that membership was a guarantee of villainy.
As they went after bikers, often embedding undercover officers in clubs for years, the Mexican cocaine cartels flourished making billion-dollar fortunes that simply dwarfed whatever the bogeymen on bikes were making from downstream drug trafficking and local standover rackets. Unable to stop the flood of drugs over the Rio Grande, the FBI went after the easy visible threat.
Unchastened by Rann and Hoover’s experiences, former PM Julia Gillard was determined to create national anti-gang laws which would put the Australian Federal Police and the Australian Crime Commission at forefront of the fight against organised crime. This involved the states handing over key law and order powers to the Feds, a move the premiers resisted.Law and order has become a key vote catcher for the states, based on promises to regulate the association of criminals to beat crime. On March 6, Gillard announced she would enact anti-association legislation strikingly similar to the laws passed by South Australia and NSW which were struck down by the High Court, which as I said had their origins in the Howard era.
However the recent passage of re-drafted anti-association laws in NSW and the upholding of Queensland laws by the High Court has put the idea of breaking up the bad guys firmly back on the agenda.
Under Gillard’s version, courts will have the power to declare any group a criminal organisation and then impose control orders on its members.
Police would also have greater powers to seize the proceeds of crime and to seize and trace illegal firearms.
This kind of legislation is straight from the Mike Rann playbook. Voters in outer suburban blue collar suburbs always feel the brunt of fears that law and order is crumbling. Rann diligently stoked such fears of battlers in marginal seats at a time when most categories of crime, including gang crime, were actually falling. Aided by shock jocks who were willing to ignore the facts, Rann promised to strike at the heart of the organised crime gangs that he claimed were operating with impunity in his fair state.
Gillard tried the same routine when she spoke of “soaring gun crime” in western Sydney only to be corrected by the director of NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research Don Weatherburn. Dr Weatherburn says that drive-by shootings were up but gun crime overall had halved in New South Wales since 1995 after peaking in 2001.
Many seem to have forgotten the 1980s and 1990s when NSW was in the grip of a terrifying epidemic of armed robberies which often involved innocent bystanders caught in cross-fire. There have been some high profile slayings in Sydney streets, but the majority of incidents have involved young men shooting up empty buildings like tattoo parlours in the dead of night.
NSW police figures also reveal that bikies commit less than 1 per cent of all crimes in NSW and are perhaps not the threat to mainstream society they are portrayed.
According to one media report, police tallied all reported crimes from January 1, 1999 to December 31, 2008. In NSW, 2,073,718 offences were processed, of which 7647 were linked to confirmed members of bikie clubs in NSW.
Dr Weatherburn declined to comment for this story but has long held concerns about the misuse and manipulation of crime statistics
“The misuse of crime statistics by the media to sensationalize crime and justice has left a large
proportion of the public with the mistaken impression that crime is rising when it is not,” he wrote in a 2011 publication “Uses and Abuses of Crime Statistics.”
“The media are not by any means the only abusers of crime statistics. As with journalists, politicians and police sometimes engage in selective use of data, selective reporting of the facts and misleading commentary.”
The net result had been “to undermine the public confidence in the administration of justice and public understanding of what works in preventing and controlling crime.”
We are yet to hear what Tony Abbott’s view on this but I doubt he will stray too far from orthodoxy. Right-wing think tanks like the Institute of Public Affairs don’t much like anti-association laws as they contradict conservative notions of freedom and liberty.
Yet with state laws already in place in NSW and Queensland, Abbott as PM is unlikely to change much too quickly.
Most politicians are happy to leave the impression that the bikie clubs were at the apex of the organised crime pyramid. It’s a simple connection to make but according to defence lawyers like Wayne Baffsky no sensible observer could sustain such a conclusion on the facts. This is simply ruling by “moral panic,” he says
Academics, lawyers, police, and even gang members themselves seriously doubt that such campaigns will have an effect on Australia’s organised crime scene at all. They also question whether Australia has a problem with crime gangs that would warrant the kind of powers the politicians are so fervently seeking.
It’s important to define the much-used term organized crime. Old school police saw the phenomenon as “unlawful business” which could range from selling drugs to running illegal SP betting to standover, exortion and stolen car rackets. It was organized because it had to be to succeed, like legitimate businesses.
Former NSW detective turned academic Dr Michael Kennedy says police knew that they could never eliminate such unlawful business, while there remained a market for its products. The best the cops could hope for was to manage it, to let the crime bosses know that they would come down hard if they overstepped the mark.
In the days when crooks like George Freeman and Bill Bayeh ran Sydney there was a recognition that police could rarely gather enough evidence to bring down their empires but they could make life very difficult if they didn’t play ball. The presidents of motorcycle clubs knew this also.
Dr Kennedy makes the point that there were NSW police on the take or acting corruptly but plenty of honest cops co-existed with crime figures to keep crime in check. Crooks would talk informally to police leading to the solving of numerous crimes.
