Senate debates

Tuesday, 18 August 2015


Gun Control, Baha'i People of Iran

9:59 pm

Photo of Penny WrightPenny Wright (SA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

'Stay down. I love you.' These are the last words Carol Loughton said to her daughter as she pushed her towards the ground more than 19 years ago. Lying beneath her mother, Sarah Loughton died of a gun wound, a fact her mother only discovered when she herself awoke after surgery two days later. The Port Arthur massacre is vividly etched on our national psyche. The terror wrought by Martin Bryant and his private arsenal of firearms at the picturesque historic site of Port Arthur in Tasmania still chills many of us.

On that day Martin Bryant killed 35 people—35 people who were wives, husbands, children, parents and friends. Every one of these 35 people had a full and purposeful life that cannot be comprehended through simple statistics that count only the dead, and there are many others who still bear emotional and physical injuries from that event.

But from such terrible tragedy and mourning came decisive action from the then Prime Minister, John Howard, who, despite great opposition from some gun owners and from others who make a profit from selling guns, implemented significant gun reform that has been so effective that we have not seen another tragedy on this scale in Australia. Compare that to the US, where a powerful and ruthless gun lobby has paralysed any attempts to put in place such sensible gun laws. Deaths by firearms in the US are 10 times those in Australia.

For Carol Loughton the events of 28 April 1996 haunt her every day. She contacted my office recently after I appeared on 7.30 to talk about the importation of a new rapid-fire lever-action shotgun, the Adler, which has caused great consternation among those who remain vigilant to ensure that we do not see another Port Arthur massacre. Falling within a technicality, this potentially lethal weapon was going to attract the least form of regulation.

In 1996 Carol was visiting Tasmania for the Anzac Day long weekend with her daughter, Sarah, who was 15. In the Broad Arrow Cafe at the Port Arthur World Heritage site, her life changed forever. Something was not right—people were screaming. Carol looked frantically for somewhere safe to hide with her daughter. It was then that Martin Bryant walked into the cafe. Carol recounted to me how he walked calmly through the space, shooting indiscriminately. Carol held up her hands in a futile gesture to stop the bullets. Bryant walked past her and tried to get out of the exit, but the exit was locked and he came back. It was at this moment that Carol pushed her daughter to the ground and lay over her, whispering in her ear. Both Carol and Sarah were shot. Carol survived, Sarah did not.

This year Sarah would have turned 34. Carol has spent 19 years without her daughter. It is not only Sarah's absence that has pained Carol since that fateful day; her life has also been blighted by the physical injuries she sustained. At the time of the shooting Carol was a high functioning public servant. She has not been able to work since. At the age of 59 she has required Meals on Wheels, and assistance with showering and self care. She can barely walk and her concentration is patchy. She is hard of hearing because her eardrum was ruptured by the sonic boom from the gun going off beside her eye. The bullet entered Carol's scapula; it could not be removed and has let to osteomyelitis—gangrene of the bones that has turned her bones to jelly. Throughout her life she has needed constant huge doses of medication, including ketamine. She has required bone grafts from other areas of her body and has undergone so many complications and operations that she has lost count of them. She will be having another in a month's time. That, Carol told me, is what it means to be shot with one bullet.

Here are some troubling facts. They are inconvenient facts for the gun lobby, so they constantly attack me on Facebook and Twitter whenever they have the chance. Gun ownership in Australia is now back up to pre-Port Arthur levels and the Australian Crime Commission estimates there are 250,000 illicit longarms and 10,000 illicit handguns in Australia. The gun debate in Australia is now being hijacked by a cashed-up gun lobby and facilitated by a rampantly pro-gun advocate in Liberal Democrat Senator David Leyonhjelm, supported by some members of the Liberal and National parties.

This became particularly evident in the course of a recent Senate inquiry, which I chaired, into the ability of Australian law enforcement authorities to eliminate gun-related violence in the community. The Greens initiated the inquiry on the back of drive-by shootings in Sydney, a siege in Adelaide in which a gunman brought the CBD to a standstill for hours, family violence shootings and crimes in other Australian cities. Despite the clear and legitimate public interest behind my inquiry, I have been accused by the Sporting Shooters' Association and many other gun lobbyists of wasting taxpayers' money. The coalition senators bemoaned the lack of reliable data arising from the inquiry, but then joined Liberal Democrat Senator David Leyonhjelm to argue against any further research that would establish the real source of illegal weapons—preferring just to claim that most are smuggled in, and constantly using their favourite panic-button word: 'borders', as in 'porous borders'. It is an inconvenient fact for gun advocates that the primary source of illicit guns is theft—as stated by the Australian Crime Commission and the Australian Institute of Criminology—and many of those guns have been stolen from legal owners.

