Liberty feels heat in Queensland

By Kathy Marks

Critics wonder if Sunshine State Government has sunstroke as raft of harsh new laws threaten basic freedoms.

Queensland has banned "bikie" gang members from gathering in groups of three or more. Photo / Getty Images
Queensland has banned "bikie" gang members from gathering in groups of three or more. Photo / Getty Images

In the late 1980s, Queensland was convulsed by a judicial inquiry into systemic corruption within the Government and police force.

It was the catalyst for dozens of prosecutions, the jailing of three ministers and a police commissioner, and the deposing of long-term state Premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Peterson.

Tony Fitzgerald, who chaired the inquiry, has mostly kept a low profile since then. But 25 years on, he has returned to the spotlight to denounce the Liberal National Party Government of Campbell Newman, warning that recent moves - including a crackdown on motorcycle gangs - threaten to take the state back to those "dark days of political caprice and corruption".

Fitzgerald - who described Queensland as "effectively a one-party state" and condemned attacks by the Government on the judiciary as "a bid to foster redneck support" - is not a lone voice.

Lawyers, judges and civil libertarians are horrified by new laws they say undermine basic principles, such as the presumption of innocence, and by the summary sacking of a parliamentary committee which questioned the independence of the state's corruption watchdog, the Crime and Misconduct Commission (CMC).

Newman, who was elected in March 2012 with a huge majority, is unmoved. He has accused critics of "living literally in an ivory tower", and - with what some see as breathtaking chutzpah - likened himself to Fitzgerald, cracking down on a dire threat to Queensland society.

The new legislation, which bans "bikie" gang members from gathering in groups of three or more and restricts where they can wear colours, has already led to bizarre situations.

Three Rebels members waiting outside a Sunshine Coast court last month to give evidence in a trial were ordered by a police officer to disperse or be arrested. And a man wearing a T-shirt with the insignia of the Sons of Anarchy, the fictitious motorcycle gang in the American TV series of the same name, found himself being questioned by police in Emerald, in the state's Central Highlands.

However, the new penalties - which include additional, mandatory jail sentences of up to 25 years for criminal gang members convicted of even relatively trivial crimes - are no laughing matter, say critics.

They remind Gary Crooke, QC, who was senior counsel assisting the Fitzgerald inquiry, of Australia's convict transportation era when "people were locked up for stealing a sheep or a loaf of bread".

Crooke, who has emerged from retirement to voice his concerns, notes that bikie gangs commit just 0.6 per cent of crime in the state.

It was an opinion piece in the Courier-Mail by CMC chairman Ken Levy, backing the anti-bikie measures, which prompted calls for his sacking by some members of the committee overseeing the CMC. Instead, the committee - chaired by a conservative independent - was itself sacked in the final hours of the parliamentary year and a new committee with a Liberal National Party chair appointed.

Newman accuses the state's judges of being soft on criminal bikies - and on paedophiles. Another new law allows the Attorney-General to overrule judges who release child sex offenders from jail, and keep them locked up indefinitely. That worries, among others, Michael Cope, president of Queensland's Council for Civil Liberties, who says the Government is eroding the separation of powers (of the Executive and Judiciary), and undermining respect for the courts.

"The Government seems out of control," says Cope. "Unfortunately, that's a tradition in Queensland ... There's a long history of disregard for state institutions."

According to one recent poll, though, the new measures are backed by seven out of 10 Queenslanders.

Another law, expected to be passed early next year, could see the host of a party (defined as a gathering of 12 or more people) fined up to A$12,000 ($13,194) if three or more of his guests "interfere with the public" by, for instance, using offensive language or dropping litter.

Crooke says: "I just have fear and trembling when I look at the newspapers and media as to what's going to happen next. It's frightening, really frightening. [Queensland] seems to be some sort of a breeding-ground for rednecks.

"Whether it's something in the air - the humidity, or too much sun going to their heads - I really don't know."

- NZ Herald

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