Eighteen months ago, the actor and documentary-maker Ross Kemp rang and asked me to research a film about patched Australian motorcycle clubs - the "bikies", as our mates across the ditch call them. While I was travelling around Australia there were frequent calls from the UK-based production company. Eventually I answered one. Is the documentary possible? Yip, I said, but it's not the one you were expecting.
It had become clear that the story was less about the bikies and more about the remarkable laws targeting them. Despite having filmed in some despotic countries around the world, none of the crew could believe the draconian legislation being enacted in the Lucky Country. By the time the documentary was broadcast we believed we would be on the right side of history. The laws were being challenged in the courts and we felt certain they would be knocked over. It hasn't worked out like that. In fact, the situation appears to be getting worse.
Two of the men who spoke against the laws in the documentary typify the worsening situation; "Little Mick" Kosenko and Shane "Kiwi" Martin - both members of the Rebels Motorcycle Club, the former based in Queensland the latter in Sydney.
Little Mick is an award-winning tattooist who helped draft health and safety standards for tattooing in Australia. After 30 years in the industry, Mick's business - which employed 12 people - has been shut down. Despite having no criminal record and no charges pending he has been deemed of "bad character" and therefore unfit to hold a tattoo licence. Mick's livelihood and that of his employees has been snuffed out because he is a bikie. It's unknown if there's more to it than that because the information the police used in building their case is secret.
For Shane Martin the situation is worse. A New Zealander by birth, he has lived most of his adult life in Australia. One of his sons is a famous Aussie rules footballer and the other is in the armed forces. Kiwi owns a small trucking company and employs eight people. He struggled through the GFC when he thought debt would cripple him, but for the last few years the business was booming.
Life was so great for Kiwi he proposed to his partner. Just two days after the wedding, the police came knocking. Despite not being charged with any crime, he was taken to a maximum-security prison and later deported to New Zealand. Kiwi has a couple of minor drug convictions from many years ago, but the reason he was turfed out of his adopted country and separated from his family was because he too was deemed to be of bad character. Again the police used secret evidence.
While many will agree that bikies are of bad character, if they are not breaking any laws should they be punished?
If you answer, "yeah, I don't give a damn about bikies"; take a second to consider who else might be deemed of bad character and who gets to decide that. Things quickly get troublingly arbitrary.
And it gets no better, the laws used against Little Mick and Kiwi are designed to keep them - and the public - in the dark. Both men are taking their fight to court but it isn't easy when the police use secret evidence. How do you mount a defence when you have no idea what is being alleged? The power afforded to the police is considerable but the lack of disclosure also means public scrutiny is absent. And consider this: whatever was in the police files, none of it was serious or credible enough to bring charges against either Mick or Kiwi.
Principles of natural justice, the rights of citizens to freely associate, and the universality of such rights are not small topics. Rarely are we challenged on these issues by easy cases; invariably we are tested on difficult ones involving unpopular people or groups. Judging by the debates in Australia, one of the hardest things is making clear that supporting the rights of bikies is not an endorsement of bikies per se it's an endorsement and defence of Western democratic ideals.
Yesterday morning Ross Kemp called again. He's planning a holiday to Australia. I updated him on the deteriorating plights of Little Mick and Kiwi and he attempted to lift the mood with a joke: You reckon I might be arrested when I land? We laughed before wondering if it was actually beyond the realm of possibility for a journalist to be deemed of bad character. And that's the kicker: universal rights not only represent the best of humanity, they serve to safeguard us all.
First they came for the bikies and I did not speak out because I wasn't a bikie ...