A Private Army



This morning I was perusing the Herald Sun, that fine and reasonable journal, when a headline jumped out at me. “Bikies vow they are going to ‘wreck’ Mildura, police claim.” My, my, I thought, not that old chestnut again. Seems we have been reading that one since the 1950s. There has always been this sense that bikies (or indeed any alien force) are massing just over the horizon ready to overwhelm civil society. I have yet to see any club manage to succeed in setting up their own anarchic MC state, yet the fear seems to be as strong as ever. I had a crack at unravelling this phenomenon in my book Outlaws: The Truth About Australian Bikers. I reproduce the chapter,  A Private Army, here with some updates and editing to make myself look smarter. 


When 15-year old Ralph Hubert Barger Junior saw The Wild One at his local cinema in 1954, he decided a biker’s life was his destiny. He had flirted with becoming a beatnik, but he had loved the motorcycle from the moment he straddled a $20 motor scooter.

That movie, which inflamed America, helped Barger and many other juvenile delinquents understand the anarchic possibilities of life on two wheels. At 18 years old, fresh out of the army, he bought his first Harley, a 1936 Knucklehead. Yet unlike most of his generation, Barger did not idolise the hero Johnny Strabler played by Marlon Brando, but rather the anti-hero Chino, portrayed by Lee Marvin.  Johnny and Chino had once been part of the same club which had split in two after a dispute which was never fully explained. Angry young men like Barger took Chino’s image and turned it into a 1960s counter-culture that roared across the concrete highways of California.

In his 1965 gonzo classic, Hell’s Angels, Hunter S. Thompson introduced Ralph “Sonny” Barger to the world as the “Maximum Leader”: “There is a steely thoughtful quality about Barger, an instinctive restraint that leads outsiders to feel they can reason with him. But there is also a quiet menace, an egocentric fanaticism tempered by eight years at the helm of a legion of outcasts.”

In December 2005 it had been a long, tortuous process for me to get permission to interview Barger for the Bulletin magazine and Nine Network’s Sunday programme. Letters had originally been sent to the Australian presidents of various Hells Angels chapters and correspondence had gone back and forth as credentials and bona fides were checked. A San Francisco-based lawyer Fritz Clapp had contacted us when we arrived in Los Angeles and further discussions were held.  Clapp acted as the attorney for the Angels and as a personal adviser to Barger. While not a patch member of the MC (that might have made legal practice difficult), he was the next best thing.

A lifetime biker, Clapp sported a bright red mohawk, like the fin of a tropical fish, and a patch on his vest that read “Lawyer from Hell”. He divided his time between Hawaii, San Francisco and numerous courtrooms around the nation. On behalf of the Angels, he had successfully sued numerous companies that had infringed the club’s copyright and intellectual property by daring to steal its insignia, including its trademark grinning death’s head logo. These intellectual property thieves had been trying to flog everything from haute couture in Saks 5th Avenue in New York to T-shirts and coffee mugs in Wal-Mart. The Hells Angels MC was now a corporation, something no other “crime gang” had ever achieved.

The Angels had created an impressive defensive infrastructure to ensure their survival. I visited the club’s number one lobbyist, Jeff Rabe, the president of the Sacramento Angels chapter in northern California. From a cluttered office in the state capitol, Rabe dealt with everything from managing the media and petitioning Congress on road safety and gang laws to arranging bail bonds and legal defence for accused bikers. Rabe, a burly gravel-voiced man, was also the lobbyist for the US Modified Motorcycle Association and the Collation of Clubs which spoke for many of America’s outlaw clubs.

Rabe dismissed the popular wisdom that the clubs existed to perpetuate crime. On his salary, he wasn’t about to work this hard to help criminals operate unfettered, he said, This was about preserving fundamental rights, such as freedom of association and the right to bear arms. “Freedoms we use each and every day,” he added. Some Angels still enforced extra-legal solutions to problems with baseball bats and motorcycle chains but life had become much more civilised, he said. He was wearing a tie and business suit these days almost as often as he did his patch. Bikers were no longer outlaws, but taxpayers and voters, who were entitled to a say in how they were governed.   

But still the notion persisted that bikers wanted only to rip at the fabric of Western society, I said.

“I don’t know if rip is the correct term. I think maybe just brush against it, because it’s exciting and it breaks up the monotony of the day,” replied Rabe, with a huge grin.            

The Lawyer from Hell had finally managed to fit us into Sonny’s schedule, which was hectic with book signings, personal appearances and media interviews across America. As I flew with a cameraman over the desert from Los Angeles to Barger’s home in Arizona, I couldn’t decide whether  I was meeting a gang boss or an American icon of freedom.   


Today, The Wild One seems embarrassingly dated with cringe-worthy lines that Brando must have struggled to deliver with a straight face.

Kathie Bleeker: Do you just ride around or do you go on some sort of a picnic or something?
Johnny: A picnic? Man, you are too square. I’m… I… I’ll have to straighten you out. Now, listen, you don’t go any one special place. That’s cornball style. You just go. [snaps fingers]

But the film and its source material, drawn from true life and fiction, are still valid today in understanding the biker menace and how bikers perceive themselves. Despite its appalling dialogue and costumes later parodied by the gay community, The Wild One set the opposing archetypes of the movement for decades to come, the fraternity of equals versus the criminal hierarchy, the brotherhood versus the gang.    

In the film, Johnny’s Black Rebels all appear to be in uniform. Each has a leather jacket with BRMC over-crossed pistons stencilled on the back. Each member’s name is embroidered on the front as in a military unit. Their bikes are remarkably similar too – equal numbers of well-kept BSAs and Triumphs which they ride in a tight orderly formation. By contrast, Chino’s Beetles ride a ramshackle collection of beat-up Harleys and Indians. Beyond the grimy Levis, each Beetle sports his own look, from Chino’s striped sweatshirt to other members’ tasselled cowboy jackets, flight-deck hats, skunk-skin caps, engineers and logger’s boots. Chino’s gang embraces an almost organic diversity and individuality, while Johnny’s group seems to glory in uniformity and discipline.

This battle has continued in different ways inside clubs (and between clubs) ever since. It’s a struggle between those who join to enjoy a conditional freedom and those prepared to fall into line behind a charismatic leader.

Today the public image of bikies suggests that Johnny’s Black Rebels have won that argument, just as Brando had beaten Marvin in their punch-up in the film. To cinemagoers, the Black Rebels represented the frightening potential of a bunch of hoodlums welded into one disciplined, cohesive unit. Critics say the Hells Angels MC and its clones today are the bastard children of that fear – franchised criminal organisations which hold the values of mainstream society in sneering contempt. 

In part, The Wild One was inspired by a legendary 1947 incident in Hollister California when several hundred bikers ran amok in the small town during an American Motorcyclists Association-sanctioned race meeting. On the 4th of July holiday weekend, four thousand motorcyclists had descended on Hollister for the popular Gypsy Tour, overwhelming the town of just 4500 citizens.

The San Francisco Chronicle described what followed as an “outburst of terrorism – wrecking of bars, bottle barrages into the streets from upper story windows and roofs and high speed racing of motorcycles though the streets”: “Riders, both men and women, steered their machines into bars, crashing fixtures and bottles and mirrors. They defied all traffic regulations racing full speed through the streets and intersections. Hundreds loosed bottle barrages,” the paper thundered.

Sixty people were injured, three seriously, including one rider  who had his foot nearly severed. Bartenders in Hollister’s 21 saloons halted the sale of beer, mistakenly believing the group could not afford whisky. Riotous activities continued as the seven-man Hollister police contingent looked on helpless. The bars closed two hours early, but still pandemonium reigned. 

At dusk on the second day of the outrage, 40 State highway patrol officers arrived with an ingenious plan. They “forced a lull in the terrorism” by putting on a concert. According to the Chronicle: “Armed with tear gas guns, the officers herded the cyclists into a block on San Benito street, between Fifth and Sixth streets, parked a dance band on a truck and ordered the musicians to play. Hundreds of individuals who invaded the town yesterday for the motorcycle show, about 10 percent of them women, halted their riotous ‘play’ to dance.” The formal ball at the American Legion Hall was cancelled, presumably because there was no band.

Members of early outlaw clubs, the Boozefighters and the Pissed off Bastards of Bloomington, were among fifty of the riotous “gypsycycles” to be arrested and fined a total of $2000 over the incident. Days later, when all had dispersed, Time magazine staged a famous photograph of a drunk sprawled over a motorcycle in a Hollister street surrounded by broken bottles. The story caused a nationwide sensation, America’s first motorcycle-inspired moral panic.

The following year on the Fourth of July weekend, the bikers descended on Riverside, California and a tradition of motorcycle gangs taking over terrified communities was well-established. The undersheriff of Riverside County captured the hysteria in an open letter to news media: “Just what is the extent of damage caused by these hoodlums and tramps, these uncivilised demons, who ride exploding and fire-belching machines of destruction, hell-bent on destroying the property and persons of Riverside citizens…” Just as Americans were getting used to peace, here was another threat to the social fabric. But in the Hollister and Riverside “riots” there was no evidence of leadership or organisation; this was a spontaneous reaction from too much beer and high spirits.   

But when Hollywood got hold of the story the drunken rabble was transformed into a dark, paramilitary-style force – Johnny’s Black Rebels MC, moving from town to town on the whim of its resentful, sociopathic leader. America had seen outlaws like Chino riding the roads ever since motorcycles had come on the scene, but the brooding Johnny Strabler was something new and darker.

The model for the regimented Black Rebels had been sketched by Frank Rooney in an article called Cyclists’Raid, published in Harper’s Magazine in 1951. “Troop B of the Angelenos Motorcycle Club” roars into the small town of Pendleton. All the riders are on red bikes, except for the leader, Simpson, whose cycle is white. They intend to “bivouack” outside of town, but plan to spend the evening at a hotel run by former army veteran, Joel Bleeker, for whom distasteful memories of war service are still fresh. He takes an instant dislike to what he calls Simpson’s “private army”.

The Angelenos, in Rooney’s story, look more like Adolf Hitler’s Storm Troopers, the brownshirts, rather than outlaw bikers: “Like all the others, [Simpson] was dressed in a brown windbreaker, khaki shirt, khaki pants, and as Bleeker had already observed, wore dark calf length boots. A cloth and leather helmet lay on the table beside Simpson’s drink, but he hadn’t removed his flat green goggles, an accouterment [sic] giving him and the men in his troop the appearance of some tropical tribe with enormous semi-precious eyes, lidless and immovable.” 

From the rollicking, pleasure-seeking chaos of Hollister, Rooney had created a sinister alien force. Simpson’s twenty men were really only “variations of the one, the variations with few exceptions being too subtle for him to recognise”; his troop of clones was just one unit of a growing army fanning out across the nation.

“You say you’re from Troop B? Is that right?”

“Correct. We’re forming Troop G now. Someday…”

“You’ll be up to Z,” Bleeker said.

“And not only in Calfornia.”

 To his horror Bleeker discovers that, in return for their loyalty, the leaders of the wealthy Angelenos MC give members a carte blanche for destruction and mayhem. “In an organisation as large and selective as ours it’s absolutely necessary to insist on a measure of discipline. And it’s equally necessary to allow a certain amount of relaxation,” Simpson says.

When the drunken mob begins ripping up Bleeker’s hotel, Simpson merely hands over a wad of bills to cover the damage. When, in the climax of the story, Bleeker’s daughter is killed in the hotel lobby by one of the cyclists, the leader is a mere spectator.  “He saw Simpson – or rather a figure on the white motorcycle, helmeted and goggled – stationed calmly in the middle of the street under a hanging lamp….Simpson was making no effort to control his men but waiting rather for that moment when their minds, subdued but never actually helpless, would again take possession of their bodies.”    

