Why anti-bikie laws are a danger to our not-for-profits

Posted on 05 Mar 2024

By Denis Moriarty


Tampering with the rights of free association just so a government can look tough on bikie gangs is a poor idea, says the group managing director of Our Community, Denis Moriarty.

The Victorian government has mounted yet another attack on the operations of outlaw bikie gangs, seemingly undeterred by the absolutely consistent record of failure in its previous legislation designed to “stop bikie gangs in their tracks”.

This new attack, for example, is intended to ban members from wearing their intimidating "club" colours’.

One problem with that aim was touched on in recent reporting on the killing of Gavin "Capable" Preston earlier this year. Mr Preston had “declared his loyalty to the Comancheros inside prison by having the gang’s insignia [ACCA] tattooed on the back of his shaved head”. Can you really pass a law decreeing that someone has to wear a hat indoors?

Apparently, the tatt raised further ethical cruxes in that "Capable" Preston (sounds a little half-hearted, doesn’t it, as if he narrowly avoided being called "Adequate" Preston or even "So-so" Preston) wasn’t actually a form-filled-out member of the Comancheros who take copyright infringement seriously.

The ACCA motto, we’re told, is held as a pledge to observe and obey the rules of the gang and its leadership.” And what are those rules? Well, you can look them up online, because the Comancheros are an Australian public company, and a not-for-profit organisation to boot.

Most not-for-profits have fairly basic rules, but the Comancheros’ constitution goes the extra mile, including a Declaration of Ethical Values, which is more than you can say of the Melbourne Club (another male-only organisation, by the way). Members of the Comancheros are forbidden to "conduct, promote or support criminal or anti-social behaviour", and no member of the club "may engage in acts of violence against any other person". Doing the parliamentary draughtspeople’s job for them, really.

There’s also a Declaration of Core Values that supports the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), acknowledges that First Nations people have never ceded sovereignty, and claims that members will "always stand up for and help the poor, the weak and the sick".

It also holds that "no person is beyond redemption, reform or rehabilitation" – and the Comancheros ought to know, many members having indeed undergone from time to time extended spells of rehabilitation under government auspices.

"This is an occasion for the not-for-profit sector to make a stand on principle."

It's possible that these aspirations are less than sincere. You may very well say that, and I couldn’t possibly comment. They do, however, underline the difficulty of drawing up laws that are intended to apply only to bad people.

The last Victorian push, for example, made provisions for clubs to be really outlawed if the organisation "is engaging in, organising, facilitating or supporting serious criminal activity; or … any 2 or more members, former members or prospective members of the organisation have used or are using … their relationship with that organisation … for a criminal purpose”.

And yet the Comancheros are still here and have large facilities with plenty of parking space.

The thing is that a number of Comancheros have ganged up, so to speak, with other Comancheros to commit crimes, but it’s by no means exclusive; they crime quite a lot alongside members of other clubs, or even with civilians. Sorting out the place of the club in these interactions is complicated, which is presumably why in practice the police never bother to throw these club-based offences on top of the ones they’ve actually caught the perps doing.

The old Act is a nullity. The new one is unlikely to work any better. If we want to cut down on the number of tobacco shops being firebombed, the police should enforce existing laws and shut those shops down for tax evasion and money laundering.

Our Community group managing director Denis Moriarty.

Clubs like the Comancheros do provide a useful service for prospective felons, in that incautious speculations over a latte in the cafeteria are less likely to reach the ears of a copper’s nark, while the patches, tattoos and other paraphernalia do add an element of theatrical swagger to the otherwise sordidly commercial processes of the drug trade.

None of these, however, are central to the operations of the not-for-legal sector, and substitutes can easily be found. The government’s attempts to legislate away crime are just PR – government spin, police spin, police reporter spin.

I’m reasonably sure that some members of the Melbourne Club have associated with each other to plan criminal activities – breaches of the Corporations Act, say, or tax evasion, or non-payment of wages. I don’t expect the Melbourne Club to be hauled into court to account for this, because the law isn’t intended to be a law of general application. It’s expected that the law will be applied only to the groups which everybody – or at least the tabloid press – dislikes.

The law itself doesn’t say that, though. The trouble with laws that are drawn up to meet a particular moral panic is that they are then available for other uses when a government runs into other troubles that it can’t handle within a single news cycle.

The police and the bikies are collaborating to puff up the image of bikie clubs as meaningful and important. It’s a twisted form of identity politics, and by this time we should know better.

It’s never a good idea to bring in legislation just to signal that the government is tough and manly. It’s a particularly poor idea to tamper with the rights of free association to do it. No, this government isn’t going to come after your squash club; but the precedents are being set that might allow it to.

This is an occasion for the not-for-profit sector to make a stand on principle.

Denis Moriarty is group managing director of OurCommunity.com.au, a social enterprise that helps the country's 600,000 not-for-profits.

Become a member of ICDA – it's free!