Wednesday, 10 February 2016
Criminal Code Amendment (Firearms Trafficking) Bill 2015; Second Reading
I rise to speak on the Criminal Code Amendment (Firearms Trafficking) Bill 2015. The purpose of the bill is to amend the Criminal Code Act 1995—the Criminal Code—to set new mandatory minimum penalties and maximum penalties for the offences of, firstly, trafficking firearms and firearms parts within Australia—in division 360 of the Criminal Code; and, secondly, trafficking firearms and firearms parts into and out of Australia—in division 361 of the Criminal Code. For each of the offences in these divisions the following penalties are proposed: a mandatory minimum sentence of imprisonment for five years, and maximum penalties of imprisonment for 20 years or a fine of 5,000 penalty units, or both.
The coalition government has introduced this bill, which would see the introduction of mandatory minimum sentencing for those found guilty of trafficking illegal firearms, despite the parliament rejecting these measures not once but twice already in 2015. Labor has previously successfully opposed the introduction of mandatory minimum sentencing with the support of the Greens party and crossbench support in the Senate in both February 2015 and August 2015. The Australian Labor Party maintains its position that the introduction of mandatory minimum sentences for those convicted of firearms trafficking offences should be avoided. That is on the basis that the Australian Labor Party is opposed in principle and in all circumstances to the imposition of mandatory minimum sentences. And I will speak more to that in a moment.
We note that these provisions have already been considered and rejected by parliament twice. The government has failed on two occasions to justify the need for these provisions, and I foreshadow that they will fail for a third time. While Labor supports the government's intentions to protect the community from gun related violence—of course we do—we urge this government to adopt a similar sentencing regime in relation to the proposed firearms trafficking offences as prevails in other areas and in other jurisdictions of law. We believe in sending a strong message to serious criminals, but we seek to avoid the issues associated with mandatory minimum sentences.
As I said earlier, in February 2015 Labor successfully moved amendments in the Senate to remove the introduction of mandatory minimum sentencing which was then contained in the government's Crimes Legislation Amendment (Psychoactive Substances and Other Measures) Bill 2014. In August 2015 Labor was again successful in moving amendments in the Senate to remove the introduction of mandatory minimum sentencing, on that occasion, in the Crimes Legislation Amendment (Powers, Offences and Other Measures) Bill 2015.
There is no convincing evidence to prove mandatory minimum sentencing acts as a deterrent. In fact, the government's own department says mandatory minimum sentences may create an incentive for a defendant to fight charges, even in hopeless cases. The Attorney-General's Department's own document, A Guide to Framing Commonwealth Offences, Infringement Notices and Enforcement Powers, states at 3.1 that minimum penalties should be avoided. That is in the Attorney-General's Department's own guidelines. It goes on to say that this is because, inter alia, they interfere with the judicial discretion to impose a penalty appropriate in the circumstances of a particular case; they may create an incentive for a defendant to fight charges, even where there is little merit in doing so; they may preclude the use of alternative sanctions, such as community service orders, that would otherwise be available in Part IB of the Crimes Act 1914; and they may encourage the judiciary to look for technical grounds to avoid a restriction on sentencing discretion, which then leads to anomalous decisions.
In inquiries for the two previous bills over the course of 2015, the Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs received evidence from a number of submitters who strongly opposed the introduction of this amending legislation. The Law Council of Australia referred to a number of unintended consequences of mandatory sentencing, which include:
The Australian Human Rights Commission noted that these amendments give rise to the potential for injustices to occur and:
… run counter to the fundamental principle that punishment … should fit the crime.
We also note the concerns previously raised by state prosecutors, who believe that these provisions can lead to unjust results and impose a significant burden on the justice system. On this third occasion, the committee received a majority of submissions that raised significant concerns about mandatory minimum sentences. The Law Council of Australia submitted that:
Increasing the maximum penalty to 20 years imprisonment or a fine of 5,000 penalty units, or both, reflects community concern regarding the potential seriousness of the offence.
We, of course, support a harshening of the sentences. But we remain absolutely resolved to the principle that mandatory minimum sentences are an inappropriate mechanism. Many submissions acknowledged that it was appropriate to increase the maximum penalties and that an increase in penalties acknowledges the gravity of firearms-trafficking offences. On this question we do not have a debate. The Australian Human Rights Commission submitted that:
… the imposition of mandatory minimum sentences raises the real prospect that the sentence imposed will be disproportionate to the culpability of the offender or the gravity of the particular offence because it is set without regard to the individual circumstances of the offender and context of the particular offence.
