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Guns, bikes & leather: moral panic and the 2008 South Australian 'anti-bikie' laws

posted on 2017-02-15, 23:47 authored by Vakalis, David
Reflective of the broad political consensus in Australia, 'anti-bikie' laws have recently been introduced by many state and territory governments. In the shadow of this year's federal election, the government has also proposed national anti-bikie laws. Given this, it is worthwhile to consider the context within which this trend emerged. Three days after a violent incident involving bikies outside Adelaide's Tonic nightclub on 2 June 2007, the South Australian (SA) Government announced that it was considering the use of 'anti-terrorism' laws as part of its 'war on bikies'. Then Premier Mike Rann declared: '[i]f these people want to behave like terrorists, they will be treated like terrorists'. What resulted was the controversial Serious and Organised Crime (Control) Act 2008 (SA) (the SOCC Act) - featuring similar provisions to Australia's federal anti-terrorism laws. This thesis investigates the relevance of the concept of 'moral panic' - as set out in Stan Cohen's seminal text Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers - in explaining the SA Parliament's passing of the SOCC Bill. The latest edition of Cohen's seminal work on moral panic (published in 2002) is used as an analytical tool to consider whether the SOCC Act resulted from a moral panic. In it, he clarifies his idea of moral panic by suggesting that researchers pay attention to the specific elements of moral panic identified by Erich Goode and Nachman Ben-Yehuda: concern, hostility, consensus, disproportionality and volatility. Similar to the work of Cohen, this thesis seeks to identify the typical traits of moral panic through a content and discourse analysis of newspaper texts. In this data set, items including cartoons, letters to the editor, editorials, and news reports relating to bikies were collected from two Adelaide newspapers, The Advertiser and Sunday Mail. The SA Attorney-General at the time, Michael Atkinson, cited the Tonic incident as justification for the SOCC Bill's introduction. Based on this, the newspaper corpus is collected from the day following the Tonic incident (3 June 2007) to the day that the SOCC Bill received Royal Assent (15 May 2008). The thesis argues that, while bikies were constructed as folk devils, Cohen's moral panic provides limited assistance in accounting for the enactment of the SOCC Act. While this finding is contrary to the hypothesis initially proposed by the researcher, the evidence suggests that the social reaction to the Tonic incident did not amount to a moral panic, and thus that the SOCC Act was not the result of one. This research makes a number of valuable contributions, both academically and practically. There are rafts of research that utilise Cohen's moral panic concept; however, this study is one of only a few that uses his latest iteration. This thesis offers a unique perspective that furthers our understanding of moral panic. This is achieved not through defining what moral panic is, but rather what it is not. This is rare, as most moral panic researchers mobilise the theory to demonstrate that a case is an instance of moral panic. In the spirit of social justice that inspired Cohen's moral panic research, this thesis also offers insights as to how an oppressive instrument like the SOCC Act became legitimised, and how similar legislation might be resisted.


Principal supervisor

Jude McCulloch

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Political and Social Enquiry. Criminology


Master of Arts

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Faculty of Arts

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