ha-center-patchThere are twelve members of the Hells Angels Motor Cycle club in the NT, based in Darwin. In Alice Springs there is one member of the Finks Motor Cycle club.

finksbiker3This baker’s dozen of bikers represents, according to NT and Federal criminal authorities, the pinnacle of organised crime in the NT – deserving of extraordinary treatment and condign punishment for their association and the subject of presumptions of criminality merely by dint of their membership.

Apart from the legislative and political excoriation and assumed innate criminality of blackfellas, particularly following the NT Intervention, and drug users, I cannot think of any other group in Australian society that is treated in this way. Just last week the nation’s Police Commissioners and Attorneys-General met, separately, to examine and ‘strengthen’ national legislative and policy approaches to dealing with so-called Outlaw Motor Cycle Gangs (OMCGs).

As The Age reported, the Attorneys-General have now agreed to initiate laws that will fundamentally change the treatment of OMCGs, but not to the more extreme measures promoted by some – most notably South Australia:

The attorneys baulked at adopting South Australian laws aimed specifically at bikie gangs and went instead for a broader approach.

Federal Attorney-General Robert McClelland said the Commonwealth would give the states and territories greater access to material gathered via telecommunications interceptions. It would also make it easier to confiscate assets.

The states also agreed to bolster questioning powers and consorting laws to crack down on crimes committed by members of a group.

If adopted by state and territory parliaments, the new measures will introduce witness protection laws and cross-border investigative powers as well as allow coercive questioning of individuals, allow agencies to use assumed identities in investigations and intelligence gathering, and permit the use of surveillance devices.

As I’ll examine here in the next few weeks, the ‘new measures’ that McClelland talks of already exist in the NT and eslewhere in the country – and there are some very real questions about the competence of the NT Police to manage such these broad and extroardinary powers.

In an interview with Melinda James on the ABC’s NT Stateline program in late March 2009, NT Police Commissioner Paul White was asked about powers then at his disposal:

MELINDA JAMES: Are you satisfied with the laws you have at your disposal here in the Northern Territory?

PAUL WHITE: They’re very good. We have some non-association legislation and very importantly we have some very strong civil-based confiscation of assetts legislation and that, along with the criminal code, is pretty effective. But we need to keep our eye on what is happening in other jurisdictions like South Australia and certainly it’s something that I’d like to speak to the minister about in greater detail.

PAUL WHITE: What I’d like to say is that we need to consider all options when it comes to dealing with the criminals that sit behind these outlaw motorcycle gangs.

Three days later NT Attorney-General Delia Lawrie said that:

There are concerns throughout Australia about illegal bikie gangs – the NT needs to be part of a national approach,” Attorney-General Delia Lawrie said. “The safety of the community is a top priority of this Government – and we don’t want criminal gangs fleeing other states and coming here. “…South Australia’s illegal bikie gang laws are based on anti-consorting laws we developed and introduced (as part of the anti-gangs package) in the Territory in 2006.”

Our draft legislation includes:

· Declaration process to proscribe certain gangs

· Place and membership restrictions

· Public safety orders (banning certain people from areas for a set period of time)

· Reform of witness intimidation laws

· Criminal property forfeiture reforms

· Streamlined court orders to dismantle gang clubroom fortifications.

The legislation will be introduced to Parliament as soon as possible.

We’ve been working on this legislation from some months to get it right – and we look forward to the feedback of stakeholders.

It will be interesting to see if the twelve members of the Hells Angels and the sole Fink in the NT will be consulted for their ‘feedback’ on these proposed new laws – and whether the proposed NT Laws will be in line with the proposals resulting from the most recent meeting of Standing Committee of Attorney’s-General (SCAG).

Criminologists have a term for  circumstances where politicians create ‘straw men‘ in order to introduce draconian laws and policies that demonise a particular segment of society in a way out of all proportion to the possible threats they may pose.

Wikipedia provides a useful introduction to the concept of ‘moral panics’, which can be characterised as:

…the intensity of feeling expressed by a large number of people about a specific group of people who appear to threaten the social order at a given time.” Stanley Cohen, author of the seminal Folk Devils and Moral Panics (1973), says moral panic occurs when “[a] condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests.” Those who start the panic when they fear a threat to prevailing social or cultural values are known by researchers as “moral entrepreneurs”, while the people who supposedly threaten the social order are known as “folk devils.” Moral panics are by-products of controversies that produce arguments and social tension, or aren’t easily discussed as some of these moral panics are taboo to many people. The media have long operated as agents of moral indignation, even if they are not self-consciously engaged in crusading or muckraking. Simply reporting the facts can be enough to generate concern, anxiety or panic.