While there is no evidence that mandatory sentencing laws have a deterrent effect, there is clear evidence that they can result in injustice, because they remove the discretion of a judge to take into account particular circumstances that may result in unintended consequences. In addition, mandatory sentencing removes any incentive for the defendants to plead guilty, leading to longer, more contested and more costly trials. Time and time again I have heard law enforcement officers complain that mandatory minimum sentencing actually operates as a barrier to good investigations because it removes the capacity for a miscreant to cooperate with police or other authorities on the basis that they might receive a reduced sentence. In that sense, it can impede investigations.
Twice already the parliament has debated this proposal, rejecting it. The introduction of the Criminal Code Amendment (Firearms Trafficking) Bill 2015 shows that the minister has failed to comprehend the arguments posed by the experts, by the stakeholders and even by the Attorney-General's Department with regard to mandatory sentencing. There are currently no mandatory minimum penalties found in the Criminal Code Act 1995. I again draw attention to the Attorney-General's document, A Guide to Framing Commonwealth Offences, Infringement Notices and Enforcement Powers, which specifically stipulates that minimum penalties should be avoided. I also refer to evidence previously given by the Attorney-General's Department, where it stated that it was:
… not aware of specific instances where sentences for the trafficking of firearms or firearm parts have been insufficient.
What an inadequate basis upon which to build this case by the government. While we note that the Attorney-General has the power to direct the CDPP to not prosecute an offender in certain circumstances, the government has given no indication that it would consider using this power when cases of injustice occur. Furthermore, the Attorney-General also can revoke an order at any point. We note that the current Attorney-General has already revoked an order introduced by the previous Attorney-General in relation to people-smuggling offences.
While the minister accuses Labor of being soft on crime and enjoying the pure politics of that banal statement, he has continued to prove his ignorance by not listening to the experts and the advice of those who understand the complexities and sensitivities of such cases. In 2012 Labor introduced legislation that would have increased the maximum penalty for firearms trafficking to life imprisonment. That would have made it the same as the maximum penalty for drug trafficking. The proposals put forward by the Abbott and Turnbull governments actually contain watered down penalties—most recently of 20 years—and the government has yet to explain why it is doing this. The measures introduced today are also mostly symbolic and they do not include specified non-parole periods. This proves again that you can change the salesman but you have not changed the product. This is a government that is very keen to parade its law and order credentials on the back of the primitive artifice of mandatory minimum sentences but has rejected Labor's proposed legislation that would have increased the maximum penalty. Labor believes that this government has failed to explain the need for mandatory minimum sentences. That has now been proven time and time again in Senate inquiries. We cannot support this bill in its present form.
Let me conclude my remarks by saying that this is, sadly, an instance of pure politics. This is not an instance of good public policy. The reason the government has served this issue up for a third time to the parliament, knowing full well what the mood of this parliament is, is that it seeks to win a primitive tabloid conversation about the virtues of mandatory minimum sentences. How ironic, perhaps, that that debate arrives on a day when we are talking about closing the gap, because time and time again we have seen mandatory minimum sentences have perverse and distorting results. We have seen the discretion of judges restricted and, as a consequence, we have seen poor law and order justice outcomes. We have seen incarceration where it is unnecessary for minor crimes. We have seen time and time again our incarceration rates going up and, as we know, it is cheaper to send someone to Harvard for a year than to imprison them for a year.
So maximum penalties, harsher penalties where appropriate, and a stronger and better resourced police force—all of this Labor is up for, but a primitive conversation aimed at nothing more than winning a few hearts and minds in a tabloid-standard conversation is not good public policy and it is not good justice. It is petty politics in an election year and the government should be ashamed of itself.
I rise today to speak in support of the Criminal Code Amendment (Firearms Trafficking) Bill 2015. This bill amends the Criminal Code Act 1995 to provide for a mandatory minimum sentence and increased maximum penalties for the offence of trafficking firearms or firearm parts within Australia and into and out of Australia. As a legal firearm user myself, I am very supportive of cracking down on those illegal firearm users. This bill will implement the coalition's election commitment to tackle crime and introduce a mandatory minimum sentence of five years imprisonment for firearms trafficking offences. It will also double the maximum penalty for these offences from 10 years imprisonment or a fine of 2½ thousand penalty units or both to 20 years imprisonment or a fine of 5,000 penalty units or both.