It’s this image that has permeated America’s understanding of outlaw motorcycle clubs – the fear of vigilantism, that a well-organised paramilitary force could overwhelm civil society. By force of its numbers and wealth, this gang would be almost impossible to stop, even by its leaders. From the 1950s, America began to perceive a threat to its way of life from organised groups, both social and political. The Communist Party of America had stolen the blueprints for the atomic bomb and sold them to the Soviet Union. A network of communist agents was involved in crime to gather resources for the overthrow of democracy, which led US President Lyndon Baines Johnson in the mid-1960s to suggest that “organised crime constitutes nothing less than a guerrilla attack on society”.

LBJ’s USA of the 1960s could easily be the Queensland of today. It’s the same fear story again and again.



Fishing for a Happy Ending

You had to feel for Boyd Rankin, the towering English fast bowler, as he trudged off the SCG yesterday clutching his left hamstring. He had broken down not once but twice on his debut. The look of anguish on his face was so palpable it even evinced sympathy from this one-eyed Aussie fan. You don’t like to see a young man’s dreams dashed before your eyes. And at 204cm tall there was no place to hide for Rankin.

The shame of it was that it could have been preventable, according to those who know. The instant diagnosis was a torn or strained hamstring, a sensible conclusion based on conventional wisdom. But that appears not to be the case. Here’s how Cricinfo’s George Dobell summed up the “mystery” of Rankin’s condition.

“After a scan showed no injury, the England camp claimed Rankin had simply been suffering from cramp and should be fit to resume bowling duties in the second innings.

Such a scenario would raise questions about Rankin’s physical condition going into the game. While the weather in Sydney was warm – it reached 27 degrees at one stage in the afternoon – it was some way below the extremes experienced in Perth or in Alice Springs.

It is possible that nerves could have played a part. The 29-year-old Rankin has endured a long journey to the Test environment and knows, coming into a struggling team at the end of a series, that he may not enjoy many opportunities to prove his worth at this level.

It is also possible that tension played a part, or that the pain has some psychosomatic origin. He has been known to experience similar problems with his left foot after suffering from a stress fracture in it several years ago.

The schedule may also be relevant. While Rankin has bowled almost every day in the nets, he has not played a match since the end of November, when he delivered 14.5 overs during the game in Alice Springs. It may be that he came into this game simply lacking match fitness.

While Rankin was monitored by the England medical team ahead of play after reporting general stiffness, there was no specific concern about his hamstring and he was subsequently cleared to play.

In other words, the England medical staff have no effin’ clue! My mate Geoff Fisher of Southport Physiotherapy in Melbourne reckons the “general stiffness” is the best clue.

He diagnoses and cures people every day who pitch up with mystery conditions. I went to him 10 years ago with what a chiropractor had called “a degenerative knee condition.” Every time I ran for more than five minutes, I would get a searing pain behind my left knee. The chiro had said this was wear and tear, a symptom of ageing. If I wanted to run I would need to sign up for a long term plan of therapy. This fortnightly regime consisted of the chiro rubbing the back of knee for an hour hard enough to start a campfire before cracking my back in a dramatic finale. I always walked out feeling two inches taller and pain-free but always the knee would flare up again.

I was referred to Geoff by triathlete coach Oscar Carlson who swore that he would fix what ailed me. I was prepared for another long term regime, but one that might get me back on the track. It was sad to think that after an active 40 years I would have to make a compromise with the ravages of time.

He asked me straight up: “Was there a moment when you recall actually hurting your knee? Some kind of trauma?”

“No,” I replied. “It just kind of crept up on me.”

With that, he began to work gently, but insistently, on my lower back. I kept waiting for him to get to my knee but he never got close. I came back for two more treatments and the same routine was repeated. To this day the pain in my knee has never returned. Geoff explained that I had been suffering referred pain in my knee from a protective response in my lower back. I have had various aches and pains since in toes, ankles and hips, all of which have been relieved by Geoff’s continuous mobilisation method. I have referred countless people to Geoff who have all reported good results.

Geoff and I had a talk about Michael Clarke’s well-publicised back and the words ran in The Australian last March. It summarises the issue of referred pain.

“AT the end of a disastrous tour of India, Australia’s skipper Michael Clarke literally carries the burden of the nation’s expectations on his dodgy back.

While this weekend’s fourth Test in Delhi is the first match Clarke has missed through injury, the timing is ominous with back-to-back Ashes series looming.

Clarke’s “degenerative” back condition, a “bulging disc” first diagnosed when he was 17, has become an ever-present concern for the 31-year-old.

Leading Melbourne physiotherapist Geoff Fisher believes Cricket Australia must re-examine its protocols about managing injuries if Australia’s most valuable asset is to pay his way.

Fisher questions whether the team doctor should be in charge of diagnosing and overseeing treatment regimes for conditions like Clarke’s. “In sporting teams, doctors have become the front line of diagnosis for such pain but they are hopelessly out of their depth in dealing with musculoskeletal problems,” says Fisher.

“If the Australian team’s frontline response is medical then it will almost certainly fail.”

Fisher claims there is an over-reliance by sports doctors on CT scans and X-rays to diagnose pain. Scans often reveal abnormalities in the structure of a joint or limb, like Clarke’s bulging disc, he says.

“The doctor will say, ‘we see there is change in the structure of the joint. There’s evidence of wear and tear or abnormality. We can’t explain why it’s happening but we know it is happening because of the pain’.”

Studies have shown that up to 40 per cent of people have abnormalities in their spines that don’t automatically cause pain. Clarke’s pain, often described as his back “locking up”, may have nothing to do with discs or vertebrae. It may in fact be a protective response from the muscles of his back, not an injury at all.

It’s a problem that blights the lives of millions of people who spend too much time chair-bound or sitting in motor vehicles with knees elevated higher than hips. This places excessive strain on the postural muscles that keep the spine stable. Spinal muscles will attempt to control movement by an increase in tightness and tone.

“By reducing the range of movement, threats to the spine, are reduced. These responses are hard-wired and self-increasing, built into the neurology of the brain and spinal anatomy.”

The giveaway clue is that Clarke often suffers tightness in his hamstrings, Fisher says.

If Clarke’s problem is related to his spinal muscles, it is a treatable condition, using safe non-invasive manual therapies, says Fisher.

Working with triathletes, Fisher uses a variation of an Australian-devised therapy known as “continuous mobilisation” which might provide an alternative for Clarke.

Fisher’s method of manual therapy is designed to “turn off” the protective behaviour in the spine and the referred pain is often immediately relieved.

Fisher says that 95 per cent of his patients with chronic pain in their head, legs, knees, arms, feet or hands, are in fact suffering from “referred pain”. If, like Clarke, they haven’t suffered a trauma or arthritis, the source of the problem is invariably found in the lower back or neck where muscles have engaged in a protective response to guard the spine.”

The response from other chiros and physios was outrage. Some went on Twitter to call for Geoff’s deregistration and worse. He was “dangerous”, one said. Of course, Geoff is dangerous, he threatens the livelihood of these quacks who want to sign us up to long term treatment plans costing thousands of dollars. He wants to cure people not turn them into patients by convincing them their problems are due to advancing age.

I emailed Geoff last night about Rankin’s predicament and his response was succinct.

“No mystery there, just another sportsman with a slightly dodgy back that had given rise to various bouts of referred symptoms. Simple to resolve, if you knew how.”

As much as I want Australia to whitewash the Poms 5-0, I’d like to see Rankin back on the field. I suspect that Geoff could get him back out there.

Moreover, Geoff’s message is don’t accept that your aches and pains are a consequence of being a little older, that you’re wearing out. It’s mostly bullshit.

No I’m not on a commission for referring people to Geoff. It’s such a pleasure to see people’s faces when they become pain-free.

Drop him an email on fishergn@hotmail.com.   

The Long Walk to Freedom Continues


In one sense, Nelson Mandela had to die to fulfil his vision. He knew his time had come, he was ready to join the ancestors. At 95, he had earned his rest. He will become even greater in death than in life. As one scribe wrote, his death will allow the real consequences of his life to begin.

I suspect he knew that, while he was alive, his achievements as the first president of a democratic South Africa would be steadily diminished. The rainbow nation still faces many challenges. The ambitious promises to eliminate poverty are yet to be fulfilled, it’s still a work in progress. Crime remains a huge issue in South Africa and its major cities remain dangerous places to visit. Gender equality has improved from the apartheid days but the level of sexual assaults against women is still unacceptably high. HIV and AIDS are still taking so many of the country’s best and brightest people.  

The African National Congress, the vehicle which brought freedom to South Africa, is riven with corruption and nepotism. A new black elite has replaced the old white one and ordinary folks are yet to see the fruits of independence.

As president, Mandela became a treasure of the world, not just South Africa. He travelled the globe to let everyone know that South Africa was open for business. People rushed to identify themselves with his brand, to get close to him. Every two-bob celebrity from Bono to Naomi Campbell rushed to have their photo taken with him. He was unfailingly co-operative, even when a bumptious Australian journalist from the Nine Network’s Business Sunday show buttonholed him at a function at the presidential residence in Pretoria a few days after his inauguration in October 1994.

When I heard he had died last week, the feeling of exhilaration of that day returned to me all over again. I remembered how he had changed my life.

I recalled the euphoria that had gripped South Africa in those heady days, the sense of gratitude for the miracle that had taken place during the elections. The nation had braced itself for a bloodbath and instead it witnessed the birth of a multi-racial society.

In his inauguration speech, Mandela had laid down a challenge.

“Our daily deeds as ordinary South Africans must produce an actual South African reality that will reinforce humanity’s belief in justice, strengthen its confidence in the nobility of the human soul and sustain all our hopes for a glorious life for all.”

It’s still relevant today. Mandela took us all a step closer to achieving those lofty ambitions. He showed it was possible to show mercy without being weak, to forgive our enemies unconditionally.

I read one tribute by a journalist who lamented that great figures of history like Mandela are few and far between these days. I disagree entirely. I think his passing and the telling of his story will inspire countless others to follow in his footsteps, to dare to dream of a brighter day.

In his inauguration speech he was already preparing us for this time. There was something greater than himself that guides the path of humanity.        

“Each time one of us touches the soil of this land, we feel a sense of personal renewal. The national mood changes as the seasons change.

We are moved by a sense of joy and exhilaration when the grass turns green and the flowers bloom. “

His legacy is the maintenance of hope against overwhelming odds, the certainty that hatred can never triumph over love. This does not die with the passing of a single man.




Afterword. Rain fell on the ground where they gathered to remember Nelson Mandela, symbolically erasing his footsteps from the earth. It reminds me that the earth is greater than any one man but produces each and every one of us. To its embrace we all return.

Optical Illusions


So the deal-making behind James Hird’s 12-month suspension is finally apparent.  

The Herald-Sun’s Mark Robinson sums up this whole grubby, expedient business in today’s column. 


Personally, I could never work out how the AFL had managed to distance itself from the scandal once it had accused Essendon of bringing the game into disrepute. The allegation (and it was never more than an allegation) was that Essendon’s governance of its supplements program had been poor. I think Essendon and James Hird would agree they could have done it better, but what of the AFL boss Andrew Demetriou?

Former Test cricketer Bruce Francis understood the story better than most journalists, certainly those who have relentlessly backed the AFL’s pursuit of Essendon and James Hird. As an independent observer, he wrote to me in August to raise questions about the AFL’s responsibility for occupational health and safety at Essendon. His point was that when a player signs up to play for a club, he signs a tripartite deal, between himself, the club and the AFL. Sounds dull and dry but it’s devastating to the AFL’s claim it has no legal responsibility. 

It’s inarguable that the AFL has a direct legal responsibility to ensure that its clubs provide a safe working environment. So when the AFL’s integrity officer Brett Clothier is alleged to have warned James Hird about peptides in August 2011 there should  have been a process undertaken to monitor and resolve any concerns. Nothing happened. The AFL did nothing with the information until its peculiar joint investigation with the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority began much later.

