Senate debates

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Matters of Public Importance

Gun Control

4:23 pm

Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (President) Share this | | Hansard source

I inform the Senate that, at 8.30 am today, three proposals were received in accordance with standing order 75. The question of which proposal would be submitted to the Senate was determined by lot. As a result, I call on the matter proposed by Senator Rhiannon, namely:

The need to strengthen our firearms laws to reduce gun violence.

Is the proposal supported?

More than the number of senators required by the standing orders having risen in their places—

I understand that informal arrangements have been made to allocate specific times to each of the speakers in today's debate. With the concurrence of the Senate, I shall ask the clerks to set the clock accordingly.

4:24 pm

Photo of Lee RhiannonLee Rhiannon (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

We should remember the Port Arthur massacre—35 people killed, 23 people wounded. Right now the National Firearms Agreement, a very significant development that came out of that absolute tragedy, is under threat. There is some good news. The three pillars that that agreement was based on are still in place. Those three pillars are that anyone seeking to own a gun must be licensed, each weapon must be registered and gun ownership remains a conditional privilege rather than a right.

But what we see happening, side by side with that, is incredible pressure being put on state and territory governments to weaken the gun laws, and this is coming from the firearms lobby. Some of the changes are really insidious. Most states now allow children to use firearms—to actually fire guns.

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party, Minister for Regional Communications) Share this | | Hansard source


Photo of Lee RhiannonLee Rhiannon (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I acknowledge the interjection. This is really shocking. We've seen the Nationals really out there, wanting to promote their commitment to the gun lobby—largely because their vote has been eroded by the firearms parties—and here they are, doing something really disgraceful: encouraging children to use arms on a regular basis.

It's also possible in this country for people to own more than 100 guns—in fact, hundreds and hundreds of guns. That, unfortunately, is one of the loopholes in the National Firearms Agreement that needs to be tidied up.

But there's a particularly sinister aspect of the weakening of the National Firearms Agreement that came out on the eve of the Tasmanian election. Just days before that election, which returned the Liberals to power, it became known that, if elected, that party would soften the state's gun laws. The Liberals' proposed legislation would breach the National Firearms Agreement in a very extensive way. The period for gun licences is to be extended from five years to 10 years. When the National Firearms Agreement was debated extensively in 1996, they settled on five years for a very good reason—so that it could be reviewed to see if the person who held that licence should continue to hold it. Ten years is too long.

Let's remember the agreement is actually thanks to former Prime Minister Howard and the National Party former Deputy Prime Minister—which is something that the Nationals senators who sit in this place should remember—who literally put their lives on the line to go out in country areas and advocate for this agreement. And here we see the Nationals and the Liberals falling over themselves to now weaken it. From what I understand, their ideal is to actually remove it.

The Liberal plan in Tasmania is also to permit farmers to have silencers on their semiautomatic rifles and shotguns, and to bring in a new category for prohibited firearms, category E—something that is very worrying. I've heard some people speculate that the firearm that Martin Bryant used for that absolutely horrendous massacre—some of the saddest stories that you could ever read—could again be available in Tasmania under this crazy plan that they've come forward with.

As for their tactic, this isn't something isolated to Tasmania. This is a tactic that the firearms lobby has in place: if they get the changes through in Tasmania, that becomes a springboard for other states.

We also know that there was a secret firearms consultation group—with no representation from the gun control lobby—with the Liberal government working very closely with those who advocate for firearms and often who make profits out of firearms. The reach of the gun lobby has come right into this parliament, with the home affairs minister, Peter Dutton, considering establishing a committee to allow gun importers to review proposed changes to firearms regulations for 'appropriateness and intent'. There's no place, as I said, for gun control advocates in what they're bringing forward here. We also know that the firearms lobby are very generous donors to conservative parties—about half a million dollars has gone in—and that's something that my colleague Andrew Bartlett will expand on.

