Last week I was invited by Amnesty International to join a panel of criminal justice experts discussing the human rights implications of Queensland’s anti-bikie laws, indefinite detention regime, and other current and mooted legislative changes challenging many of our accepted notions of personal liberty. The discussion, which took place in the Banco Court of Brisbane’s new Supreme Court complex, and involved a broad spectrum of speakers ranging from the Queensland Police Commissioner Ian Stewart to legal academics and practitioners, was introduced by the President of the Queensland Court of Appeal Justice Margaret McMurdo, who spoke powerfully of the need for lawyers to find a voice in championing human rights both here and internationally. Justice McMurdo, who prior to her appointment to the Supreme Court bench was for many years a highly respected criminal law advocate, reminded the assembled audience that few in our community are better placed to identify and guard against encroachments on our individual rights and liberties than lawyers, and it is the duty of lawyers in particular to speak out in defence of the basic tenets of our liberty.
Human rights are never absolute. All of our rights are subject to the rights of others, as they should be, and are limited accordingly. But international human rights law is very clear on three things. Firstly, any limitation on human liberty must be strictly according to the rule of law. Secondly, it must occur only in the pursuit of a legitimate purpose. And thirdly, its imposition must always be proportionate to such purpose.
Bikies-behaving-badly have made themselves a ludicrously easy target for state governments around Australia, presenting them with the opportunity to look tough and take a lusty electoral free swing at the law-and-order gong, as they publicly strip the hapless bikies of their assets, affiliations and freedom. But the truth is bikies have only ever accounted for about 1% of crime anywhere in Australia, and of all the offenders rounded up in Queensland’s recent bikie blitz only about 1.5% were charged under the new anti-bikie legislation. That means the new laws managed to affect about 1.5% of 1% of Queensland crime. I’m no mathematician, but on my reckoning that’s about a .015% pick-up. Not exactly what I’d call bang for buck.
And what did we give up in return? We gave government in this state the green light, at its political whim and in the name of electoral expedience, to strip citizens of some of the most basic and essential tenets of a free society one could possibly imagine – freedom of association, equality before the law, and the presumption of innocence. Those are rights that protect us all, not just bikies, and a dangerous precedent is being set. True it is that very few of us are likely to shed too many tears for a bunch of tattooed brutes the government tells us are all criminals and vagabonds. But history has shown that laws introduced to combat criminals in the name of law and order can soon enough be turned on others – communists, dissidents, unionists, immigrants, intellectuals, socialists, so-called enemies of the state. One day perhaps, Heaven forbid, maybe even you and me.
Chris Nyst – Gold Coast Lawyer, Novelist and Film Maker