Months ago, the AFL admitted that it could have done more to stop Essendon’s supplements program.

Despite claiming credit for warning Essendon, AFL deputy chief executive Gillon McLachlan admitted on SEN radio that: “the fact that we weren’t out there regularly monitoring the situation is potentially a failure of the AFL. There is responsibility all round here.”

Oh yes responsibility all round…but only Essendon staff and James Hird copped any sanction, the heaviest penalties in the history of the AFL.

The AFL looks hopelessly conflicted in this. It was carrying out a joint investigation with ASADA when it quite properly should have been under scrutiny from the same investigation itself. It has dodged all its legal responsibility for maintaining a safe workplace at AFL clubs. If my son were going to a club, I would expect better. Instead, the public has witnessed the AFL doing all it can to find a scapegoat and absolve itself of any blame.

Many people believe that James Hird et al pleaded guilty to lesser charges and accepted bans based on a hearing that took place. Andrew Demetriou has said as much in interviews but it’s demonstrably false. There was never any hearing, no lesser charges, no AFL Commission-sanctioned penalties. There was a deal, a typical back room deal because the AFL could not afford to end up in the Supreme Court explaining its version of justice. Now we learn that the AFL and Essendon offered to keep Hird on full pay and stump up for an overseas study tour if he accepted his year-long suspension.(Demetriou has now denied any knowledge of this.) While it might have been better for the game if Hird went to the Supreme Court, I don’t blame him for taking a deal in the end. He would never have coached again at any club had he not done so. 

Yes, as Robbo said in the Herald Sun today, this was all about the optics. And watch the eyes grow wider as more stories tumble out in the coming days. I’m glad to see cricket back on the front and back of our newspapers again but this story has a long way to run.

UPDATE: Andrew Demetriou has defended his position telling The Age:
there were discussions between John Wylie and Little before the AFL Commission “hearing” into the supplements scandal, but disputed details in News Limited reports published overnight.

“There are always negotiations before any hearing…” Demetriou said.

He admitted that AFL employees, including Gillon McLachlan, had discussions with Essendon and Hird before the AFL Commission hearing, but insisted he had no knowledge of the substance of such meetings. Isn’t that convenient?

There may well be negotiations before AFL Commission hearings. But in this case there was plenty of negotiating but no hearing.

Runaway Mum

Savanna Todd (left) at court in Maroochydore last  month

Savanna Todd (left) at court in Maroochydore last month

After nearly twenty years on the run, Dorothy Lee Barnett had all but transformed herself into her alias, Alexandra Geldenhuys, a 53-year old single mum working as a sales rep on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. But it’s always one careless moment that brings a fugitive undone.

Barnett’s came as she enjoyed a few drinks with friends after a day’s sailing in 2011. She referred to her then 18-year old daughter Samantha by an unfamiliar name“Savanna” and mentioned that she had fled an abusive relationship in the US.

The chain of events in Charleston South Carolina all those years befor – the divorce, the custody battle and her flight with her baby girl – must have seemed another life ago, perhaps several lives ago, because Barnett had reinvented herself many times. But now she was damned from her own mouth.

One of her friends searched the website of the US National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and found details and a picture of 11-month Savanna Todd from 1994.

Alongside was an “age-advanced” picture of the child who bore a striking resemblance to the hazel-eyed girl she knew as Samantha. Pictures of Barnett also matched.

According to court documents, the friend contacted Savanna’s father, Charleston stockbroker Benjamin Harris Todd III, who reported the information to the FBI.

So began the painstaking process of confirming Barnett’s progress around the globe, a path that led to her door at Mountain Creek, near Mooloolaba.

Not surprisingly, Savanna Todd is said to be in a state of deep confusion over her identity right now. She had no idea of the tortured history that led to her mother’s arrest, according to sources close to the family.

The vivacious blonde 20-year old was living life as Samantha Geldenhuys, a first-year nursing student at Townsville’s James Cook University. She wrote in an affidavit that she had recently returned from a six-month stint volunteering in a hospital in Peru, having overcome a battle with clinical depression to pursue her dreams.

As far as she knew, her father was a South African man named Juan Geldenhuys. Barnett had met and married Geldenhuys in South Africa and they had another child, Reece, now 17.

According to documents filed in Barnett’s extradition case, they had lived in South Africa, New Zealand and Mountain Creek before that relationship had foundered. Geldenhuys had returned to South Africa but tragically succumbed to bone cancer just weeks before Barnett’s capture.

The only father Savanna had known was dead. Then her mother rang her after being arrested to tell her another man, Harris Todd, was her real father.

Savanna had always known that she had American relatives. Her mother after all had an American accent, but she couldn’t work out why her mother had kept her away from them. Now everything is falling into place.

Barnett and Todd had been an odd couple, sharing little else but the fact their fathers had died young.

The son of a Kentucky doctor and a nurse, Todd was described in a 1997 media report as “the very picture of Southern White Anglo-Saxon Protestant propriety: a graduate of Andover and Yale. Todd speaks softly, opens doors for women and can converse on everything from John Barth to Beethoven without missing a beat.”

He had gone straight from college to Merrill Lynch’s Charleston office where he remained for his entire career.

A judge noted Dorothy Lee Barnett, on the other hand, had been raised by her eccentric mother in a dysfunctional family supported by her stepfather’s social security cheques. They moved frequently between different homes in Florida and Belize in Central America.

Barnett wanted to be a vet but dropped out of college to run a piggery in Belize and then moved to Africa where she bought jewellery for sale in the US.

She had become a flight attendant in 1988 , but she complained the work was below her intellectual capacity.

The couple met when Todd became her stockbroker in 1985 and five years later began dating when she was disengaging herself from a tumultuous relationship with an airline pilot, according to US court documents.

In granting their divorce in 1994, Judge Robert Mallard noted that Barnett’s “troubled” relationships with men had been characterised by “arguments, temper outbursts and occasional physical violence”.

Trouble soon began. In April 1991, Todd threw Barnett out of their home after she had called him 18 times while away at a seminar accusing him of infidelity. According to Todd, Barnett pursued him until she finally wore him down. In December 1991, they eloped and were married.

It was the only daring thing the southern gent had perhaps done apart from  making some arty nude films of himself and friends in the 1970s.

Six months later the marriage was falling apart with him claiming that Barnett was regularly brutalising him physically and verbally. Two days after they decided to divorce, Barnett discovered she was pregnant.

Barnett told a psychiatrist that Todd did not want the baby and demanded she have an abortion, which had further intensified the conflict.

The psychiatrist noted in a report to the court that she claimed to have had a miscarriage in August 1992 and believed she was no longer pregnant. In fact, she later discovered she had been carrying twins and still bore one foetus, Savanna, she told the psychiatrist.  Todd’s longtime lawyer, Graham Sturgis, would not confirm whether this was true.

The couple began joint therapy sessions with a psychiatrist, Dr Oliver Bjorksten, who diagnosed Barnett as having “hyperthymic temperament”, which he said was a form of bipolar disorder, according to the court judgement.

He prescribed Navane, a psychotropic drug rarely given to pregnant women. Barnett began to suspect that Todd and her mother (whom she claimed was susceptible to male intentions) were conspiring with Bjorksten to make her appear mentally ill.

By October 1992 they had split permanently but their skirmishes continued right up until Savanna’s birth in May the following year.

Savanna at 11 months old before her abduction in 1994

Savanna at 11 months old before her abduction in 1994

A grim struggle for custody of the child began. In the divorce proceedings, Barnett claimed that Todd was gay or bisexual, citing his nude home movies and writings as evidence of perversion and unfitness as a father.

None of this was accepted. Meanwhile expert witnesses lined up to say that Barnett was mentally unstable, promiscuous and volatile, causing her to become increasingly unhinged in the court.

The judge repeatedly cautioned her for making remarks, “talking excessively or too loudly (and) getting up and down from her seat”. She had gone through a variety of moods “from tearfulness, abjection, agitation, anger to near euphoria”. Perhaps this was understandable, given Barnett must have known she was about to lose custody of her nine-month-old daughter.

She had been tailed by a private detective who discovered she had gone out with at least five men since Savanna’s birth, one of whom was married.

She had been “alone in either her house or the houses of her male companions late at night under circumstances under which adulterous conduct could occur”.

In conservative, God-fearing Charleston, such behaviour was regarded as a scandal.

In his judgement, Judge Mallard blamed Barnett entirely for the break-up of the marriage and awarded sole custody of Savanna to Todd, determining that a stockbroker working full-time was best placed to look after a child who was still being breast-fed.

“The psychological and emotional problems experienced by the mother, if left untreated, will create conflict and havoc in the child’s life and she will suffer accordingly,” Judge Mallard concluded.

Todd was “a caring, conscientious and stable person who tried to get help for his wife but failed”,  according to the judge.

While Todd had been prepared to allow joint custody, Barnett had made it clear she believed her daughter should have no contact with her father whatsoever.

Overwhelmed in court by her husband’s battery of psychologists and pediatricians, Barnett would walk from the marriage with a $9000 emerald engagement ring, a ride-on lawnmower and a set of steak knives. She would only be allowed to have Savanna two weekends a month.

On the first weekend visit, she failed to return the child and the court ordered her access to Savanna be supervised.

Faye Yager, the founder of Children of the Underground, which claims to have helped 7000 women escape abusive spouses, says Barnett never had a chance. “He stomped on her like an ant. They set out to prove she was crazy so they could strip her of all her rights as a mother,” according to Yager, who claims to have helped Barnett while on the run.

Todd was awarded $50 million in damages claim against Barnett by a South Carolina court after she fled, which Sturgis concedes is “uncollectable.”

Remarkably, another court-appointed psychiatrist in April 1994 found Barnett was not suffering from any mental illness or personality disorder. In a Dr Madelaine Wohlreich reported that Barnett was suffering from no more than an acute reaction to the stress of being separated from her baby in the crucial first year of life.

“Hyperthymic personality” was not even a recognised diagnosis, according to standards set by the American Psychiatric Association, Dr Wohlreich wrote.

Sturgis claims this report was “rigged” as the doctor had been sympathetic to Barnett’s case.

It mattered not because by the time, Dr Wohlreich had submitted her report, Barnett and Savanna had disappeared. On April 24,  1994, she persuaded her custody supervisor that she could take Savanna to a birthday party alone and never returned.

Two days later, seven friends, family and co-workers received videotaped and written messages from Barnett she and her daughter had left because she “had to do something because of the custody order” Barnett’s camp also an alleges that when Barnett picked up Savanna for her last access visit, the child had facial injuries. This may have been another factor in Barnett abducting Savanna, they say.

Media reports over the years suggested that Todd had expended nearly all his assets in a global pursuit of his daughter. Early efforts focussed on Belize after Todd found a map of South America at Barnett’s residence, but it was a red herring.

Apparently, she had learned how to create a false identity from watching a segment on 60 Minutes. According to documents filed by the FBI in the Queensland court, she left the country on a passport under the name Alexandra Canton bound for Frankfurt in Germany with
Savanna. She then moved to South Africa’s Western Cape region before moving on to New Zealand and finally to the Sunshine Coast.

As Todd paid private detectives across the globe to track her, Barnett was raising her children by the ocean in Queensland where they excelled in competitive swimming and surf life-saving, friends say.

Todd’s life remained more or less static, according to his lawyerHe never re-married or had any other children, instead playing father to his niece and nephew. All along, he kept Savanna’s room,  awaiting her return, updating the decor to suit her age as the years rolled by.

On the Sunshine Coast, Barnett  made a new circle of mostly female friends who have rallied around her. No-one but the friend who betrayed her had suspected her secret and even now they staunchly defend her as she remains in custody awaiting an extradition hearing in February.

