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Organised Crime

Regularly in Melbourne's history, the characteristic signs of organisation in crime - police corruption, ready availability of illegal goods and services, and hierarchical and large-scale organisation for the delivery of such illegal services - have appeared entrenched, even if Melbourne has failed to sustain any long-lasting criminal empire. The Longmore Royal Commission of 1881 heard evidence of police involvement with publicans and the detective force's protection of networks of thieves in exchange for information. Close connections between city police and prostitution were also discussed by witnesses. A subsequent royal commission in 1906 gathered evidence regarding police connivance at illegal gambling, although much of this appeared to be small-scale and localised, with the exception of the Collingwood tote. The shady real estate dealings and financial services provided by some prominent businessmen in the 1880s were never linked to violent crime nor to illegal liquor trading, the characteristic synergies of criminal organisation.

Between the wars attention was drawn to continued prostitution and an expanding network of illegal liquor suppliers in the inner city. Violent groups of criminals were involved in both these trades and occasionally in cocaine or morphine distribution and bank robbery. Squizzy Taylor remains the best known and possibly most violent of these criminals, none of whom ever assumed the status of boss, coordinating Melbourne's illegal enterprises. Their robberies and extortion rackets may have been 'professional' but in light of persistent rivalries, barely organised.

Increasingly from the 1930s, and following the beginnings of radio broadcasts of horseracing, a massive illegal gambling industry was spawned. Again, while no criminal 'mastermind' ever emerged as controlling this activity, the SP betting trade could be blamed for corruption of police in some localities and probably in certain sections of the Postmaster-General's Department (as telephone-line suppliers). A combination of illegal bookmakers in hotels, illegal liquor sales and a broad public acceptance of the legitimacy of these activities laid the ground for such corruption, and for the emergence of violent 'standover merchants', who collected gambling debts and occasionally preyed on the SP bookies themselves. Among the most notorious of these was Freddy 'The Frog' Harrison, gunned down on Melbourne's South Wharf in 1958.

The legalisation of off-course betting in 1961, and subsequent extensions to hotel trading hours, narrowed the market for illegal betting and ended the sly grog trade. Prior to legalising off-course tote betting, the Bolte Government had set out to break SP networks. With some of the biggest SP operations now on the back foot, renegade members of the Ships Painters and Dockers Union were able to move from such rackets as 'ghosting' (inventing fictitious workers and collecting their pay packets) into more lucrative crime. During these years, infrequent complaints were made about the corruption of trade at the Melbourne fruit and vegetable markets, fuelled by a series of unsolved murders among traders. Mafia-like networks among Sicilian and Calabrian families were often hinted at, but never clearly proven. When an expanded market for narcotics and marijuana emerged from 1969 onwards, the Painters and Dockers fought against older criminal networks and some Italian groupings to control profits. These wars, together with fighting within the union itself, resulted in perhaps 40 murders. Shootings occurred at Williamstown Naval Dockyards during the 1971 union elections, on the wharves and in waterfront pubs. Among them was the murder of union secretary Pat Shannon in the Druids Hotel in South Melbourne in 1973. This 'docks war' expanded with shootings of figures on rival union 'tickets', the apparent suicide of former union secretary Jack 'Putty Nose' Nicholls whilst en route to give evidence before the Costigan Royal Commission, and the hunt for waterfront hard man Billy 'The Texan' Longley for over a year.

The Beach Royal Commission of 1975 recommended charges against more than 50 serving police officers, several of them for links with such crime gangs. These recommendations were largely not acted upon. The subsequent Costigan inquiry into the Ships Painters and Dockers did uncover a pattern of corruption and some degree of criminal organisation. However, the more serious indications of organised crime sprang from elaborate tax evasion ('bottom of the harbour') schemes involving corporate figures far more exalted than workers on Melbourne's wharves.

Throughout the 1980s reprisal killings and irregular bashings pointed to horrifically violent, but largely disorganised, inner-suburban clans engaged in the illegal supply of narcotics and in laundering profits from armed robbery. The rivalries derived from familial jealousies, suburban differences or hatreds fomented in Pentridge's H Division do not indicate any widespread organisation of crime. Gun battles on the waterfront, connections between well-known criminal families in Melbourne's northern suburbs and inland suppliers of marijuana, as well as the networks of drug importers working along the coastline of western Victoria, linked Melbourne to the more extensive and corrupting drug trade of Sydney. Dennis Allen, probably Melbourne's biggest drugs supplier, was linked to Sydney crime figures. Also seen as associated with the King's Cross drug distribution of the 1980s was Brunswick-born Christopher Flannery, the supposed master 'hitman'.

A decriminalisation of prostitution has cut off one lucrative opportunity for entrepreneurs to organise crime, in much the same way that legal tote betting and late-night liquor trading ended the early 20th-century markets for illegal services. There remains ample scope for a new organisation of crime through party drug manufacture, money laundering, computer fraud and in the internationalisation of investment patterns, especially in real estate. Perhaps in response to these transitions at the end of the 20th century, Melbourne witnessed another cycle of underworld deaths, rivalling that of the docks wars of 1969-85. Younger crime identities like Alphonse Gangitano and Jason Moran were gunned down. Survivors from those older battles around the waterfront, like Lewis Moran and Graham 'The Munster' Kinniburgh, were shot dead. As the last of the Painters and Dockers families are removed from the crime scene, a more violent and far more anarchic underworld seems to be emerging. Its members derive wealth from the supply of 'party drugs' rather than narcotics, and apparently prefer legal gaming venues instead of the racetrack for laundering profit. Reflecting Melbourne's multicultural character, this underworld seems structured around suburban, familial and ethnic loyalties, rather than replicating the hierarchy of the modern corporation. Perhaps the vast market for illegal but widely accepted drugs like ecstasy and amphetamines, and signs that the trade has implicated police in crucial positions, may lead to greater organisation than in the past. An array of riches may well await the underworld sophisticate who can systematically corporatise the sale of illegal drugs in Melbourne. At the same time, there are signs that, in arresting and charging prominent underworld figures, the police have halted the cycle of deadly feuding in the city's underworld and at least slowed any wider organisation of crime.

Chris Mcconville