Last September on the Gold Coast, a public brawl kicked off between two rival bikie gangs. The brawl, which climaxed in members laying siege to Southport police station, set off a chain of anti-bikie sentiment. Soon after the Queensland’s Attorney General, Jarrod Bleijie, introduced new laws modelled on the RICO acts designed to target the American mob.
The Vicious Lawlessness Association Disablement legislation (VLAD) immediately outlawed 26 motorcycle clubs as criminal organisations. This restricted the movements of bikies and associates by making it an offense to knowingly gather publicly in groups of more than two. The laws also included harsh mandatory sentences and prison conditions for convictions under the act.
This week the Australian High Court will begin hearing a challenge to VLAD lead by the United Motorcycle Council (UMC), a group representing 17 motorcycle clubs. The UMC and its legal team say the laws are unconstitutional because the prevent people from exercising their right to meet, and denies innocent people the protection of the rule of law.
The most high profile arrests made under the laws so far have been that of the Yandina 5, a group comprising two alleged members of an outlawed club and three alleged associates. They were arrested in December 2013 after gathering together at pub in Yadina, Queensland. Joshua Carew, one of those arrested, claims he was just delivering a pizza to his boss. He was held on remand in solitary confinement for a month. The last of the Yadina 5, all of whom were held in solitary, weren't released on bail until March this year. A spokesperson for the group told VICE the case was on hold pending the outcome of the High Court Challenge.
After a slump in the polls, the Queensland Premier backed down so that people charged under the VLAD act would no longer be held in segregation. Other measures remain intact, including a new licensing regime effectively banning club members and associates from operating tattoo parlours. Under the new rules, prospective licensees are required to undergo security determinations by the police. These assess whether they are a ''fit and proper person to hold a licence'' and if it is in the public interest for them to hold it.
Bernie and Veronica Bartley, who had run a studio in Rockhampton Queensland for three years, were denied their license in July. They then had to close their shop, laying off four staff members. Bernie has criminal convictions from nine years ago and both Veronica and Bernie have had lose associations with a nearby Rebels chapter. Veronica Bartley told VICE she thinks she was turned down because they hired a Rebel’s member, a qualified carpenter, to do work on their shop.
“If the police say you're unfit, they don't even have to give a reason”, says Veronica. “We are classed as guilty and have to prove our own innocence. We’ve had to remortgage the house over this, it’s like we’re on hold'', she said.
Mick Kosenko, President of Brisbane Rebels MC, on right
Mick Kosenko has been a member of the Rebels for 33 years and is a spokesperson for the UMC. He told VICE that all Australians, and not just bikies, should be worried about the laws. “They call the laws bikie laws or biker laws but nowhere in the legislation does it mention the word motorcycle or biker or bikie. It does not mention anything about motorcycle clubs. It just mentions any group or organization or individual person. So these laws can be used on anybody in the country”, he said. Kosenko also says he has never been convicted of a criminal offence but is still being punished by the laws. “We are not allowed to ride together, we are not allowed to be seen together in public. We can't go out to dinner with our families. I have got no criminal record but I have been made a criminal by the government”, he said.
Zeke Bentley a lawyer involved in the High Court Challenge told VICE the intelligence used to draw up the list of outlawed clubs was flawed. ''The list for example had 26 clubs on it and along the way the government has conceded there is actually only 13 of them that are relevant to Queensland”, said Zeke, referring to the inclusion of clubs such as the Scorpions—a US club with no presence in Queensland—on the list of outlawed organizations. “So they passed these laws expecting us to trust that they would research it properly and they didn't research it properly—you wonder where else they are going to let fall foul''.
Despite flaws such as these, the question that will be asked in the High Court is a bigger one: is it right to brand a whole section of the community as criminals, simply for being in motorcycle clubs? Organized crime expert, Associate Professor Mark Lauchs from the School of Justice and Faculty of Law at the Queensland University of Technology, told VICE that while some chapters of some clubs may be involved in prostitution, extortion and drug dealing, the clubs themselves don’t operate as criminal organisations.''Are bikie gangs involved in serious organised crime? Absolutely. Does that mean that all the members of the gangs are involved? No it does not'', he said.
Mark says individual chapters of motorcycle clubs range from having no members involved in any crimes to ones where everyone is. According to him however, that doesn't mean the entire club is a crime gang. “Can you then call someone like the Finks and the Bandidos a criminal organisation? That is really difficult'', he said.
The stakes for this challange are high, because if the laws pass the High Court, bikies in other states may soon be subjected to similar legislation. ''Every state is going to roll the same law out the moment it passes the High Court”, says Mark. “So in Australia we are going to be in a situation where the outlaw motorcycle gangs are going to be banned—you won't go to jail just because you are in one but if you continue to associate with one and certainly if you participate in serious organised crime you are going to jail and go to jail for a long time''.
The High Court challenge to the VLAD laws begin Tuesday.