That all changed with the Wood Royal Commission which from 1994-97 exposed deep and entrenched corruption, especially among detectives in the Kings Cross station in Sydney.
After the royal commission, police were compelled to register the names of their informers and document all contacts with their sources. Even to be seen with a crime figure without a compelling reason became a career-ending mistake for an officer.
The royal commission spread a new orthodoxy across the country which led to a drying up of intelligence gathered from criminal contacts, says Dr Kennedy.
Dr Kennedy, the head of the Bachelor of Policing programme at the University of Western Sydney, argues that Wood created a gulf between police and the underworld which has hampered the control of organised crime ever since.
Police have taken on the guise of an invading army, launching high profile campaigns on organised crime which rarely produce any lasting effect.
“Police have gone from being the adversary of the crooks to being the absolute enemy,” he says.
With a dearth of intelligence, police have turned to taskforce-style policing which targets groups or classes of crime rather than individuals.
In South Australia, Mike Rann backed the creation of the Avatar squad that focussed solely on bikies. Avatar had gathered impressive data which purported to show that bikies had been arrested in their hundreds, busted with piles of drugs, money and guns. SAPOL was at pains to never release the raw numbers which would show how that many of the arrests were for non-indictable offences, outstanding warrants on parking and traffic fines or misdemeanour personal drug use charges. High profile raids were followed by earnest press conferences which reinforced community fears that crime was rising and the bikies were to blame.
Other states have followed suit, feeding the front pages of newspapers with alarming stories of the bikie menace.
Earlier this year Victoria police voiced concerns for public safety after an attempt by rival bikies to kill Bandido sergeant-at-arms Toby Mitchell outside a club house in Melbourne’s north. Police briefed media on stories of hitmen coming from interstate to shoot down their enemies in the street.
“Guns for hire are flooding into Victoria as a bloody feud between bikie gangs threatens to erupt,’ The Age newspaper reported.
An internal Victoria Police email warned all police to exercise extreme caution when interacting with bikies because of the possibility they could be armed.
There were perfunctory efforts at talking to the leaders of the warring clubs that predictably went nowhere.
Unable to lock up any suspects, force command launched a series of raids on bikies and their associates from numerous clubs under the codename Resound. A rather disappointing haul of stolen goods, drugs and firearms was seized in the raids, which seemed to have no connection whatsoever to heading off the impending “bikie war.” It was largely a show of force for public consumption.
Associates of the Hells Angels accused of various minor offences were paraded before the media at out of sessions hearings at police headquarters. Of all the petty crooks apprehended in Victoria that day only the bikies were given this special treatment.
Meanwhile, senior members of the Bandidos and the Hells Angels were said to be understood to have been meeting in Melbourne to head off any further bloodshed. The Age again reported that the Angels and Bandidos were locked in warfare but it seems to be a very subtle conflict.
Police know that not all bikies are involved in crime, but it’s not fashionable to say it in public. They know that there are cells of serious criminals that operate within the clubs, often without the knowledge of the other members. The disparity in wealth between the haves and have-nots of the bikie world underscores this.
Barrister Wayne Baffsky says law enforcement has yet to prove a single case of an Australian club operating as a dedicated criminal enterprise. Plenty of bikies have been locked up for their individual crimes, needless to say, but the case for breaking up clubs is yet to be made effectively.
Dr Kennedy says Australia has missed a vital opportunity to lift the lid on organised crime by failing to debrief Mark Standen, the former assistant director of the NSW Crime Commission who is serving at least 16 years jail for his role in a conspiracy to import 300 kilos of pseudoephedrine.
“There is evidence that Standen had long standing connections with underworld figures and worked at the highest levels of drug law enforcement. Yet no-one has been to see him to ask what he knows about corruption within the Australian Federal Police or the Crime Commission,” says Dr Kennedy. The integrity of law enforcement is of much greater concern to the community because there will always be organised crime, says Dr Kennedy.
Perhaps they fear what Standen might reveal about our national crime fighting bodies, he says.
There is a self-perpetuating quality to the war on bikie gangs. In the 1950s, moral panic spread across America when the Hells Angels, like a private army, thundered over the concrete highways of southern California. Hunter S Thompson in his 1966 book Hells Angels characterised them as the sons of families who had long ago been disabused of the American dream.
Laws that will criminalise membership of a bikie club will only make the clubs a more potent form of protest, a refuge for those excluded from society due to their criminal history.
Prior to Rann’s crusade, the average biker was a paunchy old greybeard, likely to be a veteran of the heady days the 1970s and 80s. By the end, he looked more like a twenty-something bodybuilder with a massive chip on his shoulder and no respect for authority.
Thompson saw what was coming nearly 50 years ago.
“Their lack of education has not only rendered them completely useless in a highly technical economy, but it has also given them the leisure to cultivate a powerful resentment … and to translate it into a destructive cult which the mass media insists on portraying as a sort of isolated oddity, a temporary phenomenon that will shortly become extinct now that it’s been called to the attention of the police.”