I was genuinely surprised to see how hard the coalition senators worked to undermine the view that John Howard's gun laws had made Australia safer. So-called experts from the United States National Rifle Association were trotted out to argue that more guns actually make us safer, and that regulation and registration are not necessary.

It is clear there is a strong agenda afoot to water down the regulation of firearm ownership and use in Australia. Just last week we saw the Abbott government do a dirty deal with Senator Leyonhjelm, with the senator trading his vote on the totally unrelated issue of migration in exchange for the government allowing the dangerous Adler shotgun into Australia. The Adler is a rapid-fire, lever-action gun with seven rounds. Faster than the usual lever-action firearm, seven rounds can be fired in quick succession. If it found its way into the wrong hands there is a real concern that we could see a repetition of the tragic events we have seen in the past.

Back at the 2013 election, when there were predictions that the election of Senator Leyonhjelm would lead to a weakening of John Howard's gun laws, Senator Arthur Sinodinos denied it. But recent events have proven the opposite. By kowtowing to the radical gun lobby, the government is putting all Australians in danger. This government have ignored the substantive and thoughtful recommendations coming out of the recent Senate inquiry, which included more funding for law enforcement agencies to tackle gun crime in Australia and implementing a rolling nationwide gun amnesty. In place of true reform they are pursuing populist policy, like mandatory sentencing for firearm traffickers, even though there is no evidence that mandatory minimum sentencing has ever worked anywhere to reduce crime. Instead we need to build on the sensible laws we have and look at how to make them stronger. In the wake of the Port Arthur massacre, Australia banned semi-automatic long arms but did not extend the ban to semi-automatic pistols. It is estimated that there are 10,000 handguns on the black market. The Australian Greens' policy is to ban the importation, ownership, possession and use of semi-automatic handguns—with exemptions for government-owned guns.

Australia has a well-deserved international reputation for sensible gun laws. These laws demonstrate what can be achieved when common sense and evidence trump politics in a way that is truly in the national interest. This happened at a time when Australia was still reeling from the tragedy of Port Arthur, but time has passed and the political culture has changed. We now have Tony Abbott as Prime Minister and a government that has, time and time again, put the interests of the powerful ahead of good policy. There is a new wave of lobbying and spending by the firearms industry and there are clear signs that the Abbott government will weaken the laws that help ensure that Australians are safe from the threat of gun violence. We must be vigilant. We must resist this insidious trend. It took only two bullets to change Carol Loughton's life forever. She is committed to ensuring that a tragedy of this type does not happen again. I commend her and thank her for her courage in speaking up.

Tonight I also want to speak about the longstanding and continued state-sponsored persecution of the Baha'i people of Iran. Baha'is are a religious minority whose members have been imprisoned, tortured and killed since the 1979 Iranian revolution. In cruel contrast to the persecution they have experienced, theirs is a peaceful and gracious faith that emphasises the spiritual unity of all humankind. They believe in one god who is the source of all creation. They believe that all major religions have the same spiritual source and come from the same god, and they believe in the unity of humanity—that all humans have been created equal—coupled with the unity in diversity, with diversity of race and culture seen as worthy of appreciation and acceptance.

For Baha'is, universal peace is the supreme goal of human kind. It strikes me that the tenets of this faith have moral underpinnings which are very similar to those of the Australian Greens. The Baha'i writings clearly indicate that men and women are equal. They believe, from a spiritual point of view, that there is no difference between women and men and there is no basis—moral, biological, or social—for discrimination on grounds of gender. As such, there is an essential equality of rights and opportunities between men and women which is upheld and promoted.

There are quite a few Baha'is living in Australia—and, indeed, in my state of South Australia. In the 1980s, the Australian government was active in defence of the human rights of the Baha'is of Iran and in 1982 established a special humanitarian assistance program under which Iranian Baha'i refugees were eligible to migrate here. Over the ensuing years, several thousand Iranian Baha'is came to this country, enriching the size and diversity of the Australian Baha'i community and making a significant contribution to our nation as a whole. It is to our credit as a country that Baha'is have been able to seek asylum and migrate here and they can practise their religion and culture without fear of persecution or violence. It is one example of the rich legacy that comes from welcoming to Australia those who are most in need.