Over at Woolly Days, Derek Barry has an interesting post on ‘Anti-Bikie laws and moral panic‘, noting that:

State and territory governments across Australia are rushing new and dangerous laws onto the statute books to combat what has been deemed the latest public enemy: motorbike gangs. Australian media have been keen to play up the perceived problem with “spates of shocking violence” while governments across the nation rub their hands in glee with the opportunity to enact “tough anti-bikie laws”. However, there are justifiable concerns that these draconian new laws are open to abuse and are effectively the equivalent of anti-terrorism laws for domestic uses.

Monash University academic and self-described ‘bikie gang expert’ Dr Arthur Veno has been a longer term participant observer and reporter on Australian bike clubs.

Speaking about the then recently-introduced South Australian legislation that are regarded alternately as the pinnacle or the pits of Australian measures against OMCGs Veno and his colleague Dr Julie van den Eynde, noted in June 2008 that:

“What we’re seeing here is smoke and mirrors. The Rann Government has labelled SA outlaw motorcycle clubs as public enemy number one,” Dr Veno said. “Yet the facts say otherwise. Crime attributable to bikie gangs as a proportion of total crime is extremely low – less than one per cent.

“No one is saying that these clubs are criminal free, but the Rann Government and the South Australian Police are basically wasting tax payers’ money to target an element of society which is responsible for a miniscule amount of crime.”

Dr Veno said the legislation:

* provided the Attorney General with unheard of discretionary powers to deem organisations ‘criminal’;
* didn’t adequately define organised crime; and
* provided no appeals process for those organisations branded under the legislation.

“There are no checks and balances for the administration of these new powers,” Dr Veno said.

“Absolute power vested in the hands of the few can create the potential for corruption and goes against the principles of our democratic system of governance.

More recently Veno has stated that:

Looking hard at the Australian data, gang related crime accounts for only 0.5-1 per cent of total crime. There is no disputing that public safety is a risk. Yet instead of removing hard won rights and replacing it with draconian legislation – such as that in place in South Australia and passed in NSW Parliament last night – there are some key ways to solve this problem. Every criminologist I know agrees that legislation is not the way to go. The answer is for police to do their job and seize members of clubs threatening war and do not allow the clubs to reform until they can prove that they have purged the criminal elements and found effective measures for conflict resolution – apart from war.

I agree with Veno’s assessment that there are real risks posed by some OMCGs – as recently as late in March this year a man ‘allegedly connected’ to an unnamed ‘bikie gang’ was arrested in connection with over 5 kilograms of cannabis and there are sufficient more-than-occasional reports in the media of alleged criminal behaviour by club members and apparent ‘associates’ to at least raise concerns that there is a moderate level of OMCG-related violent criminal conduct.

And in the NT the picture is a mixed one – as the NT-based correspondent Lindsay Murdoch recently reported in The Age:

NT police have seized more than $13 million in criminal forfeiture cases, most of them involving motorcycle gangs.

NT police crime commander Colleen Gwynne told a Senate committee sitting in Darwin early this month that Gary Watt, a member of the Hells Angels, had almost $1 million of unexplained wealth before he died, even though he had never had a job in his life.

Another gang member in Alice Springs had $2.2 million in assets and cash.Meanwhile, calls for widening of extreme laws against criminal bike gangs (see Gangs rally for legal challenge), and the probability of a renewed moral panic in the wake of the latest minor upsurge in “boat people” arrivals off northern Australia, seem certain to bring these questions back into sharp legal and political focus.

Over at Club Troppo Ken Parish has posted a piece that on the current ongoing disputes between the State and the Courts – as exemplified by the High Court of Australia’s recent judgement in Thomas v Mowbray. At the end of his post Ken usefully argues that:

In case I haven’t made myself clear, my point is more nuanced than the tiresome left versus right dualism that pervades both the blogosphere and MSM. Terrorism, criminal bikie gangs and people smuggling operations are entirely legitimate subjects for government concern and possibly legislative action. However, they demand proportionate responses, and carefully considered checks and balances to reduce the risk of extraordinary powers being abused. Kneejerk populist political responses to media-fuelled moral panics don’t produce optimal or even workable laws or policies.

It is almost impossible for anyone to penetrate the political spin by politicians, the NT Police and the ACC and the, largely compliant reporting by the MSM, in order to judge whether the twelve Hells Angels and the sole Fink represent the pinnacle of organised crime in the NT worthy of the extraordinary sanctions placed upon them or are just like most normal joes but with a few bad habits.

From my own limited experience of the Hells Angels, and their predecessor in the NT, the Blonks MC, they seem to be not too different from a large part of the white male population in that they like to go fast, they work hard at whatever they do and like very much to party. That they may scare a few horses, drink alcohol to excess and use unlawful drugs from time to time does not distinguish them from the general population here either.

What does distinguish them from the general population are their bonds of loyalty and trust to club members in particular and to other that share their lifestyle more generally – some might argue that these are admirable qualities that the rest of us could use more of.

This is the first of three posts on OMCGs in the NT – in the next installment I’ll have a look at some of the measure taken by the NT Police and the ACC against the members of the Hells Angels, the Finks and the Blonks in the NT.