Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Aussies scramble as 'bikies' get sophisticated

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BRISBANE -- Bikers have dominated public discourse in Australia as governments declare war on a tiny minority rapidly becoming, as that wonderfully theatrical crime fighter J. Edgar Hoover may have once declared, "Public Enemy No. 1.''

The latest round of breast-beating over outlaw motorcycle gangs began in late September when a massive brawl erupted outside a restaurant on the Gold Coast, a Queensland tourist mecca, involving up to 60 people.

Queensland's Conservative Premier Campbell Newman declared "enough is enough" while his attorney general, Jarrod Bleijie, set about framing some extraordinary legislation designed to end the reign of the biker (or bikies as we call them here) once and for all.

Hitting the enemy where it lives, the Queensland government is examining all sorts of small businesses which might be used as a front for bikies' financial interests, while making it illegal to wear club colours in public places.

But the 15 years of extra jail time for any bikie engaging in serious criminal activity such as murder or dangerous drug possession, and the quarter-of-a-century of extra jail time for any bikie office bearer on a serious charge has caused serious angst among the OMG crowd.

Freedom of association laws underpinning liberal democracies are being skated over as a public, tired of the bullying of overgrown adolescents, gives momentum to the new regime.

Over 40 bikie clubhouses across the state have been banned in recent weeks as members go to ground, clear out their headquarters and ponder their next move.

The southern state of Victoria, perhaps sniffing the political winds, has also left open the possibility of pursuing a similar regime with Premier Denis Napthine suggesting his state may mirror some of Queensland's laws.

In Canberra, federal Justice Minister Michael Keenan declared bikie gangs the public face of organized crime gangs -- a national problem with significant international links -- while in New South Wales Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione has called for pan-Australian laws to address the bikie problem.

Even you Canadians have entered the frame, with the Canuck-inspired "Rock Machine'' apparently circumnavigating legalities and being subsumed into another local gang as bikies hear the siren call of economic rationalism, cut the fat and streamline operation.

It may not be the sort of bilateral cultural exchange Prime Minister Stephen Harper mooted when he last visited in 2007, but it does indicate our two great nations are engaging in that spirit of co-operation.

While the Queensland judiciary is sniffing indignantly about the separation of powers and the executive arm of government exercising inappropriate court room influence via public comment, a far more complex dynamic is obviously underway within the OMG crowd.

Australian bikies in the past 20 years have evolved light years beyond that post Second World War crowd of displaced young men who couldn't fit back into mainstream society after the strange glamour of travel and battle, and the easy familiarity and largely male confederacy of military life.

Many gang members have become sophisticated multinational criminals who prefer a Mercedes -Benz as preferred transport to a Harley-Davidson.

Australian bikies have demonstrated repeatedly over the past decade they understand the dynamics of the communication age, hiring public relations firms and lawyers and even occasionally demonstrating a capacity to communicate their message calmly to journalists without resorting to threats of physical violence.

The latest threat to their existence may well be played out in Australia's High Court rather than a bar-room brawl.

And there we have the more disturbing threat posed by the more calculating 21st-century bikie -- one their most virulent critics can't seem to grasp.

Michael Madigan is the Winnipeg Free Press correspondent in Australia. He writes mostly about politics for the Brisbane-based Courier Mail.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 1, 2013 A13

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