“I know her as a loving, supportive, and totally devoted mother and a loyal and loving friend with a strong work ethic, an extroverted fun personality with a welcoming home,” one said in a character reference.

“I don’t know the circumstances of what happened 20 years ago, but whatever it was, it would have been in desperation that only a mother would understand,” said another.

Todd has reportedly travelled to Queensland seeking a meeting with his daughter, but has refused media requests for interviews.

“His entire focus is on Savanna and creating a relationship with her,” says Sturgis. “But he’s going to be patient. He’s going to give her time to come to him.”

So far Savanna has rejected his offer of a meeting while her father is backing the FBI’s efforts to extradite her mother back to the US where we she will face up to 20 years in prison. “That Lee would leverage her daughter’s emotions to win her freedom demonstrates the depth of her selfishness,” says Sturgis.

There’s no doubt, her actions two decades ago are still causing trauma for her children. Coming up to Christmas, seventeen year son Reece  finds himself with no father and a mother in a Brisbane jail. He has gone to New Zealand to stay with friends on a pre-arranged trip but faces an uncertain future when he returns. Savanna has so far rejected Todd’s overtures for a meeting but  having just finished her university exams she wants some breathing space to process all that has happened, sources close to the family say.  

She faces a delicate balance between her mother who claims she is terrified of Todd and a daughter’s right to know her father and her family in the US. At least as an adult, she will be able to choose for herself in this tug of war.

Far from hating her mother for depriving her of a life of privilege in Charleston, Savanna is sticking by her mother.

At her mother’s recent bail hearing she held up a sign that read “I love you Mom”.



Digging up the Family Plot



IT is no surprise that the two most popular topics on the internet are sex and family history. Procreation lies at the heart of both. In fact, if the former were somehow to fall out of fashion there would be little call for the latter.

There’s no risk of either, according to Brad Argent, content manager for genealogy website Ancestry.com.au, who says that the world is in the grip of a genealogical boom. The family history site has almost nine million registered users and Australians are a fast-growing component.  

Never before has it been so easy to research your family tree, with masses of personal historical data now digitised and available from search engines. What took years of digging and international travel to find is now available at a key stroke. Birth, death and marriage certificates from around the world, military, church and immigration records, passenger lists, electoral rolls and convict transport records are all coming online. New material is available with every passing month.  

It’s completely addictive. Far from being an academic labour, family history addresses a powerful need in people to find personal identity in a fast-moving age. The journey often leads to one individual from the past whose struggles and/or successes seem to explain a family’s fortunes, Argent says.

For friends of mine such as James Elliott, it’s a great-great-great uncle shipwrecked off Africa before being sold into slavery in Zanzibar, where he met a princess in the sheik’s harem and fled with her to Egypt.

Howard Kramer’s great-grandfather was a Russian rabbi in Latvia. One of his grandfathers shot himself when his ox wagon broke a wheel while crossing a flooded river.

Actor and comedian Tania Lacey tells me her great-great grandmother was a full-blooded Aborigine.

“And we never knew until we saw a photo that had been hidden away in someone’s photo box. Apparently, when my great-great-granddad married her the rest of the family had nothing to do with them.”

While not everyone will find an illustrious past, you never know what will be revealed.
My special ancestor was great-great-grandfather John Shand, a Scottish stonemason who came to Sydney in 1853. He became a police magistrate, founding a legal dynasty, and lived out his days on a farm at Eastern Creek in NSW.

My father Dr John Shand and me at the grave of John Shand and Mary Barclay located in the Old Presbyterian section of Rookwood Cemetery in Sydney. December 2010

My father Dr John Shand and me at the grave of John Shand and Mary Barclay located in the Old Presbyterian section of Rookwood Cemetery in Sydney. December 2010

In 2010, my father and I found the dilapidated grave of John and his wife, Mary, long forgotten by the family. That night I found a document online showing the NSW government had compulsorily acquired a sizeable chunk of John’s old farm in 2006 without paying the family compensation. In securing a payout for all of John’s heirs and successors, we found a legion of new relatives, not to mention a deeper bond between us.

For family researchers such as Sandra Barker, the focus is turning towards the living.

Barker was adopted at birth under the closed-adoption system. Through the Department of Family Services, Barker learned the names of her birth parents and then did a “hatch, dispatch and match” (Births Deaths and Marriages) search through Ancestry. The death certificates of her parents revealed the stunning news she had a dozen siblings. Using her parents’ names, she began a family tree, posting it on Ancestry for others to see, which yielded yet another surprise. Another sister, artist Christina Frost Clayton, who had also been adopted out, got in contact. They had matching limbs on the family tree.

Genealogy websites such as Ancestry.com use a social media-style approach of connecting people from across the globe who have already researched branches of their family trees. Once they compare notes, they often find they can fill in blanks in each other’s research.

This collaboration is driving family research, says Argent. Barker and Frost Clayton are the ultimate living proof.

“We emailed each other childhood photos and saw we must definitely have been sisters. We’ve been exploring together ever since.” From being the eldest of two in her adoptive family, Barker is now number 13 of 14 in her birth family.

“The other siblings didn’t know about us, either. They thought we died at birth,” she says. To complicate matters, her birth mother was married twice, the second time to a World War II soldier who went missing in the fall of Singapore. Two half-siblings have proved elusive, but the search has also yielded “an uncle in Perth in his 80s and a heap of cousins”.

Once the basic tree is established, family historians seek to place their ancestors within the events of their times. In this regard, Australians are blessed to have a unique, world-class resource in Trove, the National Library’s online newspaper collection, which provides vital information on the day-to-day lives of Australians. When personal data is coupled with contemporaneous sources such as newspapers, family historians are able to build a rounded picture of their ancestors, cross-referencing family myths and legends with newspaper clippings about the actual events to capture and preserve the narratives.

The next frontier of family history, says Argent, is DNA testing. In the US, Ancestry offers a service where for $US99 ($109) members can find their ethnic and geographic origins. They can then match their DNA to other members and are provided with a list of surnames they potentially share. Until he had his DNA tested, Argent had always believed his family was mainly English with a little French via some marauding Normans in the 11th century. The DNA came back 39 per cent Irish with a little Scandinavian and western European and only a smear of English in the mix.

“Knowing that I am more Irish than anything else will make St Patrick’s Day so much more special,” he says. So far the DNA service is available in the US only, but it is expected to be offered in Australia within 12 months.

Argent says the average age of family historians has dropped from 62 years in 2007 to 55.

“What’s really heartening is the number of younger people – 18 to 24-year-olds – that are playing around the edges of family history. They have an affinity with technology and this is a way of bridging generation gaps with grandparents.

“A history renaissance is under way and people are interested in their personal connection to the past. It’s really saving history from the scrap heap.”


A Kind of Justice

Chopper Cowie Pentridge

NEARLY 40 years of emotion welled up in Steve Cowie last Sunday as he watched Mark Brandon “Chopper” Read confess on television to murdering four people, including serial pedophile Reginald Edward Isaacs.

In September 1974, Isaacs had drugged, raped and murdered Mr Cowie’s nine-year-old brother Greg. Watching Read’s interview on the Nine Network’s 60 Minutes, Mr Cowie broke down in tears. There had been justice after all for Greg, he thought.

The Victorian Coroner had concluded that Isaacs had killed himself just six months into a 25-year sentence in D Division Pentridge. If so, Isaacs had taken the easy way out, said Mr Cowie, but an official had told his father that Isaacs “had been assisted in his suicide”.

Read told 60 Minutes just weeks before his death at the age of 58 from liver cancer that he and “Mad” Charlie Hegyalji had bashed and hanged Isaacs, honouring a pact by all the inmates to kill him.

Greg’s sister Sue had once heard Read discuss the death of a unnamed pedophile in jail at a spoken word show in Melbourne.

“My partner said: ‘he’s talking about Greg’s killer’. So I asked Chopper if he had killed Isaacs and he said he hadn’t but knew who did. He told me that one day I would know everything,” she said.

Mr Cowie and his father had agreed that one of them would kill Isaacs if he ever got out of prison.

“Before his trial, Dad bought a rifle and even learnt how to throw knives. His great regret was that he had done nothing when he was just six feet away from Isaacs in the court room,” he said.

The killing of Greg had shattered the Cowie family, according to another brother Chris.

“I remember every Christmas mum used to sit by the tree after our dinner and drink her brandy and just sob,” he said.”

She was so relieved after Isaacs died because Dad wouldn’t end up in jail for killing him.

Greg had been walking in driving rain just a few kilometres from his home near Ballarat when Isaacs picked him up.

Greg had been at a friend’s house but there had been an argument and the mother had sent him home.

Isaacs drugged the boy using sleeping tablets his psychiatrist had given him the day before.

Isaacs was driving to St Albans in Melbourne’s northwest when pulled over by police for a routine check. He told them that Greg, who was lying across the seat asleep, was his son. Isaacs later drove to Wombat Forest in Trentham, where he killed the boy before burying him.

Isaacs had settled in Geelong in 1950 with his parents after migrating from England and soon began to hunt young boys.

In 1964, he was sentenced 10 years for buggery and was paroled in 1972.Isaacs’ death had meant that another family would never know what happened to their son, said Ms Cowie.

Police believe Isaacs was most likely responsible for the disappearance of 13-year old John Landos from a Lorne caravan park in January 1973. His body was never found.

Read also told 60 Minutes that he had killed Sydney Michael Collins, a former Victorian president of the Outlaws motorcycle club in 2002.Collins had given evidence against Read for shooting him in 1992. He also said he had killed Painters and Dockers Union heavy Desmond Costello in 1971.

Despite being acquitted on the grounds of self-defence over the 1987 killing of Saim “Sammy the Turk” Ozerkan, Read said that it had been “outright murder”.

The Cowies gathered at Pentridge last week to remember their brother. They spoke of a bright, outgoing kid who could be a handful at times, like any nine-year old.  

Farewell Chopper


ON Monday there had been a private funeral for ex-criminal Mark Brandon Read but a memorial at the old Fitzroy footy ground yesterday in Melbourne was all about farewelling his alter ego “Chopper.”

It was a chance for the fans who had bought his books, his artwork, watched the “Chopper” movie and packed out his spoken word shows across the country to pay homage to an unlikely hero who died last week at the age of 58 from liver cancer.

In lieu of a coffin, a basket of Read’s dirty laundry took centre stage with a note: “Could someone please take care of this for me? Thanks very much Chop.”

About seventy mourners, including his widow Margaret, braved stormy conditions in Melbourne to hear the eulogies to a wasted life, nearly 23 years spent in jails in Victoria and Tasmania for a range of offences, mostly inspired by mental illness.

At his family funeral, I caught up with Dr Bill Orchard, who had treated Read for adult Attention Deficit Disorder since 2009. At that time, Read was struggling with the reality of his post-prison life. People were ripping him off left, right and centre. Those decades in jail may have made him the ultimate survivor but he was an easy mark for smooth-talking squareheads or anyone with a convincing sob story. Read wrote in his book One Thing Led to Another that finding Dr Orchard saved his life after he suffered what he described as a nervous breakdown.

“Mark was a classic example of an untreated ADD sufferer in jail,” Dr Orchard said.

“He cut his ears off so he could get out of maximum security into a psychiatric unit where his mate was so they could escape together. Another time he kidnapped a County Court judge to get a friend out of the psych unit. This is not someone thinking about the consequences of his actions,” Dr Orchard said.

Lack of impulse control and consequential thinking are hallmarks of ADD which affects 7-9 per cent of adults.

When Orchard put him on dexamphetamine and a mood stabiliser, Read’s mental health improved dramatically which allowed him to become productive, focussed and to avoid a return to crime.  Dr Orchard reckons there should be compulsory adult ADD screening of people coming into jail which might save the community a substantial amount of grief and money.

The memorial was a curious affair, attracting a wide range of fans from elderly ex-prison types through to twenty-something hipsters.