The importation of illegal firearms must be dealt with in order to crack down on gun related crime. The criminal use and trafficking of guns is a deadly crime and will not be tolerated in our country. The federal government are committed to ensuring Australian communities feel safe and secure, and to do this we must take a strong approach to those involved in the illegal dealing of weapons. The coalition has already taken action on illegal firearms since coming into government. Eighty eight million dollars has been invested to introduce increased screening and examination of international mail and air and sea cargo, giving our agencies more power and better tools to ensure they pick up illicit firearms and firearm parts at the border, before they enter Australia. We introduced the National Anti-Gangs Squad to target the activities of outlaw motorcycle gangs within Australia, focusing on their role in firearms trafficking. This has been a great success as, since 2013, 535 illegal firearms have been taken off our streets. Last year, the government further diminished the ability for those trafficking firearm parts into Australia to evade prosecution. No longer can criminals break down firearms and traffic the parts separately. CrimTrac is developing a National Firearms Interface to allow better sharing of information between jurisdictions. Police and firearm registration authorities will be better able to track the movement of firearms in and out of Australia.
As I stated earlier, I am a firearm user and owner, and I am one of the multitudes of people, men and women, who are some of the most law-abiding people I know. I am well acquainted with the major firearm importers and dealers, and they, firearms users, industry and we totally support every measure to crack down on those involved in illegal activity. In recent talk about these changes, not one of the people I know involved in legal firearm trade and activities spoke against the increases to the penalties—not one of them. Our aim also must be not to pass laws that make legal firearm owners illegal but to ensure that those acting illegally are dealt with, and that is what we are doing here. It is important that the interests of the legal and responsible gun community are protected. It must be recognised that the legal gun community are using firearms not only in recreational shooting but as practical tools on farms to deal with feral animals and pests. Once again, I reiterate that the laws must respect the rights of legal firearm users, who are doing the right thing. I am proud that the industry has got behind the government and will totally support what we are doing to make it much tougher and harder for people involved in illegal trafficking of firearms, both domestically and internationally.
In finishing on that, may I say that the firearm industry also are very involved in training people to deal with these issues. For all those keen people who want to be involved, including at a young age, the industry is making sure that users have an ability to recognise their responsibilities. One of the advantages that country people on farms et cetera have with firearms is that they grow up with them and they are very aware of the practical issues surrounding firearms. All my children know exactly what a rifle is. They have all used one and they are all good shots. Even a sheepdog does not get in front of you when you are carrying a rifle. They know what it does. Those of us in the country have that advantage, and that is why the industry is putting such a big effort into teaching those who are involved and want to be involved in the responsibility of being a firearms owner.
Thank you, Cobby, for continuing on there. I was very interested to hear about you and your use of firearms.
Having worked and advocated for police for many years, I know about the issue of firearm trafficking in this country. In fact, 15 years ago in my electorate of Fowler, Cabramatta—which is at the centre—was not only the heroin capital of the country but also the firearms exchange of our nation. For law enforcement agencies, firearms trafficking is very, very significant. I cannot remember the number of firearms in use in this country, but the last time I saw indications from the Institute of Criminology, I think there were one-point-something million firearms supposedly in the hands of about 300,000 registered firearm users. The truth is that the number of firearms in our community varies greatly because of illegal trafficking of firearms. It is a pretty well-known fact that many of the firearms that come from outside the country originate through the Chinese market, but the vast majority of trafficking of firearms in this country occurs by theft. Theft on police officers is certainly one but security guards and others are main targets for people trying to access illegal firearms.
There are many other variants of trafficking firearms—for instance, people manufacturing firearms. I recall when I was a young fellow that it was common to see if you could make a firearm using crackers. I am sure that does not happen these days, but making a 'bunger gun', as I think they used to be called, and giving it to somebody would actually be caught by this legislation. You might say that if you were a minor it would not have any great impact. Maybe the police would not act on it; maybe they would exercise their discretion. But under the provisions that are being put forward tonight, there would be no discretion other than the police deciding not to act. Certainly if the matter were to be prosecuted it would be an in issue of mandatory sentencing. That is where I would like to start.