This Friday, 23 March, in Sydney, there will be a rally outside Martin Place under the slogan 'Never again', where students, teachers, families and survivors will stand in support of and join students across America in the March for Our Lives, demanding an end to gun violence. (Time expired)

4:29 pm

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party, Minister for Regional Communications) Share this | | Hansard source

I am a proud licensed firearm owner and also a senator. Senator Rhiannon, I agree that the tragedy of Port Arthur was exactly that and should never be allowed to happen again in this country. But to assume that licensed firearm owners are running around 20 years after the NFA was put in place, looking for schools, looking for opportunities to wreak crime and havoc on Australians, is an absolute joke. You stand up in this place and try to pretend that Australia is America and pretend that the NRA exists. The reality is that over a million Australians are law-abiding firearm owners who proudly protect their homes and property, hunt for food and are sporting shooters.

We've got the Commonwealth Games coming up. We are some of the best shooters in the world, and as a nation we're very proud when we see that. Senator Rhiannon, you only grow Olympian athletes, including sporting shooters, if you allow them to develop the skill over time. You don't get to 25, pick up a shotgun and become a gold medallist. You have to have a junior firearm licence, an incredibly appropriate thing to do.

Right now in Victoria it's duck season. It is a lovely cultural experience for many families. They go away for the weekend. They set up their tents. They go camping with friends and family. They get up early in the morning and they go shooting their ducks, and many of those get their bagful. And I thank the state Labor government in Victoria for the work they've done to ensure duck season continues to be the strong tradition it is for so many in my home state. But you can't go out and camp as a family if your kids aren't allowed to come and if you can't train them in how to be safe and appropriate with firearms.

Our firearm laws are amongst the strongest in the world, and I can tell you, because I hold one, that obtaining a firearm licence is a very long and expensive process involving character checks and criminal history checks. You have to do safety training. There are restrictions on how the firearm can be used. You've got to have a recognised need to purchase the firearm. Then you have to open up the door to the police to let them come into your home and make sure you're storing your firearm and your ammunition appropriately. There are waiting periods not just to get your licence but if you want to purchase a firearm. Indeed, law-abiding gun owners would never risk their licence by owning an illegal gun.

The tragedy of gun violence on the streets of Melbourne and Sydney and throughout Australia is not as a result of law-abiding firearm owners, and I absolutely guarantee that any changes that the state government in Tasmania are planning to make around how they register and regulate firearms in their state, as is their constitutional right, will not result in greater gun violence. I will tell you what will. What will result in greater gun violence is illicit and illegal firearms in the hands of criminals. And, Senator Rhiannon, that's why I suggest that, if you're really concerned about gun violence, instead of moving your meaningless MPI to make Batman voters feel a little better that you're standing up for them after the havoc that your particular factor wreaked in that by-election—I don't think it worked out too well for the Greens!—and instead of attacking the million law-abiding firearm owners in this country, you actually support the government legislation around cracking down on illicit firearms and on the trafficking of firearms. That's something tangible that you can actually do.

Indeed, Labor Party senators, if you care about reducing gun violence, don't start attacking mums and dads who take their kids out to go hunting on the weekend, don't start attacking our Olympians and our Commonwealth Games athletes. Start supporting the government's legislation around illicit gun trafficking, because getting illegal guns in the hands of criminals is where the problem is. I can tell you that it's not the gun that actually kills people; it's the person behind it. I know there are some opposite who may not think that is a fact, but the Australian Institute of Criminology, in its National Homicide Monitoring Program annual report, indicated that 1.3 per 100,000 Australians remains the lowest-ever rate since records began in 1989-90. Knives and sharp objects remain the most common weapons used in homicides.

