by Joanne Lane
“You better be careful,” a friend told me as I donned my motorbike jacket and helmet.
“Why?” I asked wondering if he was referring to inclement weather or some such evil for bikers.
“Campbell Newman,” he said, “he could get you.”
The penny dropped. He was referring to our Queensland premier’s latest move to tighten laws on outlaw motorcycle gangs, making them amongst the toughest in the world. I should make it clear right now I am not a member of any such gang nor would my humble bike gain me entry to one, or even raise an eyebrow amongst law enforcement; in fact it’s far more likely I’d be laughed off the road.
Still the point was made—although perhaps it was in jest—and it gave me food for thought as we parted; could any motorbike rider be targeted by police?
Well let me explain the laws first.
The Queensland government has recently introduced new laws targeting criminal motorcycle gangs in a bid to “destroy” them in the state. The government has labelled 26 groups as criminal including the Bandidos, Finks and Mongols. Under the new laws police can stop and search people merely on the suspicion they are a member or an associate of these gangs. Already there has been some confusion over this with police confusing a Sons of Anarchy t-shirt for a motorbike “patch” or credential.
It also restricts bikies’ movements and meetings and increases minimum sentences for crimes. Under the new laws bikies will receive a mandatory service of 15 years if convicted of a crime and a minimum of six months jail, a three month license suspension and the crushing of their motorcycle should they step foot in a clubhouse, work in a tattoo parlour or ride motorcycles with other bikies.
With the new laws came this message from Premier Campbell Newman when they were passed through Parliament in October: “The unequivocal purpose of these laws is to destroy these criminal organisations. I say this evening: take off your colours, get a real job, act like decent, law-abiding human beings, and become proper citizens in the state of Queensland and you won’t have to go to jail.
“But if you continue to persist as members of criminal gangs, with criminal activities, creating fear and intimidation across Queensland, you will be destroyed and we make no apologies for that.”
And that wasn’t the end of it. Queensland also plans to create a bikies only prison where inmates could spend up to 23 hours a day in their cells, be denied gym and TV access and be subject to thorough drug checks.
Way back in the 1950s Marlon Brando’s movie The Wild One introduced the world to criminal motorbike gangs. Now 80 years later we have the same encounter of the law versus the bikies, the so-called good guys versus the bad guys; but now the scene is not the USA, where this notion was born, but dear, old, sleepy Queensland.
“Only in Queensland,” some readers may well be thinking that still regard the state as wayward and backward. While “hysterical” is the word Nicholas Cowdery used, the former NSW director of public prosecutions, who said laws like this would be impossible in the ACT and Victoria where there is human rights legislation.
So why are these laws being introduced you may ask? Well they were enacted after an all out brawl on the Gold Coast involving rival members of motorcycle gangs and calls from within the Queensland community to get tough on law and order.
And the response so far? Well some bikie members have handed in their patches as police have raided establishments, seized ammunition and drugs, served traffic infringement notices, executed warrants and conducted thousands of street checks. Are the roads now safer? Time will tell.
Do Queenslanders want this? Apparently, according to Newman and Courier Mail Galaxy surveys that have 56 percent of people backing the new laws.
I’ve met plenty of motorcyclists, some of whom have said snide things to me like “nice bike” when I’ve pulled up next to their hulking Harley specimens. Another motorcyclist on the highway last week deliberately cut me off when I didn’t move over quickly enough for him—dangerous. I’ve never really harboured any serious ill will towards them, however I do admit to feeling disturbed by a video police released of a standoff they had with bikies recently on the Gold Coast. The police were outnumbered and bikies intimidated and challenged police throughout the ordeal.
If I’d been there or lived on the Gold Coast where gangs have waged public battles for turf I probably would feel more strongly about the enforcement of law. However I also ride a bike myself in a non-criminal, non-threatening way and would like to continue to do so lawfully like other Queenslanders.
As a female without tats or colours I certainly don’t feel targeted, despite what my friend joked about. But some motorcyclists do, particularly returned Vietnam Vets who probably match the physical profile of those in outlaw gangs but not the criminal one.
Queensland Attorney General Jarror Bleijie said law abiding motorbike riders have nothing to worry about however civil libertarians feel the laws threaten basic rights. Motorcycle rider March Hincliffe feels so strongly about this he has raised a petition calling for the government and police to treat motorcyclists with “fairness”. He will take it to Queensland Parliament when he has 10,000 signatures.
Hinchliffe said in his Change.org petition, that Premier Campbell Newman and Attorney-General Jarrod Bleijie should “refrain from enacting any legislation that discriminates against motorcyclists”.
The petition says: “The current police campaign of discriminatorily stopping and detaining motorcyclists for the sole reason that the motorcyclist is riding in company with other motorcyclists is a flagrant breach of our legitimate freedom to use the roads lawfully as is the right of every other Queensland road user.
“We are not what you term ‘criminal bikies’. We do not engage in criminal activity. Your statements and your government’s declared intention to pass obviously discriminatory legislation is an insult to every Queensland motorcyclist.”
There are some parallels with what’s happening in Queensland and the story about the rival motorcycle gangs depicted in The Wild One. In the movie the gangs terrorize a small town who finally have enough and take the law into their own hands until the sheriff steps in to restore order.
It has some lessons we can learn today – that we can fight for what is right without going to extremes to do so.
Ultimately the entire issue speaks to the inconsistency and imperfection of democracy which is also why we love it so much—the need to tread a legal line without removing civil liberties. Are we capable of doing that? Do we know where that line is, or to put it another way, as Charlie asked Jimmy in the cult classic, do we know what we’re fighting about?
Joanne Lane is a freelance photojournalist based in Brisbane, Australia.