For much of its modern history, Queensland was known as the “Deep North”, ruled with an iron fist by a colourful, far-right politician, Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, who enforced a repressive law-and-order regime, used the police to crush dissent and repeatedly gerrymandered his way back into power.
The former peanut farmer was forced to resign in 1987, following 19 years as premier, after a judicial inquiry exposed rampant corruption within his government and the police force. The inquiry, chaired by a senior judge, Tony Fitzgerald, seemed to mark a watershed for the state, leading to major reforms to the police and other institutions.
Recently, though, following the election of a conservative Liberal National Party (LNP) government led by a former Australian army major, Campbell Newman, Queensland has been experiencing a sense of déjà vu.
Mr Newman has pursued an unashamedly populist agenda, cracking down on criminal motorcycle gangs, lambasting courts for being “soft” on paedophiles, and sacking a parliamentary committee which questioned the independence of the state’s corruption watchdog, the Crime and Misconduct Commission (CMC).
While his actions have found favour with voters, they have horrified judges, lawyers and civil libertarians. Mr Fitzgerald himself is so concerned that, after living in obscurity for the past 25 years, he has returned to the public eye to warn that Queensland is in danger of returning to the “dark days of political caprice and corruption”. In a series of interviews, he has accused Mr Newman of pandering to “redneck” voters, and likened Queensland to a “one-party state”, controlled by “a group who seemingly … don’t care that the use and abuse of a large parliamentary majority is not true democracy”.
However, Mr Newman is unmoved by the criticism. When parliament resumes after the summer break, it will consider his latest proposal: new legislation to ban out-of-control parties. The bill, some lawyers say, is so widely framed that it could lead to prosecutions for over-exuberant family gatherings.
What has caused most concern, though, are the measures aimed at “bikie” gangs, which, say critics, undermine basic principles such as the presumption of innocence and allow for arbitrary detention. They require gang members to convince a court why they should be granted bail, rather than the onus being on the prosecution.
The new laws also stipulate additional, mandatory jail terms of 15 to 25 years for gang members and officials convicted of even relatively trivial crimes. Those considered hard-core criminals are to serve their sentences in segregated units, where they will be confined to their cells for up to 23 hours a day and, possibly, forced to wear pink uniforms.
“This is reminiscent of Soviet Russia or Hitler’s Germany,” Gary Crooke, QC, who was senior counsel assisting the Fitzgerald inquiry, tells The Independent. Mr Crooke, who notes motorcycle gangs commit just 0.6 per cent of crime in Queensland, also draws a comparison with Australia’s convict transportation era, when “people were locked up for stealing a sheep or a loaf of bread”.
The laws, which restrict gang members from gathering in groups of three or more, and restrict where they can wear their “colours”, have had some ludicrous effects. Three members of the Rebels gang who were waiting outside a courtroom to give evidence were ordered to disperse or be arrested. Police also questioned a man seen wearing a T-shirt with the insignia of Sons of Anarchy, the fictitious motorcycle gang in the American TV series.
The crackdown, though, has been backed by the CMC’s chairman, Ken Levy. The CMC, set up in the wake of the Fitzgerald inquiry, is supposed to be independent, and some members of the parliamentary committee overseeing it called for him to be sacked.
Instead, the committee was itself sacked and a new committee with an LNP chair was appointed. The opposition leader, Annastacia Palaszczuk, declared: “I have never witnessed anything like this before in my life.”
Mr Newman has accused critics of “living in an ivory tower”, and has likened himself to Mr Fitzgerald, cracking down on a dire threat to Queensland society.
Mr Newman ended 20 years of almost continuous Labor government when his party won the 2012 state election.
Now he is focused not only on motorcycle gangs but also on convicted child sex offenders, who – thanks to yet another new law, giving the Attorney-General the power to overrule judges who release them from prison – can be kept in jail indefinitely.
The premier has condemned judges, and described opponents of the legislation as “apologists for sex offenders and paedophiles”. “They go home at night to their comfortable, well appointed homes, they talk amongst themselves, they don’t understand that … Queenslanders have had enough,” he said.
One recent poll suggests that seven out of 10 voters approve of the government’s tough stance. However, Michael Cope, president of the Queensland Council for Civil Liberties, accuses the government of undermining respect for the courts.
“The government seems out of control,” says Mr Cope. “Unfortunately, that’s a tradition in Queensland … There’s a long history of disregard for state institutions.”
Mr Crooke notes that Queensland has also produced the likes of Pauline Hanson, the fish and chip shop owner turned right-wing firebrand who enthralled Australians in the late 1990s with her calls for an end to Asian immigration and to welfare payments for Aboriginal people.
“It [Queensland] seems to be some sort of a breeding-ground for rednecks,” he says. “You can’t imagine another state doing this.” The latest legislation under consideration could see the host of a party (defined as a gathering of 12 or more people) fined up to A$12,000 (£6,534) if three or more guests “interfere with the public” by, for instance, using offensive language or dropping litter.
Mr Crooke says: “I have fear and trembling when I look at the newspapers as to what’s going to happen next. It’s really frightening.”