There are a whole lot of variations, and any of those opposite who have had the opportunity to appear in court will know that every case is different. Cases might fall into similar categories but they are individually different. The very purpose of this bill is to amend the Criminal Code to set mandatory sentence penalties as well as penalties for offences in trafficking firearms parts under division 360 of the Criminal Code—that is for trafficking within Australia—and trafficking firearms within and without Australia under division 361 of the Criminal Code. Under the provisions of this bill, the following penalties would apply for each of those offences: a mandatory minimum sentence of imprisonment for five years and a maximum penalty of imprisonment for 20 years or a fine of 5,000 penalty points, or both.
The basis for the government bringing this legislation here tonight is that they are, in my opinion, labouring under the belief that mandatory sentencing serves as a deterrent and that it would cause individuals to rethink their actions before entering into the illegal conduct. As I said, I had the opportunity to represent police officers in this country for many years, and I know that most of the people I would represent would ordinarily say that mandatory sentencing is a good thing. I think the police are from time to time amazed about how tough we can be on crime. I think one of the things that underpins this is that there is no evidence that mandatory sentencing has acted to deter any category of crime in this country. Mandatory sentencing is not a new thing; it seems to occur when politicians want to act tough and do something when they are not really doing anything, so we impose mandatory sentencing and therefore our courts will apply it and it looks like we are tough on crime. I do not think that is the way we should be looking at this.
There are a couple of things that, for me, sets a lot of our criminal justice system apart from what applies in many parts of the world. Firstly, we do have a system that operates without fear or favour, and that is something to be very proud of. We have a jury system that, in the main, works very effectively. But there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that, in a jury system, when mandatory sentencing is applied it is very easy for a juror to take the view that 'If I do this, this is the absolute consequence. I know that in finding someone guilty I, not the judge, am going to impose the mandatory sentence.' That probably gives the opportunity for a jury to opt to find person guilty on a lesser charge and not the one that requires mandatory sentencing. I put that forward as an issue that could have the impact of undermining the application of criminal justice through our system and one which relies on the orderly function of a jury.
It is simply a matter of record that we on this side of the House have opposed mandatory sentencing on a number of occasions. In February last year we successfully moved amendments in the Senate to remove the introduction of mandatory sentencing from the government's Crimes Legislation Amendment (Psychoactive Substances and Other Measures) Bill 2014. In August last year we again successfully moved amendments to remove the introduction of mandatory sentencing from the Crimes Legislation Amendment (Powers, Offences and Other Measures) Bill 2015. It was not simply an issue of politics and having a position opposite to that of the government that drove that But it is an underpinning view if not a very clear philosophical position of Labor that we believe in the proper functioning of our criminal justice system.
Unlike other state players, we do not have a system where we hand-pick judges from some predetermined list. As I said earlier, we can pride ourselves in a judicial system which works without fear or favour. Yet what we are trying to do is to hamstring the application of justice in those criminal proceedings—in this case, in respect of the traffic of firearms—and to hamstring judges. And judges apply sentencing after someone is found guilty.
I just want to make the connection from a jury feeling that they are not only finding a person guilty but also, in fact, by that, imposing a mandatory minimum sentence themselves, to a judge who can weigh the circumstances upon which a person has been found guilty. As I said at the outset, those of us who have appeared in courts know that there will be individual case matters that need to be considered on each and every occasion.
So we disagree with the government that this will add to, in this case, the reduction of firearms trafficking. I do not think it will add to the abilities of our police, who do a sterling job out there at the moment; they need every assistance they can get, but I do not think this will do anything to assist them in chasing down those who want to become involved in firearms trafficking for various reasons.
The mere notion that there is a mandatory minimum sentence is hardly likely to dissuade a criminal enterprise or criminal entities from getting involved. And, where people are apprehended, it also may affect whether they enter into a plea of guilty. It has been a long while since I looked at the criminal justice system but, as I recall it, in somewhere around 75 per cent or possibly 80 per cent of cases—brought by either the police directly or the departments of public prosecution operating in each of the state and territory jurisdictions—people handed in pleas of guilty. People will plead that way and then eventually seek to mitigate their involvement, with a view to sentence provisions. If the only prospect is of a mandatory sentence applying, there is no great utility in the accused pleading guilty; they may as well let the prosecution and the police run their case.
