Here we Joh again: Queensland conservative politics and the police

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(Image via etuyes.com.au)

Given the longstanding close relationship between conservative Queensland Governments and Queensland Police, it is little comfort for Queenslanders to hear that an individual ‘is unlikely to’ be charged under the State's new VLAD bikie laws, writes barrister Alex McKean.

THERE IS A CORROSIVE THREAD running through the history of Queensland politics, the unhealthy relationship between the Queensland Police Service (QPS) and the conservative side of politics.

In 1976, Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen elevated Terry Lewis above dozens of more qualified and more senior officers, appointing him Assistant Police Commissioner.

Two years later, Joh had elevated his mate Terry to the job of Police Commissioner. In 1989, a District Court jury found the then Sir Terrence was guilty of accepting bribes totaling $700,000 to protect various criminal enterprises in Queensland.

Tony Fitzgerald QC has recently recounted the history of the dodgy deals done between the National Party and the QPS in the Borbidge era, and the frantic scurrying which ensued when the schemes were exposed.

Now we have the Newman Government in bed with the QPS and each of them pushing inaccurate spin about the anti-bikie and anti-association laws.

The ministerial staffer who runs the Premier’s facebook page has been directing questions from the public about the VLAD laws to some pre-packaged spin on the QPS website. Newman’s mouthpiece has been describing the QPS spin as ‘accurate information’ about the laws.

But is this just more spin and damage control from the Premier, his FB ‘team of one’ and the QPS?

The QPS page, entitled ‘Anti-criminal gang laws – FAQ’s’ contains a number of significant inaccuracies. It appears the Premier is seeking to defuse the significant public dissatisfaction and anger about these retrograde laws by employing false and misleading QPS spin.

In attempting to deny that innocent people have been caught up in the laws, the QPS spin says: 

‘The legislation clearly outlines that for the purposes of the many Acts the association must have “the purpose of engaging in, or conspiring to engage in”, serious offences (declared) offences.’

This is not ‘accurate information’. Amongst the declared offences under the Vicious Lawless Association Disestablishment Act 2013 (Qld) are: affray (participating in a fight in public), and possession of a dangerous drug.

The QPS webpage says the VLAD Act

‘... was introduced to target members of criminal associations who carry out serious crimes against the community'. This may be correct. The problem is that the law is so poorly and broadly drafted that it would apply to relatively innocent, ordinary, Queenslanders.'

The term ‘association’ includes any group of three or more persons by whatever name called, whether associated formally or informally and whether the group is legal or illegal. A person is a ‘participant’ if they have taken part on any one or more occasions in the affairs of the association in any other way.

It has been pointed out by others that the VLAD Act could catch: a member of a local rugby league club involved in a fight at a club function, or a group of fishermen who take some joints with them to share on a weekend trip.

The fishermen or rugby club members would then be exposed to penalties of more than a decade in jail, rather than a fine or community service.

On 2 January 2014, referring to posts on the premier’s Facebook page critical of the VLAD laws, the Premier’s Team posted the following text:

‘... we are seeing some intense campaigning by groups associated with criminal organisations.'

The QPS webpage follows suit, saying the

‘... public relations machine of the criminal motorcycle gangs seeks to gain public sympathy ...’

by claiming innocent riders will be caught up by the laws.

In each case, no evidence has been forthcoming to substantiate these shrill claims.

One of the (seemingly rhetorical) questions posed on the QPS page is:

‘It has been reported that lawyers are advising bikie clients that they should not go to court together because they may be in breach of the anti-association laws. Where exactly in the legislation does it state a 'court' is an exempt public place?’

The QPS ‘answer’ does not provide any definite guidance. It says police would act if three participants in a criminal organisation were at a coffee shop near the court, but they would be ‘unlikely’ to take action if the participants were all before a Magistrate. It is added that the participants would have a defence of justification or excuse in that situation.

Not only does this non-answer fail to point to a legislative provision stating a court is an ‘exempt public place’, it leaves puts criminal defence lawyers in a position where there is no guarantee their clients will not be arrested and charged for associating in the courtroom.

The definition of ‘public place’ includes

‘... a place, or part of a place, that the public is entitled to use, is open to members of the public or is used by the public, whether or not on payment of money.'

This would seem to include a courtroom.

This is particularly egregious, where the Premier has made disgraceful and defamatory accusations about criminal defence lawyers in Queensland who had advised their clients not to associate at court to avoid just this result.

Another question on the QPS page, for which no proper answer is provided, is:

‘Given laws already exist to deal with violence/drugs/organised crime etc, why are the new laws needed?’

The tripe served up in response to this is embarrassing. It is said the laws have allowed bikie clubhouses to be closed down, as if warrants could not have been obtained to search clubhouses if they were, indeed, the hothouses of criminal activity they are claimed to be.

The laws are also credited with having prevented bikies wearing their colours in licenced premises

‘... intimidating the community and managers of those premises.'

This ignores the broad and longstanding powers of licensees and their employees under the Liquor Act 1992 (Qld) to deal with the antisocial conduct of patrons.

The FAQ page says ‘the Vietnam Vets and Ulysses motorcycle clubs are not declared criminal organisations’.

There is no explanation, however, about the police raid on the Vietnam Vets clubhouse in October 2013.

The QPS seek to deny that innocent riders will be caught up by the laws, or inconvenienced beyond ‘spot checks’, which ‘should take just a few minutes’.

This is not borne out by the video evidence collected by innocent bikers targeted by police.

The QPS spin says:

‘Police want the legitimate bike riders of Queensland to reclaim the streets.'

This is seemingly inconsistent with this QPS web form allowing ‘innocent’ motorcycle riders to register their ride, presumably to avoid police harassment.

A number of broad assertions are made by the QPS, on the basis of no published evidence.

Bikies are said to ‘use their time in prison to recruit new members’ and all members of some declared gangs were said to be criminals.

The ridiculous statement is made that bikies

‘... enjoyed going in groups to public places was because they enjoyed the notoriety.'

This is disturbing because the 26 groups declared as criminal organisations did not have any opportunity to see the material the QPS provided to Attorney-General Jarrod Bleijie prior to the declarations being made. It is to be hoped these dossiers were not of the same quality as the rubbish on the QPS FAQ page but, of course, that information is unlikely to see the light of day.

All Queenslanders should be concerned by the relationship between this Government and the QPS. We now live in a State where the QPS can hand a secret dossier to the Attorney-General, who can then declare the organisation to be criminal, with very serious consequences for all participants, past and present.

Even the QPS spin acknowledges the broad discretion in QPS officers as to whether members of the public will be caught up in the net of the new laws. This is a significant burden, as is the preparation of dossiers leading to criminalisation of members of organisations.

It is cold comfort to Queenslanders, in light of the history of politicisation of the QPS in this State, that an individual ‘is unlikely to’ be charged under one of these new laws.

More robust protections are required than such cheap, empty assurances.

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