ReadingRoom

Book of the Week: Kiwis who fail the Oz ‘character test’

Greg Newbold reviews an account of the story of Shane Martin, a young Māori man from Huntly who made good in Australia – but was deported back home because of his links with a motorcycle gang.

At the beginning of 2016, after years of struggle and toil, things were going pretty well for Kiwi expat Shane Martin. He’d just returned from his honeymoon and started a happy family life in Sydney with his new schoolteacher wife and her two teenage daughters. His trucking business, which he’d built up from a single rig to a fleet of six, was taking off and making good money. His Australian-born sons from an earlier relationship were thriving, especially Dustin, who had become a rising star with AFL team the Richmond Tigers, which went on to win the 2017 AFL Premiership. At the age of 45, Shane Martin had good reason to be content with his life and optimistic about his future.

Then everything fell apart. At 6am one February morning in 2016, there came a knock at the door. It was the police. There were 10 of them, armed and kitted in riot gear, and they had a warrant for Martin’s arrest. An hour later he was in a Sydney jail, awaiting deportation to New Zealand. There were no charges. His crime? Shane Martin was a member of the Rebels Motorcycle Club, and he was a New Zealand citizen.

After two months in custody, without informing his family, Martin was taken to Sydney airport and escorted in handcuffs onto an aircraft. Three hours later, still cuffed and still with his three-man police escort, he landed in Auckland. Thus ended Shane Martin’s 26 years in Australia.

The summary deportation of numerous New Zealand citizens domiciled in Australia is something that has gained considerable publicity since the policy began taking effect in 2014. From that time, under s.501 of the Migration Act, 1500 New Zealand citizens have had their visas cancelled and been deported after failing Australia’s harsh new ‘character test’ requirements. Many have been sent home because of past criminal convictions but about 150 others, Martin among them, have been deemed undesirable solely because of their links with motorcycle clubs. Although Martin accumulated a few convictions during his early years in Australia, he had not been to prison and during his 12-year association with the Rebels, had not even registered a traffic offence.

A Rebel in Exile is the story of Shane Martin’s extraordinary life as an adventurous young Māori who flew alone to Australia as a youngster and matured into adulthood in the Lucky Country. The story has been narrated verbally to gang expert Jarrod Gilbert, who has put Martin’s words into an exciting, passionate, and highly readable account. The book is a candid and personal look at the life of a man whose world has been upended by Australia’s populist crime control measures and the cynical posturing of its politicians.

It begins with Martin’s early life in Huntly, and the violent and unstable upbringing that is typical of so many people who end up joining gangs. Martin was slightly different in that he was able to avoid the local Black Power chapter and having left his dysfunctional family at 14, was welcomed into the household of a schoolmate. He never saw his own family again. At 20, he hitched a ride to Auckland and hopped on a plane to Australia with only $200 in his pocket. After the drudgery of Huntly he fell in love with the place and soon considered it his home.

In the buoyant economy of Australia in the 1980s he soon had a well-paying job, a flash car, nice clothes and money in the bank. Having relocated to Melbourne he played Rugby League and Aussie Rules and within a year he had a steady girlfriend called Kathy. The couple had three sons and were together for 16 years.

It was after their break-up in 1998 that Martin bought a motorbike and began to hang around with the Rebels, which is one of the largest ‘outlaw’ motorcycle clubs in Australia. By 2004 his involvement with the Rebels had deepened and he became a patched member. In his visceral way, Martin describes the allure of the gang, the excitement of the runs they went on, the sense of brotherhood and the ethos of the gang itself. After five years he moved into a leadership role, and was made president of the Picton chapter at the age of 39. It led directly to his deportation.

During the 1980s, increasingly repressive anti-gang laws were passed in South Australia, NSW and Queensland. They ranged from the petty – gang members were banned from congregating in groups of more than three, and were by law unable to work in certain industries such as tattooing – to the more serious, including lengthy mandatory prison terms for offenders. Deporting motorcycle club members under s.501 is part of the Australian Commonwealth Government’s contribution to the anti-gang campaign.

We know Martin had a few scrapes with the law when he was young but we don’t know whether he was ever involved in organised criminal activity. The Australian authorities claim to have a ‘dossier’ on Martin but they won’t say what is in it. Martin himself admits to some minor drug and disorderly offending prior to joining the Rebels. But during his 12 years of membership all we know for sure is that he was gainfully employed, developed a thriving business, paid Australian taxes, and maintained a close relationship with his three Australian-born sons whose achievements would make any parent proud.

Martin’s sudden arrest and deportation destroyed pretty much everything he had built and worked for during his 26 years in Australia. He returned to a country where he was a stranger. His entire known family, with his house, business, and his wife Adriana and her children, were alienated in Australia. When Richmond won the 2017 AFL Premiership cup, and his son Dustin was awarded the coveted Norm Smith Medal for player of the day, he was unable to attend the ceremony. By then Martin had moved to Mt Maunganui where he was attempting to run his business and his marriage by telephone while appealing the deportation decision. But in spite of hefty legal expenses, no good came of it. Eventually Adriana joined him, leaving her own family on the other side of the Tasman.

Shane Martin is no angel. He looks like a tough bastard and he’s got lots of tattoos. But he’s well-liked and respected by the people who know him best – his own family, his wife’s family and his employees. He runs a good business and he’s paying his dues. He’s succeeded well in spite of a poor start in life. He’s a battler. He reminds me of a mate of mine, a former gang member who also owned a business and worked hard all his life.

To tell the truth, before I read this book I felt a bit sorry for those guys who were ripped out of their adopted country and sent back to a place they hardly knew. But then I thought – well, they made their beds so they probably have to cop it. But do they? If they did something wrong, what, exactly, did they do? This book gave me a new perspective on the Australian deportation issue because there will be many others like Martin.

The author has done a great job turning a complicated oral history into an organised and compelling narrative. It’s hard to put down. It also gives the reader an insight into the irreparable damage that sensationalistic policies like those enabled by s.501 can do to innocent individuals and their families.

A Rebel In Exile by Jarrod Gilbert and Shane Martin (Hardie Grant Books, $34.99)

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