Contrary to the rhetoric and claims of the Greens, who are trying to make this an NRA style conversation here, we have strong firearm laws. They are appropriate. They are stringent. We don't want to see gun crime. We do not want to see people being hurt by guns. That is why we have to support legislative measures that will actually crack down on gun trafficking. So get on board with measures that will make a tangible difference to this issue rather than continuing with your critique of law-abiding firearm owners, who are absolute champions. I am looking forward to handing out the shooting medals at the Commonwealth Games in a couple of weeks. (Time expired)

4:35 pm

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister to the Leader (Tasmania)) Share this | | Hansard source

What a pathetic attempt to try to justify what Minister Keenan tried to do last year. This is why Peter Dutton needs to be pulled into line by the Prime Minister. For those in the chamber and those up in the gallery, I am a Tasmanian who remembers very vividly what happened at Port Arthur in 1996. You only had to walk the streets of any town or city in Tasmania and see written on the faces of those Tasmanians the tragedy, the hurt and the horrific scars that had been left on our communities to know that any change to, any softening of, the gun laws in this country will not be tolerated by the Australian people.

I wasn't a great fan of Mr Howard's, but I will say this about John Howard at that time: he, with the Tasmanian state leaders at that time, helped bring about the world's best gun laws. Internationally, we are admired. We talk about what's been happening in America. You have students and parents marching to change things. I'm speaking as someone who was a licensed gun owner. I was. I was brought up in the country, so I knew how to shoot and to respect guns from a reasonably young age. But I turned my guns in and my husband relinquished his firearms as well because we believed that that was the right thing to do.

Now what we are seeing from these Liberals, both at a federal level and at a state level in my home state of Tasmania, are proposed changes to the gun laws. When did we find out about these changes by the Liberal state government? We heard nothing during the recent state election, but there was a leak to the media about secret meetings and the sneaky, underhand way that the Premier of that state had engaged with the gun lobby to make these changes. I have been inundated by people in Tasmania telling me they voted for the Hodgman government because they didn't know their proposal about changing the gun laws. That was sneaky, it was underhanded and it proves the Liberals cannot be trusted when it comes to gun laws in this country.

We know that there are people who use guns for sport. We know that. But they have to respect the gun laws that we currently have in this country. There is no way that as a Tasmanian I'm going to sit in this chamber and listen to the nonsense that the Minister for Sport has put before this chamber to try to justify the changes that Dutton and Keenan have proposed. It is about time that the Prime Minister grew a backbone and put an end to this debate. We saw how weak he is when he defended Minister Cash with her outlandish attack on women in the Leader of the Opposition's office during the estimates process. So he needs some credibility and this is a good place to start.

It's not just people like me who have concerns. I want to also remind people that a Port Arthur survivor, Peter Crosswell, has said about the proposed changes in Tasmania that our gun laws were 'the only good thing' to come out of the Port Arthur tragedy and disaster. The Alannah and Madeline Foundation, which was set up by Walter Mikac, whose wife and two daughters were killed in the massacre, has said that Mr Hodgman's proposed changes are 'a total betrayal of those lost'. That's a man who is still grieving for his wife and his two beautiful young daughters.

There isn't a Tasmanian who would've supported any change proposed by the Hodgman government if they had been aware of it. It was deceitful, it was dishonest and it proves yet again that the Liberals cannot be trusted. There were those who were negotiating behind closed doors, hoping like hell that no-one would find out before election day. We found out on the Friday. The next day was polling day. It was disgusting. I would have expected so much more from the Premier of the day—to be open and honest with Tasmanians.

I support this motion, because I'm speaking from experience, as a Tasmanian, of the impact of guns. We know that domestic violence, no matter what Senator McKenzie says, is still a big issue, and guns are part of that. (Time expired)

4:40 pm

Photo of Nick McKimNick McKim (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank Senator Rhiannon from the bottom of my heart for bringing this motion on. I rise to strongly support this motion. In doing so I strongly support the National Firearms Agreement, which, as senators would know, came about due to the tragedy in 1996 at Port Arthur in Tasmania where 35 innocent people were massacred. In doing so, I want to very strongly suggest to this Senate that the Tasmanian Liberals were caught out in the 48 hours before the most recent state election by secretly providing a policy to the gun lobby that proposed to effectively destroy the National Firearms Agreement—in Tasmania, of all places.

