The ACT government has ditched its proposal to prevent bikies from consorting, saying it has struggled to draft laws that satisfy police while respecting human rights.
Attorney-General Simon Corbell, who will not recontest his seat at the October election, said he had too little time left as minister to strike a satisfactory balance between the competing priorities.
However, he said the government would revisit the issue if it was re-elected and he would announce new funding soon to help police crack down on outlaw gangs.
Thousands of bikies descended on Canberra in 2014 against what they called draconian legislation in NSW and Queensland. Photo: Brendan Esposito
It is understood the controversial plan – which is opposed by Greens minister Shane Rattenbury and much of Labor's Left faction – was set to spark a divisive debate at Saturday's ACT Labor conference.
Mr Corbell's decision coincides with the release of a damning Ombudsman's report on similar laws in NSW, which found police in that state repeatedly misused the powers – designed to dismantle organised crime and motorcycle gangs – against children, the homeless and Aborigines.
The ACT government had released a discussion paper on its proposed legislation just last month, which foreshadowed two-year jail terms for people who breached warnings not to associate with known criminals.
Anti-consorting laws, used in NSW and Queensland, aim to disrupt bikie and crime groups by preventing their members from meeting or speaking.
ACT Policing had urged the government to grant it similar powers and Mr Corbell first mooted legislation 18 months ago, saying: "We need to keep ahead of outlaw motorcycle gangs."
However, he told Fairfax Media on Friday it had been "difficult to reconcile the operational needs of police with the concerns of human rights protection agencies" and lawyers' groups.
"I've always said very clearly that anti-consorting legislation will only be brought forward if the ACT can achieve human rights-compliant legislation," he said.
"To achieve that will take a longer period of time than is available to me … Therefore, this work will continue and it will be for another minister to take it forward."
I've always said very clearly that anti-consorting legislation will only be brought forward if the ACT can achieve human rights-compliant legislation.
Attorney-General Simon Corbell
The territory's Humans Rights Commissioner, Helen Watchirs, told the government last month she opposed the laws, saying criminalising "the act of associating with a particular class of individual should have no place in a modern democratic society".
"It is disappointing that the ACT government is actively proposing to enact consorting laws from other jurisdictions, after having maintained a principled position previously that it would 'tackle [organised crime] based on the offending behaviour, based on the offence, [and] based on the criminality'."
However, Opposition Leader Jeremy Hanson, who has backed anti-consorting laws for seven years, said on Friday the Liberals would introduce their own legislation if they won office in October.
"It's very disappointing that the government has thrown such critical legislation in the too-hard basket," he said.
"This is needed to prevent increased bike gang activity. Since NSW introduced laws, police advice is that bikies use weaker laws as an opportunity to conduct activity in the ACT."
The ACT has far fewer bikies than NSW or Queensland: the government estimates the three outlaw groups in Canberra have just 45 members.
However, police fear the rival gangs – the Rebels, Nomads and Comancheros – are becoming more active as they vie for control.
Mr Corbell acknowledged police desires for greater powers against these groups but said that "ultimately, this is a matter of the elected government to decide".
"It's clear to me that police do need further tools but they need to be human rights-compliant, and there is a need for further work to be done to achieve that outcome."