Read once said he would be suspicious of anyone who came to his funeral but they came to praise, not condemn him.

Craig, who described himself as an older crook, said that many in the criminal fraternity had bagged Chopper “but I give the bloke something, he never robbed old people and he never touched kids.”

(Read was derided by criminals as a police informer, which may or may not be true. Certainly no-one has come forward since his demise claiming that Read had ratted on them.)

Cameron, a casual acquaintance, said Read had once urged his son to stand up to a school bully. The “five foot nothing” kid had decked his much larger tormentor the next day. Sadly, the boy had died last year and now the pair would be having fun in heaven, said Cameron.

Maria Frendo, a former gallery owner, said she had some misgivings about holding a show of Read’s art. Read had consulted a number of books and studiously copied what he saw, but with a twist. Here was Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly transformed into “Mrs Kelly” with “massive great breasts,” she said. All the works had sold within 20 minutes at prices above $4000 each. Read’s show had cost the gallery numerous customers, but it had been worth it, she said.

Former Prison Fellowship International worker Bill Sutcliffe recalled Read as a “great survivor, an entrepreneur and a great character”.

“He wasn’t a great criminal,” according to Mr Sutcliffe said.

In a written statement, Read’s manager Andrew Parisi said that the Chopper character was far from the reality of Read’s life since his release from jail in 1998.

“Chopper continued to play the hard man in the media, in books and on stage. He continued to spin yarns, some funny and some gruesome, because he knew that’s what people wanted. He was very accommodating in that way.”

“Today, as we lay him to rest, we ask you to remember one thing. If the circumstances are right, if they really want it, everyone has a shot at redemption.”

And that’s really the moral of his story.

While many find the glorification of a violent criminal distasteful, Read’s legend will only grow in death.  His 13 true crime books continue to sell briskly, and the Chopper movie has garnered DVD sales of 240 000 units to date. Read’s version of the folk song “Plastic Jesus”, made famous by Paul Newman in the 1967 film “Cool Hand Luke”, was released as a single on iTunes this week. Heath Franklin will probably continue to tour his parody of “Chopper Read” which he credits as the reason that he was able to work in comedy full-time. I find his Chopper a little cringeworthy, but imitation is the most sincere form of flattery

Meanwhile, Channel Nine’s Sixty Minutes program has been promoting a final interview with Read this Sunday in which he claims to have committed four murders, a significant discount on earlier claims of up to 19 killings.

There are other stories that may never be told.

A lady wrote to me with one at the weekend. Mark had helped her through the toughest time in her life. She was the driver of a car that hit and killed a man. Facing 5 years jail, she wrote to Mark.

“He was in prison at time I had just read his 1st book. The book had his prison address on it so I wrote to him and got such a surprise when he wrote back. Chopper helped me through my court case. He just told me to stay strong always, to believe in your innocence no matter what court says. If I was to go to prison I should walk in with my head up and keep it that way. I did go to jail for 4 months and I did as he said. I walked out stronger than I was before I went in.

He sent me a Xmas card few years back. He said it was left over so he thought he would send it to me, his way of checking to see how I was going. I love the man and I’m gunna miss him.

I’ll miss him too. He was extremely generous and helpful to me as I started my career as a crime writer in 2003. In fact he was about the only criminal type who would speak to me at the beginning.

I quickly realized that Mark Brandon Read was far more than the “Chopper” caricature he allowed himself to become. He was a doting father to Charlie and Roy and a loving husband to Margaret. These were the people who had turned him into a human being, he said.

People did not want to let Chopper go, they wanted to revel in his toecutting, blow-torching badness. So he served it up in great gory slabs in his books. Then Eric Bana in Chopper (2000) took his image around the world. He deserves a place in Australian artistic history but I wouldn’t know which category to put Mark Read in. He was a cultural phenomenon.
Even when he told people he was making stuff up, they didn’t want to believe it. He earned his living from playing a character created in prison but, the truth be told, Mark Brandon Read had buried Chopper a long time ago.

Courtesy of Mark "The Hammer" Dixon

Courtesy of Mark “The Hammer” Dixon

The Menace we Love to Hate

Hollywood's take on bikers 1953

IN 1966, Hunter S. Thompson called the Hell’s Angels “the hundred-carat headline” and the capacity of outlaw bikers to shock, appal and shift vast piles of newsprint has only increased in the years since.
Thompson realised that these barbarians on motorcycles were the sum of all fears in postwar America. They represented a totalitarian force that could overwhelm society as it moved lock-step towards conformity. Unlike the hippies, the bikies weren’t tuning out, they were planning to tear everything up.

Writers like Thompson in fact turned myth into reality, a process that had begun in 1953 with the cinema release of The Wild One, starring Marlon Brando. The Wild One, the story of two rival motorcycle gangs who terrorise a small town after
one of their leaders is thrown in jail, was “an inspired piece of film journalism”, according to Thompson, telling “a story that was only beginning to happen and which was inevitably influenced by the film”.
It drew on earlier mythmaking in 1947 by Time magazine, whose breathless beat-up, complete with phony pictures, of a lawless weekend in a small Californian town of Hollister, first introduced Americans to what became known as “the Menace”.
The Wild One, with Brando as anti-hero Johnny, portrayed the bikers as an invading force, motivated by a sense of alienation. When Johnny is asked what he’s rebelling against, he curls his lip and replies: “Whaddya got?”
The film “gave the outlaws a lasting, romance-glazed image of themselves, a coherent reflection that only a very few had been able to find in a mirror”, wrote Thompson. The Wild One, fanned by half a century of journalistic urging, has spread the outlaw ethos around the globe.

The notion of “The Menace” is alive and well in Australia today. Last week, Queensland Premier Campbell Newman announced “a never before seen crackdown” on bikies after a spate of violence on the Gold Coast. Within hours, the gates to state parliament were chained and padlocked as earnest police chiefs warned of the likelihood of “retaliatory attacks” by angry bikers.
This followed “a siege” when Bandidos gathered outside Southport police station demanding the release of their brothers jailed over bashing a rival. Fortunately, the police didn’t believe the hype and shoot their way out.

The power that media coverage gives to the misanthropic and marginalised individuals who join motorcycle clubs is intoxicating to them.
A couple of biker brawls on the Gold Coast, one outside a nightclub and another in a juice shop, leads to blanket media coverage, the creation of taskforces and the promise of the toughest bikie laws in the world.
They know if they fire a few cowardly rounds into a shop front in the dead of night, the reaction will go on for weeks. The shrill condemnation from the media tells them they are being taken seriously. 

Police have warned in the past that the media coverage of high-speed pursuits encouraged a rise in car theft among indigenous youth. And so it is with drive-by shootings.
Journalists who describe these made-for-TV moments as “acts of war” or “signs of escalating conflict” only validate the perpetrators and encourage more acts of stupidity. Young men join these clubs (and street gangs of all hues) to experience the fraternal intimacy usually available only to those who go to war. It’s said that these attacks are often carried out by hangarounds and wannabes who want to show their “class” to the clubs who might patch them up. What better way to catch the attention of people for your handiwork than to go multi-media?      
Declarations of war by politicians and police at press conferences strengthen the bonds between members. The Hell’s Angels credit J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI with helping the club become the best known brand in the world. In turn, Hoover knew that “The Menace” would reinforce the FBI’s cred as a national crime fighting force, just as the Australian Crime Commission is doing today. Police, bikers and the media have always enjoyed a symbiotic relationship. The greater the level of fear in the populace, the better it is for politicians seeking to send “a get tough on crime” message as part of the popularity contest we call democracy. Senior police will never talk down an opportunity to acquire greater powers or bigger guns. They want to get home safe every night like the rest of us.

Yet trying to make us hate and fear bikies has largely backfired, as I wrote in an earlier post. The media has been the outlaw world’s best recruiting tool. 
Over the past decade, biker numbers in Australia have soared in a direct relationship to the column centimetres devoted to their denunciation.

“Since the heat has come on the clubs, we have a queue stretching round the block of people who want to join,” says one club president.
As society becomes rule-bound and obedient, the idea of living large like an outlaw becomes more attractive to men looking for identity and purpose. To be hated and reviled by media is a unifying virtue.  

The Wild One has been overtaken by the long-running US cable TV hit Sons of Anarchy as the blueprint. It portrays biker clubs as hard-core organised crime, gun-runners and ruthless urban terrorists. Once again, media is telling a story that is just beginning to happen and influencing it at the same time.
Thompson instinctively understood the media appeal of the 1960s Angels and little has changed.
“They are acting out the day-dreams of millions of losers who don’t wear any defiant insignia and who don’t know how to be outlaws. The streets of every city are thronged with men who would pay all the money they could get their hands on to be transformed — even for a day — into hairy, hard-fisted brutes who walk over cops, extort free drinks from terrified bartenders and thunder out of town on big motorcycles after raping the banker’s daughter.”

Playing Favourites

I was special for seven years.

In fact, for the first two years of my life my feet rarely touched the ground. My parents and two elder siblings carried me around like an over-sized doll and so there was no need to walk. Finally my mother took me to the doctor worried that my legs were not developing, only to be told that I would walk when people stopped toting me around.
Everything changed with the birth of my sister in 1969. The change of status was instantaneous. Once
last born was now merely third-born. My sister was literally a golden child, a blonde beauty like Mum. The rest of us were dark, courtesy of Dad. My sister and Mum made a natural set.
My parents would never admit it but I always believed she was their favourite. It was understandable. By the time she was 11, we were all moving out of home and she had our parents’ undivided attention.
But as I write this story, I realise how much I resent her special status with our parents. We haven’t spoken for the past two years over some trivial issue but it’s clear to me that the root cause of our falling-out is my perception of favouritism. How depressing that, at 51 and with my own family, I am still seeking the favour of my parents. To be so needy feels pathetic and disempowering.
Playing favourites is an enduring taboo in child rearing. As parents, we fear that letting one child know they are more special than the rest will lead to disaster and dysfunction. We all hope that we love our kids equally and unconditionally when in fact in almost all families there are favourites.
Ellen Libby, American author of The Favorite Child, writes that a group of students at Stanford University debated with parents (not their own) the existence of favouritism in families.
“The students agreed that favouritism existed in all their families and that they knew instinctively which
siblings were favoured. But, because the students felt secure in their parents’ love, they felt no resentment and easily accepted their family dynamics,” Dr Libby wrote.
There was no shortage of love in our family, let’s be clear about that. But maybe my short-lived favourite status created a powerful sense of entitlement.
Dr Libby says that while unconditional love offers children security, it does not earn them special privileges. “In contrast, favouritism usually does not offer children security and commonly does earn them special privileges,” she writes.
“Favourite children are more likely to get what they want and grow up feeling entitled, in exchange for making parents feel good about themselves.

“Favourite children often are not held accountable for their behaviours and face minimal or inconsistent consequences.
“The less favouritism rotates among children in families, the more likely favourite children are to grow up feeling the benefits of confidence and the risks of believing that the rules don’t apply to them.”

So, being the favourite child might also carry some negative consequences.Casting around my friends, I was
surprised at how many are still carrying baggage about how favouritism affected their lives.
“I was the oldest of three, my brother in the middle and my sister followed,” says “Robert”, 49.
“I remember clearly my mother saying to her friends when I was about nine years old, while cuddling my brother, that
he was the favourite. I then ran and told my sister what I had heard, but I never told Mum that I overheard her make this comment.” From that point on, Robert felt he was competing with his brother for his mother’s attention. “I
feel my brother knew he was the favourite. He was the cheeky charmer that got away with all he could — and good luck to him, there were no grudges attached. My sister and I just seemed to accept it.”
Robert’s mother died when he was 12 and his brother nine without ever resolving the disparity.