We had Will Hodgman, the Premier of our state, who likes to portray himself as a moderate, a nice guy and a reasonable person, secretly providing a policy to the gun lobby in Tasmania—not to the broader Tasmanian people and the voters of Tasmania, but to a very narrowly targeted section of our community who want gun laws relaxed, who want to make it easier to obtain licences and who want to make it more difficult to control dangerous guns and weapons in our community. A policy that would destroy the National Firearms Agreement was provided secretly to them.

We heard from Walter Mikac, who even today is still mourning the death of his wife and his two beautiful daughters at Port Arthur in 1996, who said:

We would be totally betrayed to think that within a 20-year period they are looking at going back.

Indeed, the Tasmanian Liberals are looking at going back. They're looking at destroying the National Firearms Agreement, breaking the national consensus. What makes it even worse is they did it in a secretive way, they did it in a duplicitous way, they did it in a cowardly way and they did it in a way that shows how grossly out of touch Will Hodgman and the Tasmanian Liberals are with community sentiment on this issue in our state of Tasmania. They were caught out. The question for Will Hodgman now is: are you going to come forward and seek to legislate in the Tasmanian parliament to destroy the National Firearms Agreement? I tell you what my message to Will Hodgman is: don't you dare try this, because you will be the subject of a revolt from the Tasmanian people bigger than you've ever experienced before— (Time expired)

4:43 pm

Photo of Jim MolanJim Molan (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm speaking today to Senator Rhiannon's proposition that the following matter of public importance be submitted to the Senate for discussion:

The need to strengthen our firearms laws to reduce gun violence.

It occurs to me that we have strengthened our firearm laws and we have reduced gun violence. The basic aspect of this that occurs to me is that the Greens have brought this motion on, but they haven't supported the Criminal Code Amendment (Firearms Trafficking) Bill. The Greens are saying, 'Strengthen firearms laws to reduce gun violence.' But if they were sincere about doing this then they would support our bill, which is about firearms trafficking and strengthening and refining firearms laws. The Greens are asking for something which occurred years ago and which will remain, certainly at the federal level. We must fight the scourge of illegal firearms trafficking; that's for sure. But it's not an issue of the need to strengthen our firearms laws to reduce gun violence.

Like Senator McKenzie, I know guns. I've lived with guns all my life. Guns were part of my trade, as is the case for the police force, hunters, farmers and many people. I've seen the best and the worst of guns, and I've seen them in places where they impact on society to an appalling degree. However, guns do have value in the right hands, and they have value for the right reasons. As to those who are legally entitled to carry guns and who are trained to use guns, there is no point at all in making the actions of those people, or implying that they are, in any sense illegal. We have a first-class record in this country, as every speaker so far has agreed—the Howard government's reforms in 1996 and the National Firearms Agreement. I don't support any more relaxing of firearms laws. I would not have a gun in my house, not because I hate guns, but because I have no use for guns—I'm not a sporting shooter—nor would I now use guns or need guns in what I do for a living.

We have our own example in Australia of crimes that are committed with guns. We have had massacres in this country. We have criminal use of guns. In the US, of course, we see examples on a daily basis of activities in schools related to gun crime and massacres at concerts, in bars and other places. But this is not in any way, shape or form the United States. Senator McKenzie gave us the statistics for the use of guns in murders—1.3 per 100,000 Australians, with knives and sharp implements being the main method of creating havoc and causing injury. The ability of a gun to cause death and injury is quite marked. That's why, having seen activities where this has occurred, we have strengthened our gun laws, and it's why we maintain their strength. Of course other implements that we would use in the house—knives, axes or metal bars—are available, but the difference between them and guns is quite dramatic. There is a great deal of logic in having strong firearms laws, and we already have them. A desire to have even more is very interesting. I keep on asking myself where the justification is, outside pure virtue signalling.

