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Mar 18 2014

First they came for the bikies?

In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the wizards’ government is in denial about Harry’s warning of a national security threat (the resurrection of the evil Lord Voldemort), believing him to be delusional or involved in a revolutionary conspiracy. Frustrated with the government’s attempts to indoctrinate his classmates and silence him for speaking out about the threat, Harry forms a self-defence tuition group. After learning of the students’ plan by spying on them, the government passes a law banning students from being members of an unapproved organization, on penalty of expulsion from school. This is followed by various other ad hoc autocratic laws to further restrict the students’ activities.

But you’ve probably grown out of fantasy stories – surely this couldn’t happen in real life, could it? Unfortunately it looks like Queensland Premier Campbell Newman, in denial about the reality of human-caused global warming and other environmental crises, has been reading Harry Potter and mistaken it for an instruction manual.

Under the Criminal Law (Criminal Organizations Disruption) Amendment Act, rubber-stamped by the Queensland Parliament in October with no consultation, any three or more members of a group the government declares a “criminal organization” are prohibited from meeting in public (including any non-members in attendance). They are also prohibited from going to any location or event from which the government bans them. These offences are punishable by jail sentences of at least six months, in specialized maximum security prisons, and those accused are kept in solitary confinement while awaiting trial. Even if a member of a criminal organization does not meet with others, they still lose their job if they happen to work in a security, building, electrical, tow-truck, liquor, gym, racing, tattooist, pawnbroking, or second-hand industry, or any other occupation on a government list.

These penalties apply even to members who joined before the organization was declared criminal. Past members of such an organization are considered to have a “criminal history”. Police have discretion to identify members without telling them how. Lawyers representing people charged under these laws could also be charged with criminal association.

The Queensland Parliament (in which the Newman government presently controls 78 of 89 seats despite receiving only 50% of the vote, because of the non-proportional electoral system) can at any time define a new criminal organization or new restrictions for their members. Already, 26 motorcycle clubs have been declared criminal associations. According to press reports, five men on a group holiday to the Gold Coast have been arrested for walking down a street together eating ice cream, and another five have been arrested for drinking together in a hotel. In both cases, the police allege they are members of a motorcycle group. The defendants, now in solitary confinement, deny these alleged associations.

The criminal organization laws are part of a broader law-and-order push by the Newman government:

  • Under the Vicious Lawless Association Disestablishment Act, jail sentences of 15-25 years can be imposed on anybody who commits any of a wide range of offences while participating in any activity by any formal or informal group of three or more people, unless they can prove the group did not intend to break the law. The 15-25 years is in addition to any sentence that would otherwise have been imposed. Relevant offences range in severity from murder to drag-racing or sharing a joint.
  • The Criminal Law Amendment (Public Interest Declarations) Act has given ministers the power to decree how long convicted criminals stay in prison.
  • The G20 (Safety and Security) Act prohibits any behaviour “capable of disrupting” the G20 summit to be held in Brisbane in November, bans anybody with a criminal history from nearby zones, and gives police discretion to forcibly detain, strip search, or X-ray anyone in the area.

These laws are being sold as a crackdown on “criminal bikie gangs”, but it’s hard not to recall the famous quotation from Martin Niemöller about how the German Protestant Church remained silent during the Nazis’ purges:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out– Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out– Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out– Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.

Nazi analogies are rightly considered extreme in contemporary discourse, but I’m not the only person to have made one: a QC involved in a 1987 Queensland judicial inquiry has described the laws as “reminiscent of Soviet Russia and Hitler’s Germany”.

Newman’s laws contravene several human rights outlined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights: freedom of association, freedom of expression, equality before the law, determination by an impartial tribunal, humane treatment of persons deprived of liberty, freedom from degrading punishment, and opportunity to comment on proposed legislation. International negotiations on human rights began after World War II to prevent the recurrence of Nazi-like atrocities.

Now the laws are passed, it seems to me the definition of “criminal organization” could easily be extended to any protest group the Government doesn’t like, for example Lock the Gate. So if you’re attending (or accused of attending) a blockade against a mining company, or a G20 protest, the government could rush through a law to declare your organization criminal, potentially causing you to immediately lose your job, be arrested without being told why, put in solitary confinement, and jailed for 15-25 years along with your lawyer.

I don’t think I’ll be taking a holiday to Queensland, as Newman seems to be turning it into a police state. His laws are the most extreme example of an alarming trend toward criminalizing protest. I’ve written before about the similar implications of the Victorian move-on laws passed last week, which the Napthine government admits limit freedom of speech and association.

If Bronwyn Bishop is Dolores Umbridge, then Campbell Newman may yet be the Minister for Magic himself. But just like in the story, attempts to outlaw dissent will neither succeed in suppressing all activism nor make the real-life equivalent of Lord Voldemort go away.

1 comment

  1. val somerville

    What I would like to know is how the government can get away with taking our rights away and why is not the media kicking up a firestorm about. Nary a peep out of them and certainly not a sustained attack on government over such heavy handed tactics in an attempt to control the population. I say how dare they! Where are our defenders against such laws being passed?

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