Australian state of Queensland adopts populist, hard-line laws 'reminiscent of Soviet Russia and Hitler’s Germany'

The premier of the Australian state has alarmed civil libertarians by introducing draconian laws aimed at clamping down on motorbike gangs, paedophiles and even parties

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.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Head Chef

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Garden Centre complex base...

Recruitment Genius: Buyer

£36000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Buyer is required to join thi...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £45K: SThree: SThree Group have been well esta...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £45000: SThree: SThree Group have been well es...

Day In a Page

Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

The haunting of Shirley Jackson

Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen