March 2014

Essays

Andrew McMillen

Jarrod Bleijie takes on the bikies

Jarrod Bleijie inspecting unsafe toys at a Brisbane childcare centre as part of “Operation Safe Christmas”, December 2013. © Dan Peled / AAP

The rise of Queensland’s young attorney-general

One Friday evening last September, some 60 members of the Bandidos motorcycle gang descended on a busy restaurant in the Gold Coast suburb of Broadbeach to confront a man associated with the Finks, a rival gang. In the ensuing melee, four police officers were injured. Later, a smaller group of Bandidos assembled outside the nearby Southport police watch house in an apparent show of support for their 18 arrested peers.

For Queensland’s attorney-general, Jarrod Bleijie, that evening was a “line in the sand”. Three weeks later, just before 3 am on 16 October, the Liberal National Party–dominated state parliament passed three pieces of bikie-related legislation, including the bill that would become the Vicious Lawless Association Disestablishment (VLAD) Act. “Recent events have proved that certain groups have no regard for the Queensland public,” Bleijie said. “Enough is enough. By restricting their movements and operations, the community is protected and it prevents these groups from running their criminal enterprises.”

Under the VLAD Act, a “vicious lawless associate” found guilty of any criminal offence listed in the legislation, from the smallest drug possession charge up, would serve a mandatory prison term of up to 25 years on top of their sentence. The Tattoo Parlours Act bans members of criminal associations and their associates from operating, working in or owning tattoo parlours. The Criminal Law (Criminal Organisations Disruption) Amendment Act amends various pieces of legislation to label 26 motorcycle clubs as criminal organisations and ban their members from congregating in groups of more than three or meeting at their clubhouses. The Queensland government would go on to establish a “bikies only” prison, where inmates may be dressed in fluoro pink overalls.

Police have arrested dozens of people under the new laws, including a group of five men drinking beer at the Yandina Hotel on the Sunshine Coast and a group of five Victorian men buying ice-creams on the Gold Coast. Clubhouses were closed; interstate bikies called off their trips north. The United Motorcycle Council Queensland hired a PR firm. Tearful family members hit the airwaves. A High Court challenge was touted (and is in train). Meanwhile, protesters took to the streets, on motorcycles and on foot. The tabloid press, normally so keen to demand a crackdown, any crackdown, on crime, no longer knew which way to turn. Even the Queensland premier, Campbell Newman, appeared to waver for a moment, hinting that the laws might be a temporary measure.

But Bleijie remained steadfast. As he put it in a radio interview at the time: “These laws are targeting these particular types of grub and thug to make people in Queensland safe in their homes at night. They don’t have to worry about these types of thugs on our streets any more … We’re dealing with a different type of criminal: the toughest of the toughest and the worst of the worst.”

The VLAD Act, with its broad definition of “vicious lawless associate”, would target not only criminal motorcycle gangs but also organised crime gangs that are not “patched” – “akin to the Mafia in the States”, Bleijie said in the same interview – and paedophile rings “that are grooming and doing all sorts of terrible things to our young kids”.

In Bleijie (whose Dutch surname rhymes with “play”), Queenslanders suddenly had a tireless warrior for law and order: a former lawyer who could debate the finer points of complicated legislation through the dead of night, then front up to a morning media conference looking no worse for wear. The Courier-Mail dubbed him “boy wonder”, Robin to Newman’s Batman.

 Jarrod Bleijie wants to see bikies in pink, and in prison. © Meredith O’Shea

The night after the passing of the anti-bikie legislation, another populist bill was sped through parliament. This one was a response to the case of Robert John Fardon, a 65-year-old who had served time for a number of violent sexual offences against girls and women, including acts committed while on parole. In 2003, Fardon became the first prisoner to be detained indefinitely under Queensland’s Dangerous Prisoners (Sexual Offenders) Act, legislation introduced by Peter Beattie’s Labor government. Last year, a review by the Supreme Court of Queensland ordered that Fardon be released on strict conditions. In response, Bleijie introduced an amendment to the legislation that would allow him to ask the governor to make a “public interest declaration” to keep offenders like Fardon behind bars.

In legal circles, the amendment was branded a publicity stunt, and Bleijie was ridiculed for not understanding the separation of powers – the courts, not politicians, send people to prison. Tony Fitzgerald, the man who’d led the inquiry that had exposed corruption and political interference at the highest level in Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s government 25 years earlier, was prompted to write in Brisbane’s Courier-Mail: “It is incomprehensible that any rational Queenslander who is even remotely aware of the state’s recent history could for a moment consider reintroducing political interference into the administration of criminal justice, even to the point of making decisions about incarceration.”

Weeks later, Queensland’s Court of Appeal struck down the new laws, agreeing that they would have required the Supreme Court to “exercise powers repugnant to or incompatible with [its] institutional integrity”.

“To have any politician alone decide who’s going to be in jail or not is scary,” says Dan O’Gorman, a prominent Brisbane barrister. “I’ve acted for Fardon for seven years. He’s had a terrible life himself, which doesn’t justify his behaviour, of course. But Fardon is not the issue; the issue is the process. [Bleijie] just doesn’t seem to understand the role of an A-G. Unfortunately, not only has this fellow not defended the institutional integrity of the judicial process, he’s the leader of the cheer squad that’s attacking the courts. It’s an unbelievable situation.”


Bleijie, then 30, was sworn in as the attorney-general and the minister for justice in early April 2012. Campbell Newman had just led the Liberal National Party to its extraordinary 78-seat result at the state election. (The ALP managed to keep just seven seats. The LNP now holds 74 seats, after four MPs quit the party.) Bleijie, the member for Kawana, was returned with 67% of the primary vote. Yet outside of his Sunshine Coast electorate, few Queenslanders had heard of him. Fewer still could pronounce his surname. (At the Kawana Waters Surf Lifesaving Club, where he has been patron since entering state parliament in 2009, his surname is misspelt three times on the honour board.)

Rod Welford spent four years as the attorney-general in the Beattie government and says there’s no better gig among lawyers. “You’re the first law officer of the state,” he tells me over iced coffee in the inner-city suburb of Newstead. “There is no one more senior in the entire legal system.”

Welford, who also served as the justice minister, says the position involves more of a balancing act than other cabinet portfolios: “You’re responsible for the stewardship of the courts and the justice system at large, and also advising the government of the day on legal issues relevant to government deliberations.”

 “It’s very tempting for an A-G to simply make political decisions,” he says. “It’s easy to trade on the fears and uninformed emotions of the community, to elevate those fears beyond what is necessary, in order to make yourself look popular. You’ll get a measure of public support for appearing to be taking action.”

Discussing the Broadbeach brawl and the resulting legislation targeting “associations” of three or more members, Welford points out that every criminal act that occurred outside the restaurant was already covered by the law: assault, affray, damage to property and so on. According to Welford, in the rush to draft new legislation while riding a wave of public outrage, the government neglected to ask whether the existing laws were adequate. “It’s like saying we’ve got a law against murder. Hang on a minute! Someone got stabbed with a samurai sword! It’s outrageous! So we create a new law: ‘murder with a samurai sword’.”


“Jarrod Bleijie doesn’t like talking about Jarrod Bleijie,” says Jarrod Bleijie’s media adviser, in response to repeated requests for an interview. I’m also refused access to his press schedule or advance notification of his public appearances. In the five months since the Bandidos incident, Bleijie has granted only a handful of short, one-on-one interviews to broadcast media, and none to print publications. It seems he prefers to write his own articles. In a piece for the Australian in January, he cited a South Australian Labor MP who had praised Queensland for having “found the ‘magic formula’ in the fight against criminal motorcycle gangs”. Bleijie urged people to “see through the crocodile tears” of bikies.

A father of three, Bleijie invariably raises his desire to improve the safety of the state’s most vulnerable citizens. “When the LNP was elected to government, we pledged to do everything we could to make Queensland the safest place to raise a family,” he wrote in the Courier-Mail last October. “We wanted to rebalance the scales of justice in favour of the victim and not the offender.” 

The attorney-general is a forthright public speaker who likes to match his pocket square to the colour and stripe of his tie. The state ALP leader, Annastacia Palaszczuk, acknowledges Bleijie “has a great ability to think on his feet”, adding: “When he was in Opposition, I thought he was a man of potential.”

Opponents note Bleijie’s hardline stance has polarised debate. “If you were against the bikie laws, or had reservations, you were ‘pro-bikies’,” says Palaszczuk. “If you did not support the [Dangerous Prisoners amendment] – as we did not, because it breached the separation of powers and gave Jarrod Bleijie the decision-making power of a judge – we were ‘apologists for sex offenders and pedophiles’.” She sighs and shakes her head. “When you have a massive majority, you have almost unlimited power. They can do and say whatever they want.”

Palaszczuk says there is an undercurrent of fear in certain circles, with some members of Queensland’s legal fraternity apparently having let it be known that they’d rather not be seen socialising with ALP members for fear of being passed over for promotion. “People are actually scared about having contact with the Opposition,” she says, exasperated. “If you have a dissenting view, then you’re not with them [the Government].”

In late November, the Newman government took the unprecedented measure of sacking and replacing the entire Parliamentary Crime and Misconduct Committee (PCMC), which oversees the state’s anti-corruption watchdog, the Crime and Misconduct Commission (CMC). The sacking came after Labor and independent members publicly questioned the acting head of the CMC, Dr Ken Levy, over his support for the VLAD Act. “Queensland has existed since 1922 without an upper house [of parliament],” says Palaszczuk. “The whole purpose of putting in a strong committee system was to support the parliament in its role and add those extra checks and balances.”

Bleijie was unapologetic. Moments after the PCMC was dismissed, he told reporters: “What the parliament has done tonight is very sensible.”

The committee’s chair, Liz Cunningham, was furious, however. Days after her sacking, the independent MP told me of her concerns about “the message that the committees are getting: if you do stuff that the government doesn’t agree with, they’ll just sack you. [It undermines] the confidence not only of the committee but of the community in the government of the day. It’s the first few steps taken in the wrong direction that are the hardest; they get easier the further you go.”


Jarrod Pieter Bleijie was born the day before Australia Day, 1982, in Griffith, New South Wales. His family lived in Albury before moving to the Sunshine Coast, where his uncle, Lindsay Cooper, had established “Aussie World”, a gaudy highway-side tourist trap. Its centrepiece is a re-creation of the Ettamogah Pub from Ken Maynard’s ocker cartoons in the Australasian Post.

Bleijie’s parents, Pieter and Christine, worked in the pub before establishing a camping store in nearby Caloundra. At the local state school, their middle child showed a precocious taste for politics. In grade seven, students staged a mock election campaign. Young Bleijie’s slogan was “Be smart, be safe, be sure – vote Jarrod”. Friends helped him design brochures, “how to vote” cards and fluorescent Corflute signs. From a field of eight candidates, he won.

The following year, 1996, John Howard became prime minister. Bleijie’s elder brother, Linden, recalls 14-year-old Jarrod was smitten with the excitement surrounding the federal election. He soon joined the Young Liberals and his grandfather Jacobus “Jack” Bleijie recalls him saying at 16 or 17: “I’ll go for prime minister.” In his final year at Caloundra State High School, he was elected school captain. Meanwhile, he saved for his first car by working at KFC, took rock ’n’ roll dancing lessons and showed a flair for public speaking. “He seemed to me to be a man in a hurry,” says former Caloundra High principal Kerry Emery. “You could see that he was going somewhere.”

Bleijie married at 20 in 2002 and started a family shortly afterwards. He graduated from Queensland University of Technology with a law degree in 2005. As an articled clerk and then as a practising lawyer in the Sunshine Coast office of Sajen Legal, he worked on property transactions and distinguished himself by getting by on very little sleep. One of the firm’s then partners, Tony Sowden, recalls receiving emails from Jarrod at 2 am. “It wasn’t ‘look at me, I’m working late at night’,” says Sowden. “He was just motivated. He packed a lot of stuff into his life.”