“Interestingly, I feel Mum’s death affected my brother, the favourite, more than the rest of us. And there is something still apparent nearly 40 years later,” he says.
The bias her mother showed towards one child created a rift in Candace’s family that exists to this day.

“My mother had six children, her second last one, my brother, is the only child out of all of us she truly loves, believes in or
would do anything for. And he makes sure that’s how it will remain,” she says.
“Consequently she now only has one child who wants anything to do with her and he has no siblings who bother with him.”
Likewise “Richard’s” family is a battlefield. “My two gross, fat sisters could, and did, manipulate
my Dad into anything they desired, while I would wear plastic sandals in winter.”

Richard turned into a bad boy, eventually serving time in jail. When he came out, he tried hard to win back his parents’ favour. Nothing worked and today, at nearly 60, Richard finds himself on the outer with his family.
“I find it hard to forgive and even understand. I know my family is displaced and dysfunctional and we each have skeletons to hide but it’s tough still even at my age to accept that I was and am still so rejected.”
Eve found herself between two favoured siblings.

“My brother was my mother’s favourite because he was the only boy. My sister was my father’s favourite because she was
academically bright.” Eve is now mother to two boys and they both think she has a favourite, which she denies. “I would never put my children through what I went through as a non-favourite,” she says.
Candace has also now got two sons and while she tries to avoid playing favourites, she admits that one annoys
her “less than the other at any given time”.
It is entirely reasonable that parents should have their favourite children. We select our friends on the basis
of compatibility of our personalities, so why would certain traits in our kids not resonate with us more than others?
At 16, my daughter knows how to manipulate me emotionally down to a T. She knows I dote on her, while her elder
brother, at 21, is more independent, less needy.
I am conscious of the fact I need to be a parent to my children, not a friend. There have to be boundaries,
and a balancing of what one child gets against the other. I would hate for my history with my sister to repeat itself in my kids. Our rivalry means that we are forever locked into a sibling hierarchy.
This is a peculiarly First World sort of problem. It speaks of nuclear families where children rely solely on their parents for their fate.
It’s time to get over this, needless to say. As my friend Olly says: “Leave it behind and look to the future, not the past. You
can’t change it.”
He’s right but I can’t help but feel that Olly must have been the apple of his parents’ eye, dammit.

Whatever Happened to that Kodak Moment?

BLAME it on Harry Belafonte. It was Kodak’s 1960 ad campaign featuring his tear-jerker “Turn Around” that set this off.
“Turn around and you’re two/ Turn around and you’re four/Turn around and you’re a young girl going out of the
door,” the Calypso King crooned.
The demands of work were beginning to overtake family time and we risked missing the best years of our
lives. Marketing’s answer to the guilt was consumer photography and life was soon defined by “Kodak moments”. A photo album of memories became a testament to an idealised family unit, as presented in the TV ads and shows such as Leave it to Beaver. It was life with all the boring, unpleasant bits taken out. We were suddenly free of the tedium of storytelling and we could outsource our memories.
Paul Anka reinforced the message in Kodak’s 1975 campaign:
“Good morning, yesterday;
“You wake up and time has slipped away;
“And suddenly it’s hard to find;
“The memories you left behind;
“Remember, do you remember?”
Today most of us have no idea where to find those memories. We are swamped by thousands of unsorted snaps of everyday life.
I have a big bag bursting with unsorted memories that covers school, university, my first job, wedding, honeymoon, the birth of children, the lives and the deaths of assorted relatives, friends and pets.When I leave my phone lying around, I often find my 16-year old daughter Noliwe has taken a new gallery of selfies.  I remind her that when Neil Armstrong took just 5 photos when he landed on the Moon in 1969. She finds the concept incomprehensible.
At least the cost of film and processing used to act as some kind of restraint. Now I have hard-drives full of the stuff. I have long ago given up hope of putting them in any kind of order.
There is a kind of guilt that drives all this. Where once we might have lamented missing out on life, now we regret not having
taken a photo of it.
Yet many believe that the convenience of digital photography has removed the inherent specialness of our pictures. What were once priceless are now just ubiquitous ones and zeroes.
Technology’s response has been to make things even easier, with software solutions such as PhotoBucket.
The name of this software package is not promising. Whoever stored anything of value in a bucket?
The marketing says that PhotoBucket allows one to “upload instantly to one place”. “You’ll never have to worry about photo backup again.
It’s easy to sync your photos and videos from your computer, mobile devices and Facebook to Photobucket. Now you really can have it all.” Is that really all we can hope for?

Perhaps it goes deeper. There was something valuable about the process of taking pictures once that has been lost. Roll back to the 19th century. Imagine holding a pose for three or four minutes to get a clear image because of the exposure times back then. That’s why people never smiled in those old daguerreotype and glass plate negative shots — the slightest movement caused blurring. It was still better than posing all day for an artist. I have a photograph of my great-great grandparents taken in 1890 on the family farm near Sydney. Mindful of exposure times, they had stood two or three metres
apart with grim expressions fixed on their faces.
By the early 70s, we were too impatient to wait for the photo lab to process our pictures. Enter the Polaroid Instant cameras, which Arthur Fisher in the January 1973 issue of Popular Science described as “perhaps the most fiendishly clever invention in
the history of photography”.
My Dad was an early adopter and I remember him at family barbecues standing there shaking the film for minutes on end. So often he would stuff it up. Sometimes he would even fail to get the first strip out of the camera and that would be the end of the day’s shoot.
No one but him was ever allowed to handle his trusty Sx-70 Land camera. (Back then I used to think that Polaroid would eventually come up with “Deep Sea” and even “Space” models, but in fact the name came from its inventor, Edwin Land, who was motivated by his daughter’s question: “Why can’t I see them now?”)
In Dad’s case, the tension around this process was usually more memorable than the result. He must have got about six photos that ever worked out to his liking. I remember almost every one.
The mother of my children grew up in Southern Rhodesia in the 1960s where Polaroids, or any cameras, for that matter, were
fairly scarce. Her father died in 1971 and there was a single photograph of him known to exist.
Last week, another turned up in his home village. The photograph was taken in about 1947. A brother had carried it all over southern Africa in his travels as an itinerant miner and it was found in his possessions after his death.
It depicted his brother, David Mhofu Nzenza, sitting at a table in front of a rough thatched school building. On the back, he had written in a painstaking hand: “This is the school that I built in S Rhodesia. I was head teacher.”
It told such a story that I scanned and posted it on Facebook. It caused a minor and brief sensation, but after a day or so my
Facebook pals stopped liking it. Digital pictures may have a pleasing
verisimilitude, but a physical print is literally an item that remains part of one’s life. I posed this question on Facebook and this sentiment came through in dozens of posts.
There was “a joy we used to have in browsing our photo albums that was more tactile than staring into a computer screen and clicking into slide show mode”.
“A negative was precious, so precious that we took great lengths to store them safely away where they couldn’t be damaged or stolen . . . proof positive of ownership of the original photo.”
“I still feel great pleasure and pride in browsing the leather-bound album next to the war medals of my father in British army uniform in India and Burma during WWII. The mood portrayed in black-and-white or sepia is far more powerful to me than most
colour photos.”
“Amazing shots are being taken now than ever before, we are jaded, and with such over-documentation comes boredom.”
My 16-year-old daughter says she values physical mementos like concert ticket stubs or handwritten notes far more highly than digital photos. She and her peers don’t bother to organise pictures at all, they just upload them to Facebook or
Snapchat, where people post photos and comments that last for only 10 seconds before self-destruction, is the ultimate expression of digital disposability.

Curiously, Polaroid, which filed for bankruptcy in 2001, is making a huge comeback — or at least the concept of non-digital instant
photography is. It started back in 2009 with third-party companies offering reconditioned old Polaroid SX-70s like Dad’s using expired original film stock.
Then the Polaroid brand name was bought by The Summit Global Group, which began making new analogue Land cameras.
My daughter says a Polaroid camera is the must-have “indie” (for individual) product. Perversely, they
scan the print and post that online.In 2014, a digital/analogue hybrid is set to hit the shelves in partnership with Instagram. The Sociomatic Polaroid Instant camera will allow users to dump their pictures online via a WiFi adapter or print them out with the distinctive white border of yesteryear.
They claim to be “putting the fun back into photos”. But I don’t think it would be quite the same as my memories.
I think I would still have to shake the print and swear for five minutes in honour of my Dad.

Fathers and Sons

Father Sons



IF we submit to our worst fears, it’s easy to believe a foul tide of angry, resentful young men is overwhelming society. There are media stories almost daily of young men fighting, boozing and flipping the bird at authority.

A golden age is ending, it seems. A friend lamented recently, “Once upon a time angry young men wrote books and plays and tried to change the world.”

But, as with most golden ages, this one probably never existed. In fact, old men have been complaining about young men for a very long time.

In the fourth century BC, Plato bemoaned the changes he saw on the streets of Athens. “What is happening to our young people?” he asked. “They disrespect their elders, they disobey their parents. They ignore the law. They riot in the streets inflamed with wild notions. Their morals are decaying. What is to become of them?”

According to sociologists, teachers and police, the issue may not be so much angry young men but sad and disconnected ones. And the problem is mostly with the fathers, not their sons.

Studies have shown that Australian fathers spend less than 10 minutes a week of “quality time” with their sons.

At 15, Dermot Murphy is an example of a boy who receives quality time from his dad, and already shows the traits of the family men who have been his mentors.

There’s the feisty spirit of his grandfather, legendary Melbourne detective Brian Murphy. Dermot grew up hearing Pop’s stories of a thousand hair’s-breadth escapes from danger.

Dermot’s father, Danny Murphy, saw some of the old man’s exploits as they happened.

“I knew that it was better to be caught by the police than the old man,” Danny quips.

Danny idolised his father but also identified strongly with his uncle Pat, a plumber in South Melbourne renowned for his generosity with struggling families. And he has carried on that tradition into his own business.

Dermot is considering a career in the armed forces, combining the family influences of adventure and public service.

These traits were learned from fathers spending time with sons.

“I made sure I was the first one to take my (five) kids fishing, water-skiing, camping and ferreting,” says Brian. “There were times when I was literally falling asleep at the wheel I was so tired from work, but I knew I’d only get one chance to bring up my kids.”

Danny still spends a lot of time with Dermot, but it’s a competitive relationship. “We go out jet skiing but Dermot won’t come out the back,” he says, throwing a scornful look at his son. Dermot doesn’t bite this time, but father and son have frequent arguments.

This combative style of relationship is typical of a son trying to measure up in his father’s eyes, says Brett Murray, a youth culture guru. Murray lectures high school students on dealing with bullying and meets many boys looking to form attachments to older men, especially when fathers have been absent in their lives.

“After a session this week this young guy comes up and says: ‘My dad has never said he is proud of me so I’m doing Year 12 to hopefully get him to say he’s proud of me,’ ” says Murray. “There’s a small percentage of kids who are super self-motivated and can turn adversity to victory, but many feel the weight of massive expectations. This is reinforced every time they fail.”

Positive male role models provide crucial endorsement for teenage boys. “Because they lack positive role models it’s a domino effect. They don’t have people in their lives saying, ‘C’mon mate, you can do this, work a bit harder and you can achieve.’ They don’t have any vision for their life. Without vision there is a sense of being hopeless, ‘what’s the point of this?’,” he says.

Australia is ranked third in the world for teenage suicide, a direct result of this feeling of hopelessness, according to Murray.

Contrary to popular belief, gangs of hardened youths are generally not roaming the streets attacking innocent citizens. A senior police officer says only one in four young men charged with assaults in Victoria has a previous conviction. Three-quarters are first offenders with poor impulse control who get into fights over trivial matters like a girlfriend talking to another man or someone bumping into them. They think it shows cowardice or lack of pride to walk away. They have never been taught to deal with their emotions,” the officer says.

It’s a slippery slope for young men who cannot learn to “self-soothe” and avoid conflict.