So I just think that this is not good policy. I do not think it has been good policy in previous attempts by the government to bring this into other pieces of legislation. I do not think it adds to the protection of our community, and I do not think it adds to our criminal justice system. For those reasons, I oppose what the government intends to do here. I am happy to support any measures the government brings forward that will impact on the criminal justice system in a positive way, and more than happy to be working in partnership with the government and the minister at the table if they want to bring forward legislation to enhance our crime-fighting ability throughout the country.
The legislation that we are debating today, the Criminal Code Amendment (Firearms Trafficking) Bill 2015, is of national significance, but in the Northern Territory issues of firearms have been causing police and the broader community headaches for many years. In the last few days reports have emerged of a firearms incident in an industrial neighbourhood only minutes from my home in Palmerston. The ABC reported the incident under the header 'Darwin Rebels motorcycle gang clubhouse targeted in drive-by shooting'. The report continued:
A drive-by shooting at the Darwin clubhouse of an outlaw motorcycle gang has led to police seizing two guns and methamphetamines but the shooter remains at large.
The NT Gangs Task Force is investigating the shooting which happened early on Saturday morning while members of the Rebels gang were inside the Yarrawonga building.
After a search of a premises in the Palmerston suburb of Bakewell, police seized two firearms and the methamphetamines. Investigating officer Detective Senior Sergeant Mark Stringer—a very, very good police officer—said the Rebels arrived in Darwin five years ago and since then have been 'making a name for themselves'. That includes their involvement in the theft of weapons from a Navy patrol boat back in 2012.
In that incident, Northern Territory Supreme Court records show that Seaman Matthew Evans stole guns from a Royal Australian Navy patrol boat at Darwin's Larrakeyah naval base because he felt pressured by the outlaw motorcycle gang. The event made national headlines in November 2012 and was a significant and disturbing breach of security at a very important Australian naval establishment. Seaman Evans gained access to the Larrakeyah base using his security pass, and then, once inside the base, covered his face with a beanie and boarded a patrol boat he had once worked on. He briefly struggled with a watchman and restrained the watchman with cable ties before stealing 14 guns. I say again: before stealing 14 guns. The guns were, thankfully, later recovered from a Darwin unit. Evans pleaded guilty to several charges and, for his trouble, was seriously bashed in prison and spent a considerable period of his prison sentence in protective custody.
It is disturbing enough that the Rebels gang is in Darwin at all, but the fact that they are accessing firearms is absolutely horrifying. The weekend incident in which shots were fired at their premises is not the only firearms-related incident investigated by the Northern Territory police this year. We are only five weeks into 2016, and police have already issued a media statement urging firearm owners to take all necessary measures to ensure the safety of their weapons. The 12 January statement said:
Northern Territory Police are asking gun owners to rethink their security and double check their gun safe keys are kept in a secure location ... following the theft of firearms from homes during recent break-ins.
Sergeant Amee Meredith from the Firearms Policy Section said Police ... are concerned at the ease with which ... offenders are finding and using gun safe keys.
... firearm owners have a responsibility to ensure the safekeeping of ... firearms.
She pointed out:
Under NT legislation gun owners must take all reasonable precautions to ensure that the firearms are kept safely, that they are not lost or stolen and that they do not come into the possession of persons not authorised to possess them.
The media release did not go into detail on how many firearms had actually been stolen or the exact type of weapon, but, in my old home town of Alice Springs, 2016 has seen at least three firearms related incidents. One of those related to the theft of a rifle, a shot-gun and ammunition from a home in Braitling, and just last week police appealed for public assistance following the overnight theft of a firearm from a vehicle in Caterpillar Court. The report said:
Between 7.30pm 3 February and 6.15am 4 February, an unsecure Ruger Imperial bolt action .308 calibre rifle, which was inside a canvas cover, as well as a quantity of ammunition, was removed from a vehicle by an unknown offender/s.
Superintendent Peter Gordon went on to say:
Firearms that get into the wrong hands can have fatal consequences ...
And he is so right.
