Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Bikers shifting from louts to lobbyists

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BRISBANE -- When Ferret the tattooed biker lectured the Australian media on the constitutional dangers of anti-association legislation, we knew we were witnessing what you Canadians might call a "game changer.''

Biker violence has flared in Australia again this week as gunshots echoed around suburban Brisbane early Monday morning.

Media reports suggest a new biker war is simmering in this northern state similar to the one that left Hells Angel associate Anthony Zervas dead in 2009 -- bludgeoned with a bollard in a Sydney airport terminal then stabbed to death in the chest and abdomen.

But those cultural anthropologists who monitor the progress of social phenomena such as bikers can detect a distinct shift in their narrative in recent years.

From louts to lobbyists, the past decade has seen the emergence of a sophisticated biker tutored in media relations by public relations firms and prepared to make his case inside, rather than outside, the law.

Queensland journalists pursuing gang members over alleged drug peddling this year were startled to be threatened with something arguably more intimidating than physical violence.

"I do hope you people have a good solicitor,'' delivered in a low and menacing purr, can be more threatening than "I am going to whip your skull with a rusted bike chain.''

Where all this began no one is certain, but the Hells Angels attempt to sue Walt Disney in March 2006 for use of the gang's distinctive logo in a movie without permission might be a useful point of reference.

It's also possible outlaw motorcycle gangs started losing their mojo when teenage girls began using their official acronym as text speak.

Taking "OMG'' and transforming it into a squeal of delight might have been a challenge to gang morale.

Whatever the cause, the charming "Ferret'' from the "Finks'' who addressed the national press club in Canberra on August 2009 did more than most of his colleagues to project a more elevated public image of the biker.

Ferret, a gang office holder of two decades in good standing, stood on a podium in his club's colours before a room full of journalists and made a coherent and at times good-humoured case against the dangers of anti-biker laws.

Australian states in recent years have introducing anti-biker laws modelled partly on Canada's anti-biker regime, labelling some gangs criminal organizations and forbidding members to associate.

The laws were responding to disturbing allegations that Australian biker gangs had become players in organized crime, including international drug-running syndicates.

Following up on Ferret's theme, "Camel," ex-jail inmate and dedicated bikie, decided to run for the Australian senate in 2010.

A member of the Outcasts Motorcycles Club, Russell "Camel'' Wattie gathered some support on a platform that included prison reform as well as "democratic rights for bikers to congregate.''

Camel pointed out, with incontestable logic, his two-year stint in both Australian and Dutch jails on prohibited-importation and kidnapping offences provided him with a unique ability to formulate a more effective national prison policy.

Sadly, he did not enter the nation's upper house but has not ruled out another tilt at public office.

Australian bikers are not all criminals, even hardened police officers who have tracked their activities for decades concede that point.

But those who are involved in criminal activity, and turning big profits, may have come to realize habeas corpus packs more power than Harley Davidson, and physical violence is just costly overhead.

In the wise words of Virgil "The Turk" Sollozzo in The Godfather: "I'm a businessman. Blood is a big expense."

More importantly, like thousands of corporate titans and highly successful politicians before them, it may have become apparent to criminal bikers that to be truly corrupt in this world, it's best to first build an edifice of respectability.

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

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 8, 2012 A12

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