Says Sajen’s director, Kyle Kimball, “He always had his eye on the future. He knew what he wanted, and he didn’t want to make a slip-up.” During company retreats at Fraser Island, while his colleagues were “getting sauced up” – Sowden’s words – Bleijie would “rug himself up, stand on the jetty and fish all night”, says Kimball. “Crazy, if you ask me. The middle of winter, cold as a witch’s tit. But it didn’t seem to worry him. He’d have a bucketload of bream for us to fry up for breakfast.”

Bleijie was chair of the Caloundra branch of the newly merged Liberal National Party when he nominated for the seat of Kawana ahead of the 2009 state election. One of his campaign volunteers was a young Liberal called Wyatt Roy, now 23 and the federal member for Longman. Roy says it was Bleijie’s work ethic and down-to-earth approach that helped turn Kawana into one of the safest seats in the state.

In his maiden speech, on 22 April 2009, Bleijie moved quickly to address the matter of his age. “I can say with excitement and pride that I am the youngest conservative member of the 53rd Queensland parliament,” said Bleijie, then 27. “I envisage that my youth will bring to this House a fresh perspective, and I can particularly stand up in this House and bring to the attention of the House the plight of young Queenslanders.”

Jarrod Bleijie with wax sculptures of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, November 2013. © Jarrod Bleijie

Wyatt Roy says Bleijie shares his belief that “the worst thing about modern politics is that it has become overtly scripted; it has become bubble-wrapped; it has become defined by 30-second sound bites. It is less a clash of ideas, values and principles. It’s important that we articulate those, and we do that from the heart.”

Bleijie has certainly seen fit to articulate his views on the monarchy. He is not exactly in step with his generation, nor perhaps even with the one before that. Not since Bjelke-Petersen’s day has a senior politician taken the state’s name so literally. Last May, Bleijie spoke passionately in parliament about the “enduring relationship that Queensland has had and will continue to have in the future with the monarch” and how “we have strengthened this relationship in the last 12 months”.

He spoke proudly of having “gone back to processes of naming buildings after Her Majesty – namely, the Queen Elizabeth II Courts of Law, a majestic $570 million building”, and of having “re-established the title of Queen’s Counsel”.

The title Queen’s Counsel was abolished in 1994 by the state Labor government, as it has been in other states. Barristers “taking silk” were SC, or Senior Counsel. But Bleijie restored the royal “Q” in 2013. “Queensland silks now have the edge internationally, particularly in Asia where the use of QCs is preferred,” he said in a media statement at the time.

“I find it intriguing that somebody as youthful as him would be wanting to turn the clock back like that,” says Dan O’Gorman, one of only four out of 74 Queensland barristers who has chosen to retain the title of SC. “I find it all embarrassing; we’re a laughing stock down south.”

But Bleijie’s devotion to the Crown runs deep. Last November, he made a professional faux pas by missing the valedictory ceremony of a retiring Supreme Court judge – at the Queen Elizabeth II Courts of Law, no less. Although Bleijie pleaded pre-existing commitments, it didn’t help that one of them was unveiling wax sculptures of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge at a Gold Coast tourist attraction.

“The problem with Jarrod is that he doesn’t have an expansive enough thought capacity,” says Alex Douglas, a backbencher who quit the LNP in late 2012 and now holds his Gold Coast seat on behalf of the Palmer United Party. “He has a very, very small view of the world. I think Bleijie was promoted for those very reasons.”

According to Douglas, Premier “Can Do” Newman, an ex-military man, prefers foot soldiers around him: doers, not thinkers. “I think Jarrod was on the make,” says Douglas. “In some ways, he now sees himself as the person who could inherit everything if the public throw Newman out of his seat. If he can hang on, he can become some sort of superhero.”

Andrew McMillen

Andrew McMillen is a freelance journalist based in Brisbane.

@Andrew_McMillen

March 2014

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