SA takes Australia’s rights backwards

South Australia is about to take Australian personal freedoms backwards by a law making it a crime to get together with your mates, and declaring you guilty by association without doing anything wrong. Liz Murray explains how dangerous such laws are.

Anti-association laws: curbing disorganized crime

By Elizabeth Murray*

South Australia is about to introduce anti-association laws for ‘bikies’ (who exactly decides who fits in this category, one might well ask?), even with an inquiry by the federal Joint Committee on the Australian Crime Commission (JCACC) still yet to be finalized.

The South Australia legislation is the euphemistically-titled Serious and Organised Crime (Control) Act 2008. It had passed the parliament, but had not been proclaimed as of 7 August 2008.

The laws have been criticized by the legal fraternity, because in their implementation it’s inevitable they’ll encroach on the basic freedoms Australians expect – the right to assemble and the freedom of association.

Depending on one’s demographic and upbringing, more than six (6) family gatherings or meetings with friends in a year could find one incarcerated (no fines) for five (5) years.

It is fairly safe to say that the proponents and supporters of this legislation haven’t ever been motorcycle club members: they’ve never been labeled as either ‘bikies’ or ‘bikers.’ Nor is it apparent that they belong to any ethnic minority or religious groups that incur any particular prejudice, and a first-hand understanding of disadvantage may well have bypassed them. It is, as such, rather unsurprising that they fail to see the potential for this legislation to infringe on basic rights and freedoms, the sorts of rights and freedoms that many double income/kids & mortgage-type citizens take for granted will be there on Saturday, when they actually have time to associate or assemble.

One of the problems of legislation like this, like the public interest disclosure laws hurried through parliament in each state that effectively silence whistleblowers, is that it draws mainstream media coverage only when it affects political refugees, it would seem.

So without Fourth Estate scrutiny, one of the unhindered, insidious effects of this law is that it lessens the burden of proof of ‘criminality’ to an assumption, a suggestion at best – without appropriate checks and balances in place for those in privileged positions of authority who can decide just who could potentially be considered a ‘criminal’ at some point in the future as a result of the discussions (the content of which doesn’t have to be monitored, of course) that they have with their friends and family.

South Australia is one of the few states without any overseeing anti-corruption body. There here has been a long history of public interest disclosures relating to corruption within the public service in SA that have failed to be investigated since the closure of the federal body, the National Crime Authority.

Any inquiry into the application of these laws needs to also examine whether it is appropriate for a state, in which there is no higher means of government accountability, to have the power to arrest people for merely meeting, and not for committing a ‘crime.’

Figures in other states have indicated that annually gang-related crime totaled less than one (1) per cent of offenders arrested. The SA government has refused to release their figures, despite claiming a dire need to constrain the solo big bad bogeyman, ‘bikies,’ aka "the poisonous tentacles of crime".

…but how long will it be before another group is also claimed to be a out of hand (a 1% ‘outlaw’) problem needing to be ‘controlled’? Why have those SA gang-related arrest figures not been released to the public?

The SA laws would entitle the state Attorney-General to issue a control order, based on secret intelligence (with no need to justify the ‘intelligence’ to anyone else) from the police commissioner upon any citizen regardless of any prior criminal record or not.

Any senior South Australian Police officer would also be able to issue a public safety order based on as little as ‘suspected connections’ to members of clubs.

Both control orders and public safety orders not only restrict who a person is permitted to speak, email or meet with, but also the areas a person is allowed to travel to or through – is it sounding like Eastern Europe yet? If it doesn’t, try this for size: there is also an idea of satellite-monitored tracking devices being used on bikes, in conjunction with front and rear plates, that have potential to do a lot more than simply identify speeding motorists.

There are many reading this who will readily cite mainstream media stories that tell of violence and intimidation by ‘bikies,’ but the same media who write those stories will also be controlled from meeting with any sources other than the police. Will that yield balanced reporting? No…and the police will have more control than they do already over a dying news media.

A witness to the fabrications pushed in the mainstream media over the past 35 years, Eddie Withnell, spoke to the JCACC about the bias delivered to readers by journalists largely reliant on police sources to meet their daily copy. His submission to the committee  can be read, along with others, at: http://www.aph.gov.au/Senate/committee/acc_ctte/laoscg/submissions/sublist.htm

For those of you who don’t realize, it is now unlawful to discriminate in employment on the basis of prior and irrelevant criminal records. The head-in-the-sand policy that makes the wider public believe, via the media and via the police, that criminals are pariahs rather than just another part of a society (someone’s sibling, parent or nanna) desperately in need of community cohesion, is as out of step as these new laws, which have the capacity to turn virtually anyone into a criminal.

To assume ‘guilt by association’ is perhaps human nature, but should it be a part of our law? Guilt by association laws have come under fire from the United Nations and are most frequently seen in application to fears of terror acts, such as in the Haneef case, in which Dr Haneef was vilified and deported only to later be permitted to return to Australia with no case to answer.

Those who have a loved one convicted of a crime will most likely know the burden of being pursued or harassed – often unrelentingly – because they are assumed, on no evidence, to be an accomplice. People reading this who have a conviction will know that you are never regarded by the police, the media and – as a result – society, as ‘rehabilitated.’  This  serves as one of the biggest contributing factors to a lack of employment and subsequent recidivism that creates a lifelong cycle of poverty and offending behaviour.

It’s these divisions, historically created by bigoted, suspicious minds and opportunistic, lazy investigators, that have been the source of some of WA’s more public injustices over the last decade. In WA we’ve had demonstrated for us, spectacularly over recent years, the immoral stigma of ‘criminality’ visible in a number of false murder convictions that have been over-turned, which should serve as a timely reminder, in theory at least, with regard to the introduction of the anti-association laws.

The author, Elizabeth Murray, is a freelance journalist who works a police beat. She knows from first-hand experience how laws can twist beyond the parliament’s intent in the half-light where cops and criminals collide and osmose, each to their own form of anti-social behaviour.

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