The Greens proposal is to strengthen firearms laws but not to remove guns. The question that I have is: is this is a generality? Are we saying we're going to remove all firearms? Are we going to say we're still going to accept certain firearms? We've all seen the basis of the National Firearms Agreement: a licence for each weapon, registered for each purpose, and owning guns is a privilege. To remove them from the hands of those who have a legitimate reason to use them and who use them as a legitimate tool is just plain silly. And any move to remove even more guns from our society is going to cost us. I ask: how much are we prepared to pay? We have reduced the risk of the use of gun violence, except for the trafficking of guns by criminals, to a reasonable level, to a world-standard level. If there is a solid business case for doing it, I certainly can't see it. This is merely virtue signalling. We need to know if there is a business case. We need to know what the risk is all about, and we need to know what we're getting for the money that we may have to pay. Are we wasting our time debating something which is now already decided? We have strong gun laws.

If the Greens want to be taken seriously, I would encourage them to produce a business case, to refine what they're talking about. There could be a case that, if you irrationally tighten up laws on guns and you force those guns underground, you in fact make the situation a lot worse.

Of course, we need to do this with the states and territories, and we all remember how difficult a process that is. We already have a National Firearms Agreement, and that is working. What the firearms trafficking bill is trying to do is to address the illegal trafficking of firearms by tough, mandatory penalties, not tighten the conditions under which the legal use of guns operate. We all agree that penalties are a deterrent. Labor has agreed in the past that penalties are a deterrent, and that's certainly part of the bill. Mandatory sentences have a role in deterring crime, and society has a right to express its judgement on the seriousness of what they consider to be a crime.

The Greens have now brought this motion into the House. They've asked for it to be discussed. It would be very good if they were prepared to support the Criminal Code Amendment (Firearms Trafficking) Bill. I finish by saying that if the Greens are serious about strengthening firearms laws in order to reduce gun violence then they will support the firearms trafficking bill. I make the point that the coalition can be trusted in relation to gun laws.

4:51 pm

Photo of Lisa SinghLisa Singh (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Last Wednesday, tens of thousands of students walked out of schools across the United States. They did it in silence for 17 minutes—one minute for every victim of the Florida high school mass murder that had occurred exactly one month before. These children and families are joining the March For Our Lives movement. They will rally and take to the streets this Saturday in Washington DC to demand that their lives and safety become a priority and to demand that the United States ends the epidemic of mass shootings. Another school walkout is planned for 20 April, the 19th anniversary of Eric Harris's and Dylan Klebold's mass murder of their fellow students at Columbine High School in Colorado. Unfortunately, these students are walking out because they 'want to go to school without feeling afraid'.

There are countless other anniversaries of horrific mass shooting murders of schoolchildren in the United States. These students could observe those, like that of Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012, when 20 children in first grade and six teachers were shot dead. Australian children have not suffered the terror of a school shooting, and are, hopefully, unlikely to ever do so, thanks to then Prime Minister John Howard's '97 gun reforms.

The ten largest American gun manufacturers produce and sell more than eight million guns a year to US citizens. This is two-thirds of the US gun market, which is worth around $8 billion a year. The United States has a gun ownership rate seven times higher than Australia and a gun death rate that is 11 times higher. By virtue of the ease with which guns are accessible and the regularity with which they are used to kill US citizens, more than 1.5 million Americans have died in gun related incidents since 1968. According to Gun Violence Archive, 37,577 Americans were killed by a gun just last year. 732 were children and 3,234 were teenagers killed or injured with a gun. There were 346 mass shootings. The key statistics are increasing each year. This year alone, there have been 48 mass shootings in the United States, and we are only in March. 3,067 people who celebrated New Year's Eve in the United States have been shot dead by someone, and 140 children and 562 teenagers have been killed or injured this year. These statistics show very clearly that in the US gun violence has become part of their reality and that it occurs all too often. There has been one school shooting a week in the United States since 2013. Since that horrifying massacre in Florida, there have been four more school shootings. Just yesterday, there was another high school shooting in the United States, in the state of Maryland.