I was reminded of this when writing a story of a 30-year-old man who had murdered a former girlfriend in a fit of rage. His mother, a single parent, had rejected him when a new partner came on the scene. Living on the streets from his teens, the only strong influence in his life was his father, an outlaw biker doing life in jail for murder.

Young men with behavioural problems are screened out of education quickly, according to Brendan Murray, executive principal of Parkville College, a unique school that began operating this year within the walls of Melbourne’s Youth Justice Precinct.

Many of these troubled youths have never formed secure attachments to positive male role models at home. When they misbehave in class, the education system’s answer is to exclude them, says Brendan Murray.

“If a student needs more assistance with literacy or numeracy we would invest greater resources, not less. We should be teaching the whole person. A person who acts out needs more help,” he says.

The development of crucial communication skills virtually ceases when children stop attending school. At least half the young people in correctional facilities have some form of speech, language or communication difficulty, says Brendan Murray.

Facing rising levels of violence in its Malmsbury and Parkville youth facilities, authorities established schools inside the walls that have led to a 60 per cent reduction in “on-site incidents”.

Students from Melbourne University’s graduate school are acting as tutors and mentors for the school. “It’s the first time people have given these young people a chance. They are wary due to their history of being let down by people close to them. They fear the rug is going to be pulled out from under them at any moment,” Brendan Murray says. “For the first time, they have someone who believes in their potential.”

In his career as a cop, Brian Murphy saw so many good kids like Dermot go bad for want of fatherly belief and understanding.

“It’s got to be done in the home because if a father won’t do it, then who will? Eventually the state will deal with the mess you haven’t had the courage or care to clean up,” he says.


Jesus Shook Me All Night Long

JESUS is in the house!” roared pastor Neil Smith above the crash-boom of drums and the wail of electric guitars. You would have thought the Son of God was sitting right there in the packed auditorium, such was the excitement among the youthful crowd at the Rock Church in San Diego, California, in January.

This was a big moment in the history of Planetshakers City Church, once a small local church in Melbourne, now fast becoming an international Christian brand.

The Planetshakers Band, one the slickest Christian rock outfits going round, had set the scene for a night of “ecstatic worship” at the Rock Church in San Diego California. They had played the familiar set of “7-11” songs, hymns comprised of seven short phrases repeated 11 times. Critics of Christian rock say this repetition is designed to pummel the brain into submission, “turning the minds of the congregation to mush,” as one put it.  What is billed as the Holy Spirit may in fact be nothing than a release of happy hormones into the brain.

As if Jesus wasn’t enough, Smith promised to “take it to a whole new level” as he introduced senior pastor Russell Evans, whom he called “the founder and visionary leader.”

In Christian tradition, Jesus Christ is the leader and founder of the church, but apparently in the Pentacostal world things are different.
Soon Evans was calling out “healings” from the stage to the adoring crowd. He announced that God wanted to heal people in the audience.

“Wait a sec, wait a sec, God wants to heal some people in this room,” said Evans, as if the deity was whispering in his ear.

“Someone’s back is being healed to my left, right there. There is someone here who has a knee injury and God is healing you right now; there is someone here with incredible sinus problems — you’re over in that section over there — God is healing you,” he crooned.

It was a stunning performance. There on stage Evans was claiming that God was speaking through him, pointing out the sick and infirm that were being miraculously healed.It reminded me of the US psychic John Edward’s Crossing Over show where he claims the spirits of dead people speak through him to audience members. Except this was much better, this was not some mouldy dead uncle but the Heavenly Father, right there, one night only.
In any other forum, such a claim might spark derision, but in Evans’s world this is called carrying out his “pastoral duties.” His Planetshakers City Church and many of its staff receive generous tax concessions for these duties, including “healings.” I say why stop at tax deductions, why not a Medicare rebate?

I’m told that under scripture only a prophet can claim such supernatural powers. And the bar is set very high. If a prophet fails to perform a single healing or other miracle he or she is automatically regarded as a false prophet. And one might ask whether a false prophet should receive a tax deduction, if adherence to doctrine matters at all to the Australian Tax Office and the new Australian Charities and Not For Profit Commission.  

Until now, the government has shown only occasional interest in the activities of churches that receive tax exemptions. But since July 1 the newly formed ACNC is bringing unprecedented scrutiny.

ACNC advisory board member David Crosbie says the changes will not restrict the activities of legitimate churches, but would help to weed out “fringe religions” that act more like cults.

Despite the wacky healing malarkey, Planetshakers is regarded as a mainstream church. It too will be subject to the ACNC’s scrutiny. There is no requirement under law that churches comply with specific Christian doctrine, but the ACNC is nominally interested in the form and content of worship, insiders say.

Critics such as Chris Rosebrough, who broadcast excerpts of Evans’s San Diego healings on his US radio show Pirate Christian, believe Evans’s routine owes more to marketing than religion.

Rosebrough describes Evans as a “vision casting, seeker-driven, mega church pastor, mixed with a little televangelist.”

“This guy  is whipping people into a frenzy so he can sell them little jars of potion that will heal whatever ails them, gout or maybe they have intestinal difficulties, who knows?”   

But whatever its doctrinal shortcomings this is a fabulously successful formula for Evans.

From its modest beginnings in Adelaide as a youth conference within Paradise Church, Planetshakers is now a rising star in the Christian world. And Evans, one of the new breed of “pastorpreneurs”, is spreading the word in the US market, where the church could make millions of dollars in tax-free revenue. Evans’s elder brother, Ashley, has already established a US branch of his Influencers Church (formerly Paradise Church) in Atlanta, Georgia.

The brothers were once at loggerheads when their father, Andrew, anointed Ashley to take over Paradise when, after 30 years in charge, he left to form the Family First Party. Evans Sr, a former chairman of the Assemblies of God movement in Australia, became a member of the South Australian upper house in 2002. It’s understood the brothers barely spoke for two years.

In October 2002, Russell Evans took his following to Melbourne and established Planetshakers City Church, which he claims now has 8600 members spread across four Melbourne campuses, and an affiliate church in South Africa.

Meanwhile, Paradise — which became Influencers Church last year — is now the second-largest Pentecostal church in Australia after the all-conquering Hillsong, which has revenues of $55m.

Insiders say Ashley and Russell are allied once more, and the family’s not-for-profit Christian empire now turns over $12m a year, largely tax-free. They are connected with the Family First Party and right-wing elements of the Liberal Party, and linked to a coterie of business figures with political connections. Nearly $200,000 goes into the collection plate each Sunday.

While most charities have seen earnings fall since the global financial crisis began, Planetshakers continues to grow strongly, posting a 32 per cent hike in revenue to $6.73m in 2011.

As the Evans brothers build their international ministries, they crisscross the world on their church credit cards. Russell has worked his way into the lucrative international speaking circuit, visiting churches, mainly in the US, to give sermons for cash payments of up to $30,000, which he hands over to Planetshakers. He in turn invites US pastors to visit Melbourne, on similar terms.

In 2011, Planetshakers paid out more than $440,000 to visiting pastors in honorariums and “love offerings” from the collection plate. Insiders says that, as a rule, Russell guarantees that no visiting pastor goes home with less than $10,000 in love offerings from the congregation.

Russell’s Twitter page reveals a hectic schedule of travel last year, including trips to Europe, the US and Asia, sometimes accompanied by his children. He recently tweeted his “fav eating places in the world: 1. Shangri-la (Singapore) 2: (Five star hotel) Langham (Melbourne) 3. Little pasta place in Rome 4. Angelinas Paris 5: mi cocina Dallas (Texas).”

Under present rules, pastors such as the Evans brothers get to keep all the frequent-flyer points they earn on their corporate credit cards, tax-free. And with almost all church expenses paid on credit cards, that could run to hundreds of thousands of points each year.

Ministers of religion carrying out their pastoral duties are tax-exempt. There is no cap on the tax-free fringe benefits pastors such as Russell and his wife, Sam (who is also a pastor), can claim. Insiders say Russell and his wife are paid a cash salary of approximately $100,000 each, but that the true value of their total package is closer to $500,000 once all fringe benefits are included.

Planetshakers denies this, but declines to provide accurate figures, citing confidentiality.

Churches have enjoyed a presumption that they are charities by right, courtesy of the Statute of Elizabeth, enacted in 1601. The estimated overall cost of this exemption to the economy was estimated by Treasury to be $85m in 2011-12.

There have been attempts by previous governments to apply more modern definitions of charity, but nothing has eventuated.

The ACNC promises to, at least, bring 21st-century governance to the area. Since July, the ACNC’s strategic intelligence and compliance team has been reviewing annual income statements to ensure compliance with a set of minimum standards. The team is already investigating 25 cases, mostly for fraud, where directors are gaining a private benefit from donated funds, or where the charity is not operating for its stated purpose.

By the way, I’m not suggesting that Planetshakers or Influencers is under investigation.

A director of Planetshakers, Graham Kirkwood, whose consultancy Global Church Solutions advises churches on tax and financial planning, has publicly opposed the changes to the charities regime, claiming that there “are measures contained within various proposals that specially will limit our ability to finance the cause of Christ and be flexible to meet community needs as they arise.”

He argues that Pentecostal churches deserve even more hand-outs from government, since they perform welfare functions, which otherwise would be a burden on society.

“Why aren’t they (government) giving the churches land, as they did at the turn of the century in the centre of town for the Wesleyans, Anglicans and Catholics? They were gifted the land for their cathedrals, which are mostly half-empty,” says Kirkwood.

He also defends the use of fringe-benefits tax exemptions. Most pastors take a maximum of 75 per cent of the package as tax-exempt fringe benefits, though they could take 100 per cent, he says.

“So we have provided some self-governance and self-limitation, which nobody is giving us any credit for,” he says. “I wish some reporter would have the balls to report that.”

Few in his flock would challenge Russell Evans on doctrine or the governance of the church, say insiders. The senior pastor exercises almost total control under the church’s constitution. Only governing board members are allowed to be voting members of the association that controls the church. Therefore, annual general meetings of the association consist solely of members essentially handpicked by the senior pastor, say insiders.

The Planetshakers constitution provides that “the senior pastor holds the power of veto over any appointment on the basis of confidential information obtained as a result of confessional privilege.” He also has the power to appoint or remove any employee and to fix powers or duties and-or remuneration in respect of such persons with reference to the governing board.

Kirkwood accepts that governance needs to be monitored.

“As organisations grow, their corporate governance understanding begins to develop and then they put other things in place. Society’s expectations over certain things have changed,” he says. He says new policies are being developed that have overridden the constitution.

Only worshippers who have undergone internal church training are permitted to see the books of the church. DNA and Inner Champion are internal church culture courses that are run one night a week over 10 weeks to train the congregation in “the call and culture of the church”. DNA culminates in a retreat where adherents fill out lengthy questionnaires confessing to all manner of sins, before they line up to shred the questionnaires in a highly theatrical ceremony, say insiders.

“One of the main themes of these courses is honour and respecting leadership, especially not questioning leadership, which means anyone who has gone through these courses would never ask for the financials, especially if they have to attend the office to do so,” claims a former Planetshakers insider.

Kirkwood denies this, saying the main theme of the courses is “the discouragement of behaviour that amounts to control and manipulation.”

“If there are questions raised where the board is asked to respond on issues of financial management this certainly would not be discouraged, and full disclosure would be forthcoming if the inquiry was genuine and in good faith,” he says.

It will be interesting to see how churches such as Planetshakers and their congregations respond to the kind of scrutiny the ACNC is bringing. In the past, disgruntled followers simply found another church to go to; now they can seek change in their own church via a confidential complaints process provided by the ACNC. I’d be interested to hear from any one who has done so from Planetshakers or other churches. More importantly I would love to hear from anyone who has been healed in one of these Sunday sessions. There are plenty of people on social media who claim to have experienced or witnessed this fantastic phenomena yet none seem able to adduce compelling evidence. Far from being sceptical or resistant, I’d love to get in on the action. My private health insurance dues are killing me.


