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Ink and leather 'Down Under': Queensland's 'bikie' legislation and its crimes of fashion


Sharlene King
19 September 2016

In classifying leather and ink – longtime staples of alternative culture – as crimes of fashion, the tables turned on the Newman government as Queenslanders saw bikie criminals as less a threat to democracy than the legislators trying to stamp them out, says Southern Cross University’s new Dean of Law.

Professor William MacNeil, Head of the School of Law and Justice, cautions that a similar response – or worse – may result from calls to ban headscarves nationally.

Professor MacNeil will present the seminar ‘Lacanian Ink & Leather Down Under: Queensland's "Bikie" Legislation and its Crimes of Fashion’ at 11am on Wednesday September 21 at the Lismore campus (video linked to the Gold Coast campus).

“The Newman experience is a cautionary lesson when you try to resurrect sumptuary laws (historic laws designed to restrict or regulate apparel). Given the availability of bikie-influenced t-shirts, rings and jackets, any of us could have been caught by these provisions,” said Professor MacNeil.

“In making fashion a crime, you can end up making crime the fashion, mobilising popular protest when they see, as here, the criminal bikie as the victim whose rights have been violated and the legislating politician, ironically, as the outlaw, playing fast and loss with the rules.”

The former LNP (Liberal National Party) government, led by Campbell Newman, passed a series of legislative acts aimed Queensland’s ‘war on bikies’: Criminal Law (Criminal Disruption) Amendment Act 2013, the Tattoo Parlours Act 2013, and Vicious Lawless Association Disestablishment Act 2013 (shortened to VLAD).

“This statutory troika, when read holistically, extensively broadened police authority, empowering Queensland's 'blue heelers' to arrest groups of three or more motorcyclists on grounds as flimsily 'reasonable' as wearing a leather motorcycle jacket or sporting a tattoo,” Professor MacNeil said.

“Leather and ink – long staples of alternative cultures, such as 1960s counterculture, 1970s gay leather scene, 1980s punk/new wave, 1990s slacker, and 2000s emo/goth— had become in Queensland, effectively, crimes of fashion.

“This is an instance of not just the politics of law but the psychopathology of law. A phobia usually turns on some kind of object and here the objects are identified in the legislation: a ring, a t-shirt, a leather jacket, all items of apparel – which if we reference Freud – are identified, usually, with fetishism. But, here, they trigger legislative and policing alarm, anxiety, even fear – the classic symptoms of the phobic object: in this case, the bikie group, as identified by their paraphernalia.”

But Professor MacNeil said ultimately it backfired on Premier Newman.

“People had enough and decided wearing a leather jacket was not prima facie evidence of criminality. In the end, the Newman government became, itself, the phobic group.

“Now with headscarves, items of apparel – in this case, religious apparel – are once again issues of legal contention, here and abroad, especially in France with its strong traditions of laicite (a state secularism that bans religious signs or symbol in public). In light of the Newman government’s experience in regulating the accoutrements of a group as marginal as the bikies – forfeiting, in months, what had hitherto been its incredibly strong electoral mandate – are we at all surprised that the response to laicite’s prohibition of such deep identic, cultural and theological markers as headscarves is a terrorist bomb? I’m not – and forecast only an intensification of this sort of violence, fought tellingly over the body of woman, in the ongoing, post-modern clash between the secular and sacred.”

Professor William MacNeil is the Honourable John Dowd Chair in Law and Dean and Head of the School of Law and Justice at Southern Cross University. His area of interest is law and culture and he is currently at work on a study of the jurisprudence of science fiction, fantasy and horror. Professor MacNeil’s most recent book, Novel Judgements: Legal Theory as Fiction (Routledge, 2012), won the Penny Pether Prize for Scholarship in Law, Literature and the Humanities, 2013. He is the series editor for Edinburgh Critical Studies in Law, Literature and the Humanities.

Event details
‘Lacanian Ink & Leather Down Under: Queensland's "Bikie" Legislation and its Crimes of Fashion’, presented by Professor William MacNeil
11am, Wednesday September 21
Venue: Lismore, Room: R1.06 (R Block)
Video Link: Gold Coast, Room: B6.25 (B Block)

Photo: Professor William MacNeil.