During our Prime Minister's recent visit to the United States, at a joint press conference with President Trump, very shortly after the Florida massacre, Prime Minister Turnbull made a calculated decision to reject the example of Australia's laws and what they could set and provide. Australia's laws weren't an appropriate model for potential US gun control, the Prime Minister said, because the US has:

… a completely different context historically, legally and so forth. They are very different countries with very different sets of problems.

Well, on the contrary; I believe Australia has a valuable legacy to share. We suffered an average of one mass shooting per year in the decade to 1996. Then we faced the Port Arthur massacre, where one Sunday afternoon in my home state of Tasmania 35 people were killed by one man. In one of the most courageous Australian political acts in recent memory, the newly-elected Liberal Prime Minister, John Howard, with the support of Nationals leader Tim Fisher launched a buyback and tightened laws around access to firearms, particularly rifles and shotguns. Following those Port Arthur gun reforms, there have been no mass shootings in this country, no mass shootings in Australia.

Our legacy is strong not only domestically but internationally as well. Australia is one of seven co-authors of the 2006 UN General Assembly resolution calling for an arms trade treaty to 'better regulate the conventional arms trade and to reduce the impact of armed violence on communities around the world'. The treaty entered into force on 24 December 2014. Australia has a record of action, achievement and safety that we should be offering to share internationally, but instead what are we doing? We're chipping away at it slyly by the actions of conservative governments run by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Premier Will Hodgman in Tasmania.

Our shadow Attorney-General, Mark Dreyfus, pointed out last week that Home Affairs Minister Dutton—Australia's would-be chief policeman and high interrogator—insidiously wants to put gun lobbyists on an advisory committee to review government firearms policy without any balance from gun control advocates. The shadow Attorney-General rightly pointed out that Peter Dutton, talking about putting gun lobby people on his advisory committee or Michael Keenan talking about removing red tape in gun regulation, is all 'just code for weakening the gun laws, allowing more powerful guns to be imported'. Australia needs to reverse this weakening of gun laws. We actually need more gun control, not a weakening of John Howard's legacy.

But, on top of that, we've had Premier Will Hodgman's government sneakily unveiling a policy to water down our gun laws in Tasmania that was only revealed in the media the day before the Tasmanian election, after the Liberal Party released its policy privately to a consultation group. It was not published on the Liberal Party website prior to the recent election; it was hidden. They were so ashamed of it that, even though they were doing it, they hid it. It is horrific and frightening and will breach the National Firearms Agreement.

According to Tim Fisher, who as Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the National Party was instrumental in helping John Howard make the case for Australia's strict gun control laws, this sort of NRA-type push by Dutton and Hodgman must be resisted—and, indeed, it must be. Last weekend, Mr Fisher said he was deeply concerned about the rise of NRA inspired lobbying and right-wing parties who are influencing pushback against our laws. He said:

… the core structure and content of the Howard gun reforms must not be done away with. Creep and corrosion of the core of the gun law reforms is a danger.

Indeed it is a danger. The only positive thing that survivor Peter Crosswell believes came out of the Port Arthur massacre was the change to Australia's gun laws. Paramedic Peter James can't believe that a responsible person would want to weaken our gun laws, especially in Tasmania. First responder Dr Brian Walpole feels betrayed and asked:

How can you trust a government that does this, sort of sneakily, just before an election?

Walter Mikac, whose entire family was murdered at Port Arthur, feels Will Hodgman's proposed changes to the gun laws are a total betrayal of those lost. He said:

It's about people having the most basic human right of being able to go about their day to day life without the risk that they are going to get killed.

Thanks to our gun laws, Australian citizens currently enjoy that right, unlike those poor American schoolchildren. Ours is a legacy we should be sharing and strengthening, and never, never undermining.