The ACT’s government doesn’t seem to grasp the magnitude of Canberra's emerging bikie problem. Worse still, the Chief Minister’s reluctance to support anti-consorting laws is allowing these gangs’ serious and organised crime activities to flourish in the territory.
Until 2007 Australia’s largest outlaw motorcycle gang, the Rebels MC, had made sure that Canberra was a one club city. In 2014 the Rebels Motorcycle Club's dominance began to crumble when Australian law enforcement was able to weaken the club’s national leadership, through the cancellation of the permanent resident visa of their long-time national president, Alex Vella.
What was left of the Rebels' national leadership understood that other clubs would view the loss of Vella as a sign of weakness, and their dominance in Canberra was likely to be challenged. The club’s initial response to this development involved rapidly expanding the number of Canberra region chapters and fast-tracking new members to bolster their numbers.
Traditionally, the Rebels required their new members to undertake a lengthy nomination process that was used to build club comradery and loyalty. In the name of expediency, this process was truncated by the Canberra Rebels and later their competition. This change has seen the average age of Canberra club membership plummet from 40-something to 20-something.
Canberra’s younger generation of bikies is less loyal to their clubs. Many have become dissatisfied with the value their club has been providing in exchange for membership fees. Others are impatient, or unwilling, to wait the many years required to ascend the pyramid scheme that is outlaw motorcycle gang life. So, Canberra’s younger bikers are quick to patch over to another club if they happen to have a better offer. It's unsurprising, that so many new gangs were able to take root in Canberra.
Over the last several years anti-consorting laws in Queensland and NSW have pushed many of the Rebels' competitors, like the Nomads, the Comancheros, the Finks and more recently the Satudarah to look to Canberra for expansion. This was likely driven in some part by their interest in locations free from anti-consorting laws for national meetings. To secure such locations clubs must have a year-round presence. Some clubs appear to have dispatched trusted members to Canberra to establish a presence and recruit new members.
Canberra’s bikie problem is multilayered. A lack of discipline amongst the new generation of bikers is resulting in greater inter- and intra-club violence. This is fed in no small part by the increasing number of clubs, but also by the frequently changing club and personal allegiances.
The broader problem is that Canberra’s illicit markets, whilst profitable, have only limited opportunity for expansion. Initially, this has resulted in conflict over specific issues or unplanned encounters. Inevitably, the bikie clubs will need to battle it out for supremacy in this small market.
The final layer of the problem is that bikies are expanding their operations in Canberra by blending their illicit and legal business activities. In some cases, this involves traditional criminality like money laundering. In others, gang members are using violence and intimidation to eradicate competition to establish monopolies or set prices in sectors of Canberra’s economy.
Without anti-consorting laws the bikies are here to stay. Without additional resources and powers the AFP will struggle to aggressively pursue these clubs and their members.
For Canberra, spontaneous and premeditated violence between bikie clubs is going to increase in terms of both frequency and severity. Despite the best efforts of the Australian Federal Police, the likelihood that a Canberran will be accidentally hurt, or worse, in this escalating violence is rising.
Dr John Coyne is the head of the Border Security and Strategic Policing and Law Enforcement programs at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Before joining ASPI John was the National Coordinator of strategic intelligence at the AFP.