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The Coalition's completely bewildering about-face on gun violence

Speeches in Parliament
Penny Wright 18 Jun 2015

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (18:05):  by leave—I move: That the Senate take note of the report.

As the Chair of the Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee, I am very pleased to speak to the tabling of the committee's report entitled Ability of Australian law enforcement authorities to eliminate gun-related violence in the community. The majority report of this committee is a sensible, considered look at the issue of illicit firearms in Australia and ways to monitor their prevalence and prevent their use.

Then we have the highly politicised minority report, co-signed by Liberal Party and National Party senators together with Senator David Leyonhjelm. It is an ideological document which does little to address the terms of reference of this inquiry but everything to promote the gun industry and shooters. Their report—disingenuously titled Report by a majority of senators attending the inquiry—omits and avoids the most pertinent evidence  and presents spin and convoluted logic that would be more at home in the United States. In fact, it seems to have been directly lifted from the extreme National Rifle Association's playbook.

I will state again for the record that the focus of this inquiry was on illicit firearms in Australia, with consideration of registered firearms only in so far as they are a source for the black and grey markets. Let me start by acknowledging, that many firearms owners abide by firearms laws in Australia. They are decent Australian citizens who own and use a firearm in compliance with the law. However, it would be naive to suggest that all registered firearms owners abide by the law all of the time, or that no firearms owners have relationships with or connections to people who seek to use firearms for illicit purposes. We also cannot ignore the issues with the current firearms regulation scheme which became very evident in the course of the inquiry.

The committee's real majority report made a number of recommendations, and anyone who has read them and considered the evidence upon which they are based will see that they are logical and sensible—designed to respond to the evidence and make Australia safer. It is a central finding of this inquiry that more needs to be done to address gun crime in Australia and that all levels of government need to be better resourced and to work together better to reduce crime caused by illegal weapons. As such, some of the majority recommendations included: a rolling gun amnesty; nationally consistent regulation of firearms laws; and continued monitoring of the risks posed by 3D-printed weapons.

One of the most alarming themes to emerge from this inquiry is that no-one is really sure how many illicit firearms there are amongst the more than three million guns in Australia. With estimates of around 260,000 illicit firearms in Australia, the majority of the committee accepted the Australian Crime Commission's evidence that this a conservative estimate.  We consistently heard that a staggering lack of reliable data and national inconsistencies are hampering our ability to better understand and address the black and grey markets. On the basis of this evidence, the majority of the committee made further important recommendations for additional funding to allow programs such as the National Firearms Monitoring Program and the Firearm theft in Australia series to continue on an ongoing basis. We also recommended funding for the Australian Institute of Criminology to conduct a review of current data collection and reporting arrangements. The Australian Greens believe that better data and getting all levels of government speaking the same language and sharing information will help tackle the illicit firearms trade and make our streets safer. It is a straightforward position.

What is not at all straightforward, and in fact it is completely bewildering to me, is the position of the minority senators on this issue. Throughout the inquiry they challenged the evidence about illegal guns and questioned the data at every point. But then they opposed any further funding for new research and new, more reliable data. At 1.213 of their report, they specifically stated that the Australian Institute of Criminology 'should not receive additional funding for further research programs.' Why would it be that Senators McKenzie, Leyonhjelm, Reynolds and Macdonald do not want any further research into where illicit firearms come from? Could it be that every single agency that has looked into this issue has come up with information they do not like? Despite this, Senator McKenzie, in particular, has insisted on making claims about the evidence, and about me, that have now been fact-checked by ABC Fact Check and found to be baseless. Anyone who is interested can easily find the conclusions of that vigorous process which looked at the claims of Senator McKenzie.

The evidence is clear: firearm theft from registered owners is a significant contributor to the number of illicit firearms on Australian streets. Like it or not, it is true. Indeed, a report by Customs found the Australian illicit firearms market is predominantly comprised of firearms diverted from licit domestic sources. Firearms tracing found that less than one per cent of firearms traced were illegally imported. This finding is broadly backed by research from the Australian Crime Commission and the Australian Institute of Criminology. But these rogue senators insist that the majority of illegal guns come across the seas! They recite the term 'porous borders' many times. You will not find them backing the collection of data that could establish whether this is the case or not. Why could that be?

I want to acknowledge that international gun trafficking is a serious concern and there is more that can be done on this front. There is no doubt about it. But it would seem naive to think that we can only address illegal gun crime by looking at importation. I do not think the minority senators on the committee are naive at all. I think they are being wilfully blind, and it is clear that they have certain political and personal reasons for doing so. The so-called 'majority of senators attending the inquiry' are self-proclaimed barrackers for the gun industry and shooters. I have no issue at all with politicians standing up for their constituents. But I do draw the line at deliberately distorting facts, misrepresenting evidence and personally attacking those who do not agree with them. It is a disservice to the Australian public and ultimately discredits the arguments that they make.

Unlike others, the Australian Greens believe in addressing gun violence from every angle. We need to tackle this issue at our borders and in our community. I had thought the majority recommendations—the recommendations made by me and the majority on the committee—were straightforward, sensible and uncontroversial. I genuinely did. So I was extremely surprised to see coalition senators on this committee blatantly prepared to put the interests of the gun lobby ahead of everyday Australians. Their report represents a significant about-face in the coalition's approach to gun ownership and crime. They are in closer agreement with the extreme views of Senator David Leyonhjelm than the views of John Howard. In their report they set out to undermine the view that the Howard-era gun buyback policy was a success, and they recommend further deregulation of the firearm industry. When the coalition came to government, they assured us all we would not see any softening on gun laws as a nod to Senator Leyonhjelm's crossbench power. But these coalition senators are not just nodding; they are prostrating themselves before the gun lobby. Inexplicably, they even challenged the findings of the Prime Minister's own investigation with the New South Wales government into the Sydney Martin Place siege and the recommendations it made to enhance state and federal cooperation on gun crime.

In closing, I want to thank the secretariat of the Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee, and Leah Ferris in particular, for working their usual magic, organising and collating, in this case, masses of evidence and negotiating a difficult and protracted committee process with grace and patience. Special thanks must go to secretary Sophie Dunstone, who went above and beyond to get the report over the line. Thank you also to those who made submissions and gave evidence at the hearings, even those who were hostile to the very idea of a Senate inquiry into illicit firearms in Australia and consistently questioned the legitimacy of inquiring into what the Australian Greens believe is a public interest matter.

I would like to conclude by saying that illegal weapons have caused terrible tragedies in almost every Australian capital city in the last few years. The Australian Greens firmly believe that more can be done to reduce gun crime. We have made a number of those recommendations in this report; and there are more recommendations, such as the banning of semi-automatic handguns, in our policy documents online. We are firmly committed to getting illegal guns off our streets and making our communities safer.

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