What’s good for a media release is not necessarily good for freedom of association

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Around Australia, anti-association laws have already proven themselves to be highly arbitrary and have led to some serious unintended consequences. But anti-association laws have one advantage: they make good law and order media releases.

Hence the Victorian government introduced into parliament earlier this month its own Criminal Organisations Control Amendment (Unlawful Associations) Bill 2015, designed to prohibit “habitual consorting” and unlawful association. You can read the Attorney-General Martin Pakula’s second reading speech here.

I explained the problems with anti-association and anti-consorting laws in the Drum when, in 2012, the NSW government was offering its own reforms:

Consorting laws are good for smoothing the wheels of prosecution – if you think the goal of a legal system is to maximise prosecutions. But their ability to prevent or punish serious criminal activity are limited.

Consorting laws are clearly unjust for those accused of consorting. But they are cruel for those who have been convicted and punished for a crime. A malicious police officer could eliminate a released criminal’s freedom of association simply by issuing his friends with a warning.

When governments face law and order problems, the urge to “do something” must be overwhelming. The newspapers call for action. Talkback radio calls for crackdowns. Police call for more police power.

But police and prosecutors already have a long list of offences they can charge, and they have ample powers to do so. Nobody seriously believes motorcycle gangs are an unprecedented threat that a modern legal system is powerless against, yet for some reason everybody acts as if they are.

Benjamin Franklin famously said, “Those who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

Freedom of association – a freedom that extends even to those who have in the past been convicted of a crime – is one of those essential liberties.

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