On Thursday, 21 January the home of a 34-year-old Alice Springs man was searched and, as well as drugs, two .22 calibre rifles were seized, one of which was sawn-off, and a 12-gauge rifle was also seized. The two rifles had apparently been stolen during a break-in in October 2015. These disturbing accounts only re-enforce the need for strong measures to prevent firearms from getting into the wrong hands. By that, I mean the Rebels bikie gang members or methamphetamine addicts. I am not saying that the bikies are methamphetamine addicts. There are two different kinds of groups there.
The Criminal Code Amendment (Firearms Trafficking) Bill 2015 will amend the act to implement the coalition government's election commitment contained within the government's policy to tackle crime which we released in August 2013 to introduce a mandatory minimum sentence of five years imprisonment for firearm trafficking offences. It will see the maximum penalties of those offences doubled from 10 years imprisonment and a fine of 2,500 penalty units, or both, to 20 years imprisonment or a fine of 5,000 penalty units, or both. The introduction of increased maximum penalties and mandatory minimum sentences of five years imprisonment for firearms trafficking offences is consistent with the government's commitment to pursue a strong and nationally consistent approach to gun crime.
Members opposite, in their desire to be difficult and to foster the ambitions of hard-core criminals to get away with light sentencing, have expressed issues around mandatory minimum sentencing. The coalition government believes that mandatory minimum sentences are necessary and will act as a strong deterrent for those who would otherwise engage in illicit firearms trafficking. As the provisions do not impose a mandatory non-parole period, the actual time a person will be incarcerated will remain at the discretion of the sentencing judge. The level of judicial discretion provides protection against arbitrary detention and demonstrates the government's commitment to limiting any infringement against this right. These measures also do not apply to children, which in legal terms means anybody under the age of 18.
For the Australian Labor Party to have taken this position is difficult to understand. On two prior attempts by the coalition government to crackdown on illegal firearms trafficking by introducing mandatory minimum sentences, our amendments have been blocked by Labor's hypocrisy. This is all a bit hypocritical if you ask me, because they claim that their opposition to mandatory minimum sentencing is laid out in the Australian Labor Party's national platform, although in 2010 Labor legislated mandatory minimum sentencing for people smuggling. So, while Labor goes soft on crime, the coalition government is getting on with delivering what we promised to the Australian people: a safer and more secure nation.
The criminal use of firearms is a matter of considerable concern to the community. The introduction of even a small number of illegal firearms or firearms parts into Australia can have a significant impact on the threat posed by the illicit market. The amended penalties aim to more adequately reflect the serious nature and potential consequences of supplying firearms and firearm parts to the illicit market. Tough sentences for illegal firearms trafficking send a strong message that gun related crime and violence is a serious threat to the safety of all Australians.
These amendments are in addition to the work the coalition government has done since coming to government to create a safer and more secure nation. After savage cuts by Labor, one of the first things we did when we came to government was invest $88 million to increase screening and examination of international mail, air and sea cargo. That is right: $88 million. This funding boost gives our agencies greater tools to detect illicit firearms and firearm parts at our borders.
Shortly after coming to government we introduced the National Anti-Gangs Squad, with strike teams now in Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia, and liaison officers in the Territory and all other jurisdictions. Their role is to target outlaw motorcycle gangs within Australia, particularly their role in firearms trafficking. Since the introduction of the anti-gang squad in 2013, 535 illegal firearms have been taken off the streets around the country. In February 2015 the coalition government closed a loophole that allowed criminals to avoid prosecution for trafficking firearm parts into Australia. Without these amendments, criminals could evade trafficking offences and penalties simply by breaking down the firearms and then trafficking the parts separately.
In response to the joint Commonwealth-New South Wales Martin Place siege review, which identified weaknesses in Australia's ability to maintain and share firearm information between jurisdictions, CrimTrac is developing the National Firearms Interface to assist police and firearms registration authorities register firearms, license firearms owners and track the movement of firearms in and out of Australia. This interface will provide a single record of each firearm in Australia, detailing every event in its history—from importation or manufacture for sale in Australia through to its exportation or destruction. It will create a national picture of firearm data by linking with existing state and territory firearm registration systems, which will continue to be used. This will improve information and intelligence sharing on firearms, providing essential support for law enforcement agencies.
