Safety In Numbers

Reading Australian political news at the moment is like drinking from a toxic firehose. The sheer awfulness of the federal government, and many of the states, means that it is easy to miss many of the things they are doing that in another era would be the horror of the year. However, in all of this the Queensland “so called anti-bikie” laws still manage to stand out.

These laws mean that even relatively minor violent crimes (eg shoving away someone who got too close) carry an automatic minimum sentence of 15 years in prison if the person responsible is a member of a prescribed organisation. The onus of proof is reversed where people have to prove they are not associated with organisations once alleged. Special bikie-only prisons will be built, where practices of deliberate humiliation will be imposed on even the most minor offenders and people suspected of association with bikie gangs will be banned from certain lines of work. Not only does the last part resemble historical bans on Jews, it also pretty much guarantees that people will be forced into lives of crime if they can’t use their acquired skills lawfully.

The legislation does not actually mention bikies anywhere, and could be applied to the local football club should the minister take a dislike to them. Nevertheless, the provision that members of targetted organisations may not gather in groups of three or more (a rule which seems to be copied from historical South African attempts to suppress opposition to Apartheid) has been used to intimidate members of social motorbike clubs, who have been harassed by the police.

I came across a scientific connection to this nightmare recently. Dr Vanessa Beanland of the ANU school of psychology found that cyclists, and motorcyclists, are much safer in groups than on their own.

“When motorcycles were high frequency, drivers detected them on average 51 metres further away, compared to when they were at low frequency,” Beanland said. “At a driving speed of 60 km/h, this allowed the driver an extra three seconds to respond.”

It is actually possible to imagine that lives will be lost if motorcyclists continue to go for rides, but avoid travelling in packs to escape the attention of the Qld police. While the danger is small compared to the certain assault on our civil liberties, it is a somewhat symbolic example of how disgusting this legislation really is.

On a positive note, the legislation is losing support. While still probably attracting more voters than it repels, there is definitely more passion among the opponents, who extend from lawyers through to people with the most peripheral connection to motorbike riders.

The ALP has refused to commit to overturning the legislation, but in the Redcliffe by-election an independent running against it scored an impressive 10.3% while four other independents managed 4% between them. The swing against Newman wasn’t a patch on what O’Farell suffered a few months ago, and he is still pretty much guaranteed to win the next election but it is possible that this is the first time in Australian history than being tough on law and order has become a vote loser for a state government.

About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
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