Anti-bikie legislation is another case of governments using shock tactics to preserve power. By James Rose.

James Rose
Anti-bikie laws another government shock tactic

In the mid-1960s, Hunter S. Thompson spent a year or so hanging out with the Hells Angels in and around LA. In the book of his experience, he wrote of the power of the then burgeoning mass media to enlist the latent fears of a large and somewhat disengaged modern society, and to draw what has now become widely known as the law-and-order card.

“The Hells Angels as they exist today,” he concluded, “were virtually created by Time, Newsweek and The New York Times.”

The reaction to the outlaw motorcycle gang then may have been one of the first modern examples of what can be called “shock policy”.

Fast-forward to Queensland’s Vicious Lawless Association Disestablishment (VLAD) laws, introduced in October last year ostensibly to staunch the flow of blood, trafficking and pimping washing across the state, and we see the same apparent threat.

The headlines painted the Gold Coast as the Wild West, as if the city’s famed Movie World theme park had somehow come to life in Cavill Avenue. Just before the VLAD laws were set in stone, the following headlines were published:

“Eighteen bikies arrested after Broadbeach brawl” (Gold Coast Bulletin, September 28).

“Queensland police declare crackdown on bikies after massive Gold Coast brawl” (ABC, September 29).

“Another bikie brawl on Gold Coast” (The Courier-Mail, October 1).

On October 1, The Queensland Times ran a picture of Premier Campbell Newman, chin jutting and resolute of stance. The headline: “Newman to stop bikie gangs from turning Qld into ‘wild west’.” The premier’s quote: “This is not going to be quick, it is not going to be easy.”

Thus VLAD.

You’d have to think there’s a pattern here. And there is. A lateral scan of the nation reveals plenty of similar case studies.

In New South Wales, the lockout laws were conceived in a similarly fraught environment. Threats of violent attack, especially via the feared and proven deadly “king hit”, apparently stalked anyone brave enough to walk the city’s streets after dark. Again, headlines featured terms such as  “alcohol-fuelled violence”, “street violence” and “drunken violence”.

In Western Australia the horror of Jaws lives on with a handful of shark attacks over the past few years, some fatal. While the blood was still in the water, the government of Cullin’ Barnett hurriedly introduced laws to legalise mass shark slaughter.

Federally, the attorney-general has managed a knee-jerk dance, first over artists seeking to complain about government policy as they take government funding, and then to protect bigots.

But the global granddaddy of them all is the Homeland Security legislation introduced in the US in 2002.

Writing on the Homeland Security laws in her 2007 book The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein argued: “The Bush team, Friedmanite to the core, quickly moved to exploit the shock that gripped the nation to push through its radical vision of a hollow government in which everything from war fighting to disaster response was a for-profit venture.”

Her thesis was that since the 1970s, the “Chicago Boys”, promulgating the free-market ideals of the Chicago School economists, had rammed through a global revolution in thought and action, which has irrevocably altered the international space, entrenched vested corporate interests and left whole populations destitute.

Her case was compelling. But, like most conspiracy theories, it ignored the fact that people – even those at high levels – are generally not so smart and well organised that they could carry out such intricate and lengthy plans.

Yet if we assume more prosaic motivations, her sense that shock policies are used to reinforce vested interests in the gaps created by fear and panic seems spot on. Australia’s latest wave of shock policies seems to confirm this.

Shock policy is more about protecting turf than global domination; it is more about sniffing opportunities and jumping fast rather than a complicated and ongoing strategy. It has the effect of showing corporate interests, which all governments seek to attract, that the government has the ability to hold off the seething masses to give the private sector a free run – that it can clear spaces for corporate interests.

This confirms the state still owns the body politic and that corporate access to it is still at the state’s discretion. In reclaiming the monopoly on violence, protection and even debate from non-government or illegal corporate bodies – that is, wider society – legislators can reopen those spaces for power elites to fill, like concrete into a structural foundation.

Shock policy is more subtle than Klein suggests. It is a shifting dynamic that constantly reasserts the right of governments and their chosen partners to control our lives, to set the parameters in which we operate, and to allow themselves opportunities to justify their existence, using the fear of personal harm, death and social chaos as the fulcrum of movement.

If there’s any overarching strategy, it’s simply about protecting the status quo so that it can be further exploited.

The media, in this context, are less in the thrall of the shock policymakers than might be thought. Their role is essentially to define the battle lines, to create the critical moments into which shock policy can be wedged. The media can’t be brought entirely onside and can be fickle. The adversarial nature of mass media means they can and will turn on the same shock policy they had hitherto supported. Media go to where the conflict is most heated and that may be against the legislation. But even these shifts can be manipulated by shock-policy advocates to serve their immediate ends.

Hunter S. Thompson felt the relationship between the Hells Angels and the law in the 1960s was closer than it appeared. “In most cases,” he wrote, “and with a few subtle differences, they [the bikies and the law] operate on the same motional frequency ... behind the sound and fury, they are both playing the same game, and usually by the same rules.”

And he’s largely right, of course, then and now. Because shock policy is really all about power.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 29, 2014 as "Shock and law".

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James Rose is a journalist and author who has also worked nationally and internationally as a policy and media adviser.