Failure to Drive not Thrive

DrivingIN the long years of driving my son all over the countryside, I clung to the idea that one day the wheel would turn. As the odometer ticked over millions of kilometres of sports days, school runs, teenage parties and family holidays, I imagined that the unpaid taxi driver would one day become the passenger. I fooled myself that I was building frequent driver miles I could redeem in a dissolute and drunken old age.

He turned 21 this month and I’m yet to see him in the driver’s seat. It turns out that he got his Ls only to provide proof of age to get into bars. He has racked up not a nanosecond of actual driving experience.

Jack is one of a new non-driving cohort for whom a licence is an optional extra, not a necessity.

In 1991, of NSW kids aged 20-24, 79 per cent had licences. By 2001 it had risen to 80 per cent. Yet by 2008 it had crashed to just 51 per cent and continues to decline. A new study in Victoria by Monash University shows the number of licence holders under 30 is dropping at more than 1 per cent a year.

Having a smartphone is more important to Gen Y than having a car in a world experienced increasingly online. They have less reason to leave their bedrooms than ever before. The once pervasive car culture of the US is also in decline. In 1978, nearly half of American 16-year-olds and three-quarters of 17-year-olds had driver’s licences, according to Department of Transportation data. In recent years, that has fallen to 31 per cent of 16-year-olds and 49 per cent of 17-year-olds, with the decline accelerating since 1998.

When I was 18, having a car (and a valid licence) meant freedom and independence.

One of my peers said, rather indelicately, that we got our licences to get away from our parents in order to have sex.

Driving songs like 1973’s Radar Love by Golden Earring unashamedly made this connection.

I’ve been driving all night, my hands wet on the wheel

There’s a voice in my head that drives my heel

It’s my baby calling, says ‘I need you here’

And it’s a half past four and I’m shifting gear

My ride was an ancient Mini Moke with no side flaps so this wasn’t much of an option, unless heavily intoxicated. No, the car symbolised more than just sex, but status and adulthood. Imagine my horror when I lost my P plates just weeks away from getting a full black licence.

My girlfriend at the time accidentally squirted a Macca’s thick shake all over me and then quickly asked me to make a left turn from the middle lane, right in front of a cop.

With me relegated to the passenger seat, the relationship was doomed. She ended up marrying my successor, who drove a big shiny car.

That period of being single, looking at my reflection in the bus window, was the first time I remember being depressed.

Jack suffers no such complexes. He’s living large on a Myki card around Melbourne’s public transit system, doing just fine with the ladies, I’m told. He estimates that up to 40 per cent of his mates have no licence. His brother Julian got his licence at 26, I suspect, only because it wouldn’t look good catching the bus on his honeymoon.

Jack says he and his mates live in “prime locations” – mum and dad’s houses in inner-city suburbs – where public transport is easily accessible. With superfast broadband, they do many things at home that previously required a motor vehicle.

His 20-year-old cousin agrees that driving is not so cool anymore. “I have my Ls along with most of my friends, but because of a lack of a car, money to sustain it and the inconvenience of parking and just city driving in general, it’s not worth it,” he says.

A survey of friends with Gen Y kids confirms this “failure to drive” trend.

“My 22-year-old has had a car for over a year now. He pays rego and insurance and still has no licence. He lends it to friends but asks no money in return.

“When asked if he’s over being dependent on others, he says he likes being driven around. He just goes with the flow and doesn’t get upset,” says one parent-chauffeur.

“My 24-year-old still only has L plates,” says another. “It might be partly her nature to not finish things off like her uni degree, but it’s also due to living centrally and working in the city.

“She walks everywhere and uses public transport,” she says.

Kids with a practical reason to drive, that is, they are involved in sporting pursuits that require the towing of boats or horse floats, still get their licences early, a boon to louche and irresponsible parents.

“It is so much easier having them driving, especially when I just lost my licence for speeding again,” says one.

Those who have their licences are invariably cast as the designated driver while the rest of the crew is free to have fun, says Jack. On longer trips, the lads chip in for petrol money, but mostly having a car is no longer an advantage.

This phenomenon fits neatly into the theory of “peak car”, which posits that vehicle kilometres per person travelled has peaked in at least eight major developed countries, including Australia.

In December 2008, researchers from the Brookings Institute observed that total vehicle miles travelled in the US began to plateau in 2004 and fell in 2007 for the first time since 1980. Per capita driving was following a similar pattern.

David Metz, the former chief scientist of Britain’s Department of Transport, suggested forecasts of growth were erroneous because a saturated peak level had already been reached.

Yet still in Australia we choose to build motorways, such as Sydney’s WestConnex and Melbourne’s East-West Link, in preference to public transport projects that are backed by data that is fast becoming unambiguous. The introduction of graduated licensing schemes to address the over-representation of drivers under 25 in fatal and serious accidents has influenced the drop in young licence holders. The schemes have delayed the opportunity to gain an unrestricted licence and introduced a compulsory minimum amount of supervised driving experience before a provisional licence can be obtained, but they cannot fully explain the cultural shift from cars.

Monash University research fellow Alexa Delbosc says kids staying at home longer is one factor. A lower proportion of Gen Ys having children and living independently is another.

“Having a family can be a motivator to get a driver’s licence and delaying this life stage may reduce pressure on young adults to get a licence,” she says.

The tabloid press continually highlights the growth of anti-social hoon driving in the suburbs. A 2012 Queensland study found offenders were overwhelmingly young white males.

Yet the majority of these offences took place in outer suburbs that are not well-served by public transport.

It’s the old Torana or walking for many of these kids.

So the figures show I’m not alone in playing driver to the prince into my late middle age. I seriously doubt whether he will ever ask me for the keys.

But then I shouldn’t complain – it’s reassuring I’m still useful for something.

Outlaw Chic: How Cops Made Bikies Cool Again

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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.”

Inconvenient Truths in Africa



Winston Churchill said that “the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”

The voter remembers the last thing they were told, the biggest lie or the most potent threat. They do not see policy from a macro-political perspective. What’s in it for me is the dominant question.

And so it was that western commentators and diplomats could scarcely believe the result in last month’s harmonised elections in Zimbabwe. In the days after President Robert Mugabe’s stunning victory, the incredulity was broadcast all over the world.

The rhetoric followed a consistent line. How could an 89-year old tyrant who had presided over the virtual destruction of his country be re-elected with 61 per cent of the vote, while his opponent Morgan Tsvangirai, the West’s champion of democracy, polled only 34 per cent? How could Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party have won a two-thirds majority in parliament without the “massive rigging” that Tsvangirai and his supporters had alleged?  

Having visited Zimbabwe in April, I came away convinced that Mugabe would win the election. This is not to appear half-smart, independent polling had also indicated that Mugabe would win a majority, despite an uncommitted vote of up to 40 per cent.

In many conversations, I registered a weariness with Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change. Despite having a majority in parliament and controlling most of the councils in the urban centres, the MDC had achieved very little. After the disputed 2008 elections, the MDC had gone into a government of national unity with Zanu-PF with Tsvangirai serving as Prime Minister and his colleagues as ministers in key portfolios, such as finance.

Tsvangirai seemed to enjoy the trappings of power having spent years on the outside looking in. He moved into a splendiferous house and began tooling around town in a big Mercedes. In 2009, his wife Susan was tragically killed in a car accident but the sympathy for him dissipated as he embarked on a chaotic and almost random series of romantic entanglements. His louche behaviour was not unusual amongst  Zimbabwean men but it gave his opponents ammunition to fire at him through willing fusiliers in the state-owned media. It spoke of ill-discipline just when steely focus and purpose was required. In government, Tsvangirai became obsessed with reform in the state security sector, dislodging the police and army chiefs who he saw as instrumental to Mugabe’s continued grip on power. (That wasn’t surprising considering the beatings he received at the hands of partisan police.)  

This proved to be a major miscalculation. What he should have  been  doing was focussing on the electoral system, including getting the electoral rolls inspected and updated. If there was massive fraud in the election it was carried out through the rolls with dead people voting and people registered in districts where they did not reside.  

Embarrassingly, to date there has not been hard evidence of Tsvangirai’s claims produced. That’s not to say there wasn’t rigging but the MDC needed to prove it and hasn’t. Tsvangirai made a court challenge based on an affidavit that he refused to sign, which appears to have mirrored word for word statements made by the British Ambassador to Zimbabwe Deborah Bronnert

On August 4, Bronnert went on Sky News and declared that Britain had “serious issues” about the conduct of the July 31 elections, including the high number of assisted voters.

“One example is where 17,000 people voted but 10,000 of those were assisted, that means somebody else went in with them into the voting booth raising some big questions around the secrecy and security of the vote,” Ambassador Bronnert said.

Tsvangirai put the same allegation in his affidavit but tellingly refused to sign up to it. Even more tellingly, neither Bronnert nor Tsvangirai could name the constituency where this outrageous fraud took place.

As this embarrassing incident gathered pace in Harare, Tsvangirai withdrew his petition, ending any chance of forcing a re-run of the polls.     

I can’t be certain about the extent of alleged frauds, but I am sure the opinion polls that had Mugabe leading prior were accurate and above reproach.

Bronnert and other ambassadors gather their opinions from diplomatic cocktail parties in the main. They rarely go into the field and speak to real people. MDC operatives give them the comments they want to hear as continued party funding is on the line. But even the most enthusiastic MDC boosters at embassy soirees were saying that Mugabe would win. MDC diplomats I spoke to were saying that but somehow the message didn’t sink in.

Zanu-PF out campaigned MDC all over the country, that is clear. They went out to rural areas and effectively apologized for forgetting about the contribution of village people during the liberation  struggle of the 1970s. They promised land to non-combatants who had acted as messengers during the struggle. They re-engaged with the people, sought out young people to register and politicised them relentlessly. Where in the past they had used a stick this time it was the carrot.    

They set up a network of unofficial village policemen who were in effect political commissars. Their mission was to ensure that the polls were peaceful but also to reinforce the message that despite the terrible privations that Zimbabweans had suffered in recent times, they still owed their freedom and independence to Mugabe’s revolutionary party.

People who had been awarded land after the violent invasions of white-owned farms from 2000 had a reason for voting for Mugabe. While catastrophic to the economy, the number of indigenous folk earning a living on these farms has risen from about 350 000 to 1 million since the invasions, according to the British authors of the controversial book Zimbabwe Takes Back Its Land. This message has been rammed home in the rural areas and appears to have struck a chord.

The party also installed younger candidates with local followings, rather than the party hacks of old.

Many people who voted for Mugabe were no lovers of the autocratic old sidewinder but he was the devil they knew. There was a sense that the MDC, riven with factionalism and self-interest, could not deliver on its promise of change.

That peace has reigned over Zimbabwe since the elections is profoundly puzzling to foreign diplomats and observers who predicted ordinary folk would take to the streets in protest, and even actively encouraged it in some cases. They misjudged the mood, people were sick of politics. The government of national unity provided 4 years of relative stability and civil harmony. The economy, aided by the introduction of the US dollar, has steadily recovered, albeit from a tiny base. A change of government was considered a possible threat to that. Moreover, Zanu-PF might have been more dangerous in opposition, considering that most senior military figures are steeped in the party.

Mugabe’s win has been profoundly inconvenient to the West which has designs on the huge mineral wealth of the country. The insistence that all foreign firms cede 51 per cent of shares to indigenous Zimbabweans is distasteful to big mining companies who have never been fond of sharing their Third World plunder.

In African politics, you have to play the long game. As the old Zanu-PF cadres die off they are being replaced with young technocrats who are returning from overseas.

But while Mugabe remains as the figurehead it will be difficult for foreigners to accept that things are changing.