Mr Deputy Speaker Kelly, as you know, I am the wife of a police officer, so I think it is really important that we on this side of the House do everything we can to make sure that we provide legislative support for our men and women in blue. Their job is to keep us safe, and I think that they do a fantastic job. I commend the minister for putting this legislation before us, and I call on those opposite to support our men and women in blue, to stop this hypocritical behaviour and to get on board and sign up. Let's provide this support to our men and women in blue. With that, I commend the bill to the House.
I support the Criminal Code Amendment (Firearms Trafficking) Bill 2015. This bill effectively seeks to amend the Criminal Code Act 1995 by introducing a mandatory minimum sentence of five years imprisonment for offenders convicted of trafficking firearms and firearm parts. It also doubles the maximum penalties for firearms trafficking from the existing 10 years imprisonment or a fine of 2,500 penalty units, or both, to 20 years imprisonment or a fine of 5,000 penalty units, or both.
I strongly support this legislation which effectively limits access to firearms by criminals yet does not impinge upon access to firearms by legitimate persons for lawful purposes. Firearms have the potential to be used for good and bad purposes. I am strongly in support of legislation that will be effective in combating the illegitimate use of firearms whilst promoting and protecting the rights and liberties of thoughtful, legitimate users of firearms.
There are currently more than 2.7 million legally registered firearms in Australia. Firearms most certainly have a legitimate place in our society. They are used at clubs and in Olympic and Commonwealth Games sports and are an essential part of agriculture for controlling feral pests. Firearms are used to provide food through hunting and for recreational shooting. They are essential to our law enforcement defence and security. Historic firearms collections form part of our cultural and military heritage.
It is the misuse of firearms for criminal purposes which this legislation seeks to curtail. There is no good reason for illegal firearms to enter Australia's borders as their misuse will impact adversely on legitimate use of firearms through negative public perception. Unfortunately, high-profile firearm incidents will continue to elevate firearm related crime to the forefront of public awareness, media headlines and political agendas.
Firearms trafficking is generally defined in the 2001 United Nations Protocol against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Their Parts and Components and Ammunition as the unauthorised import, export, acquisition, sale, delivery, movement or transfer of firearms, their parts and components and ammunition across internal or state borders.
According to a recent report from the Australian Crime Commission, it is estimated that there are more than 250,000 unlicensed long arms and 10,000 unlicensed handguns in Australia. The ACC defines the criminal trafficking of firearms as the movement of illegally owned, modified or manufactured firearms between market suppliers and organised crime. Criminals regularly use illicit firearms to protect their area of criminal operation and in other criminal activities, such as extortion, to settle inter-gang disputes and in the collection of outstanding debts and drug payments. The ACC conservatively estimates that serious and organised crime costs Australia at least $15 billion each year.
From the outset, I should declare that I am a lifelong shooting enthusiast who has participated in a range of competitive shooting sports—pistol, rifle and shotgun—and hunting for more than 30 years. I am a member of both the National Rifle Association and the Sporting Shooters' Association of Australia. The Sporting Shooters' Association of Australia was established in 1948 in order to promote the shooting sports and protect firearm owners' interests. Those roles remain the same today. With more than 175,000 members and 400 clubs, the SSAA is the premier sport shooting body representing licensed owners in Australia. The SSAA manages more than 18 shooting competitions at local, state, national and international levels.
In addition, I am one of the founding members of the Parliamentary Friends of Shooting group, along with Senator Bridget McKenzie. Over the years I have represented Western Australia and Australia in clay target shooting and competed amongst Olympians, Commonwealth Games medallists and even visiting royalty. My hunting expeditions have taken me to remote parts of outback Australia, where I have met and stayed with some very interesting people.
I will now focus on the key aspects of the bill, which provide a strong, nationally consistent approach against firearms trafficking. The amended penalties aim to more adequately reflect the serious nature and consequences of supplying firearms and firearm parts to the illicit market. The penalties will act as a strong deterrent and disincentive for people seeking to illegally import firearms and their parts into Australia. Increasing the maximum penalty for these Commonwealth firearms offences will put the Commonwealth in step with other jurisdictions on their maximum penalties for firearms trafficking offences. These measures have been proposed after consultation with the Australian Federal Police and the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions.