The Baha'is are targeted because their faith differs from the core belief of the Shia majority in Iran: that Mohammed is the last prophet sent by God. As a result they are subject to abhorrent and cruel treatment by their own government. The Baha'is have faced official prejudice and systematic persecution as a matter of government policy since the 1979 Iranian Islamic revolution, when Ayatollah Khomeini replaced the Shah as supreme leader of the Islamic Republic. The ensuing regime and the Iranian clerics regard the Baha'is as apostates and, under the new regime, Shia Islam became law.    Persecution started with anyone who identified as Baha'i being expelled and barred from Iranian universities, from holding a government job and from participating in the political process.

In the early 1980s, more than 200 Baha'is were executed, and hundreds have been tortured and imprisoned, being branded as 'spies for Israel' and other fictitious crimes. Propaganda against the Baha'i began appearing in the media, calling them 'enemies of God'. Strict limitations have been imposed on their right to assemble and worship. Frequent assaults are not investigated by the authorities—including knife attacks, sexual assaults and murders—creating a sense of impunity for their would-be attackers. Raids and arrests happen frequently, usually with the charge of 'engaging in propaganda against the regime'.

Thirteen people were arrested in April this year, taking the total to over 115, including seven members of a former leadership group sentenced to 20 years in prison. They are also subject to economic persecution and intimidation. Since 2007 there have been more than 600 documented incidences of shop closings, revocation of business licences, vandalism, arson and other efforts to prevent Baha'is from earning a livelihood.

Earlier this year I was invited to speak in Adelaide at the Australian premiere of a documentary film called To Light a Candle, made by Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari. I spoke as a member of the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights in this federal parliament, as a member of the Amnesty International parliamentary friendship group and in my role as the Australian Greens' spokesperson for legal affairs—with particular responsibility for human rights.

Maziar Bahari is an Iranian/Canadian journalist, filmmaker and human rights activist. Whilst not Baha'i himself, he has experienced the brutality of the Iranian regime. He spent 118 days in prison in 2009 on charges of espionage. While telling a sad story, To Light a Candle is actually a very hopeful film and trumpets knowledge over intolerance and the resilience of the human spirit. It insists that education is not a crime. The film celebrates the BIHE—Baha'i Institute for Higher Education—which was established in 1987 after the cruel banning of Baha'is from teaching and studying at universities in Iran. This was a particularly poignant aspect of their persecution because the Baha'is place such a great emphasis on education, learning and knowledge. Indeed, by 1973, before the revolution, the Baha'is in Iran were the first to have achieved a literacy rate of 100 per cent among women under the age of 40 despite the national literacy rate of 15 per cent.

In response to the ban a group of volunteer professors and researchers who had been discharged from their universities and colleges for no reason other than their membership in the Baha'i Faith set up the BIHE to meet the burning desire for education amongst their young people. They dedicated themselves to the BIHE project bravely offering secret classes in peoples' homes by mail and now email correspondence to equally brave students thirsty for knowledge. This does require amazing courage because the people involved in the BIHE have been and still are under threat. In 1998 and again in 2011, the authorities raided hundreds of home classrooms, confiscating materials, books and computers. Thirteen Baha'is are currently in jail in Iran for teaching and learning taboo subjects—dangerous subjects like algebra, psychology and poetry.

To Light a C andle uses personal stories and dramatic archival footage to explore both the persecution of the Baha'is and their inspiring peaceful resistance as part of Iran's democracy movement. After 30 years the BIHE is still operating today, recognised by a number of universities across the globe, including three here in Australia. It offers 37 university-level programs across five faculties: science, engineering, business and management, humanities and social sciences. These days they use leading communication technologies to connect students with domestic and international teachers and experts who are consultants. The Baha'i Institute for Higher Education has evolved from a compensatory institution to a university with academic standards not only on a par with the Iranian public university system but also equal to the standards adopted by leading universities around the world.

Parliamentarians are in a unique position to promote international human rights. I feel strongly that we should use our privilege and power to speak up for those who have neither. As a strong trading partner of Iran and with recent discussions between the regime and our foreign Minister, Australia is in a better position than it has been for some time to make its voice heard. The international community has a responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other means to promote human rights and protect populations from the sorts of crimes that the Baha'is are routinely exposed to in Iran. I urge our Australian government to look at doing more to speak up for the Baha'i and I would encourage everyone to watch To Light a Candle. It echoes the Amnesty International edict, which is that at times of darkness it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. I urge people to watch the filmto find out more about these peaceful, gracious people and to be uplifted by the resilience of the human spirit at times of great challenge.