Most Australian states and territories have passed laws which make it a crime to associate with anyone who has a criminal record.
Now, the ACT looks set to follow NSW, Queensland, Northern Territory, Victoria and South Australia in passing its version of ‘anti-consorting’ laws.
The ACT government released its model for the proposed laws in a discussion paper last week, paving the way for the introduction of legislation after public consultation closes on July 7.
The ACT proposes to ban communications with anyone that police claim is a member of a criminal group, whether or not that person has been convicted of a criminal offence.
After a person is warned by police about consorting with such a person, they may be charged and face a maximum penalty of two years’ imprisonment for continuing to associate with the supposed member.
If the alleged member has a criminal conviction, police will not be subject to any judicial oversight at all – the person will be considered a member of a criminal group simply because police say so.
If the alleged member has no criminal convictions at all, police will need to go through a magistrate before that person can be declared a member of a criminal group. In that event, police will be able to keep their reasons secret, only producing their ‘information’ to the magistrate, and not giving the person who has a clean record the opportunity to look at that material and defend themselves.
The ACT government claims a range of safeguards would prevent police from abusing their new powers.
These, it says, would include the fact that children are exempted from “consorting bans”, and “coincidental contact” would not amount to consorting.
There would also be a defence of “reasonable” consorting, which would include contact with family members, or in the course of employment, training, education, legal advice or the provision of a health service.
The need for anti-consorting laws in the ACT is questionable at best. The government’s own discussion paper says the ACT has a total of just 45 residents who are believed to be members of ‘outlaw motorcycle gangs’. The paper produced little evidence that these people are creating a significant problem, let alone necessitating the introduction of such draconian and intrusive legislation.
Indeed, many believe the proposed laws are simply a way to give police more power and control over members of the community they don’t like – even those who have no criminal record at all.
And despite independent reports consistently finding that anti-association laws are a ‘crushing’ intrusion on basic human rights – including freedom of association, freedom of expression and the presumption of innocence – and that they fail to achieve their stated objectives, it seems Australia is intent on using moral panic to justify laws which give law enforcement agencies unchecked powers over members of the community, without judicial oversight.