The Australian Institute of Criminology released a report in 2012 titled Firearm trafficking and serious and organisedcrime gangs, which indicated that the main entry points for firearms entering Australia are via parcel post, contained in passenger luggage, and through ports and airports through sea cargo and air cargo. Under the previous Labor government, less than 10 per cent of air cargo and less than five per cent of sea cargo were inspected upon entry into Australia's borders. Since being elected, the coalition government has invested $88 million to increase the screening and examination of international mail and air and sea cargo. The funding boost provides our agencies with more resources to detect and intercept illicit firearms and parts.
The magnitude of the task of monitoring our borders is on a vast geographical scale that defies comprehension. We have a sparsely populated continent with a significant number of remote towns where only basic port and airport facilities exist, without the advanced security found in capital cities. The vast Australian continent covers an area of more than 7.6 million square kilometres. To provide some context to the scale of operations, in the seven-month period to 31 January 2015, Australian Customs: processed around 23.1 million passengers through Australian airports; processed over 837,000 passengers through Australian seaports; inspected over 1.3 million air cargo consignments; inspected over 69,000 sea containers of twenty-foot equivalent units; and inspected more than 38 international mail items. Detecting illegal weapons can be described as being like finding a needle in a haystack. In February 2015, the government closed a loophole which allowed criminals to avoid prosecution for trafficking firearm parts into Australia. Without these amendments, criminals could evade trafficking offences and penalties by simply dismantling the firearms and trafficking the parts separately.
According to the Australian Crime Commission report titled Organised crime in Australia 2015the online purchasing of illicit firearms is an emerging threat. Increased use of the internet and dark net websites is likely to drive an increase in firearms importation and pose a threat to border security. Websites such as Black Market Reloaded and Agora have enabled the trade in illicit firearms to operate freely, affording anonymity and offering secure online payment systems. The Armoury is an example of a website specifically designed to facilitate the trading of firearms, components and ammunition. In December 2013, a Victorian man was convicted of importing a semiautomatic handgun and possessing ammunition, after the prohibited items were purchased from the website Black Market Reloaded and imported to Australia from the United States concealed in a karaoke machine.
In Australia, the sale and supply of firearms to the illicit market is typically carried out by organised crime gangs and also individual lower level criminals driving the demand for illicit firearms. There are direct links between firearm trafficking and other serious crimes, such as drive-by shootings. Criminal use of firearms includes the distribution and supply of drugs, armed robbery, acts of violence, impeding law enforcement, and in standover tactics, intimidation and threats against rival groups. The National Anti-Gangs Squad was established to target outlaw motorcycle gangs, particularly their role in trafficking firearms. Since the introduction of the National Anti-Gangs Squad in 2013, more than 480 illegal firearms have been seized.
It is true to say that licensed firearm owners in the Australian shooting community overwhelmingly support this legislation. There is no place in the community for illegally imported firearms to be in the possession of criminal elements likely to misuse the firearms to commit crimes. Such adverse publicity affects the public perception of lawful firearms owners and impinges upon their freedoms. Certain aspects of recently introduced firearms legislation and regulation are fundamentally flawed in terms of effectiveness in preventing crime. There has been too much focus on the technical attributes of firearms themselves and insufficient focus on the suitability of the owner in the first instance. I advocate for reforms which place greater emphasis on licensing the firearms owner, with more stringent background checks, safety training and in-person interviews. This would be coupled with a comprehensive firearm registration system which registers individual firearms to suitably licensed owners, for accountability and traceability.
At present, too much emphasis is placed on the characteristics of the firearm itself and not on the suitability of the owner. Some ill-conceived arbitrary measures are in place, such as limiting the calibre of handguns to .38, specifying the minimal barrel lengths and limiting magazine capacities. These measures have practically no effect in improving public safety. For instance, a .38 Super is ballistically superior to a .45 ACP, yet the .38 is permitted and the .45 is restricted. This is akin to an attempt to improve road safety by banning all vehicles capable of exceeding 200 kilometres per hour and limiting the capacity of vehicle's fuel tanks when it is obvious that it is the competence of the driver, and not the characteristics of the car, that affects road safety.
In addition, the current practice of online applications for firearm licences through Australia Post with no face-to-face contact also presents the risk of identify fraud. In the past, applicants were required to attend in person at the police station closest to their residence, and they were interviewed face to face by a police officer, who had the opportunity to assess, to a large extent, if an applicant was bona fide and competent. I support measures to make the licensing of firearm owners more robust and thorough.