This is the first article in a three-part series on the formulation of Australia’s firearms policy.
One of the most enduring images from Australian political history
It is 16 June 1996, just six weeks after the terrible Port Arthur massacre in which 35 people were killed and 23 wounded. Prime Minister John Howard is in Sale, Gippsland. Wearing a bullet-proof vest, he is addressing a crowd of shooters who are concerned about his new gun laws. The laws are a bipartisan triumph and one of Howard’s greatest policy achievements. The shooters are uneasy but Howard is resolute. “We believe,” he says, “that it is in the national interest that there be a dramatic reduction in the number of automatic and semi-automatic weapons in the Australian community.”
Parliament at its best
Australians often bemoan the behaviour of our elected officials – especially how they conduct themselves in question time. That time in parliament is called the bear pit, and the participants are likened to oblivious children, calling each other names in the schoolyard. “How many lawyers are in Australia’s Parliament? Too bloody many,” said five-time Walkley Award winning journalist Evan Whitton. (Sometimes lawyers make it to the very top. Whitlam worked as a barrister after the war. Howard was a commercial lawyer in Sydney before entering parliament. Julia Gillard and Malcolm Turnbull were both high-profile lawyers.) Yes, the number of lawyers in parliament is disproportionate compared to the whole Australian population. And yes, that could explain part of the fractiousness of parliament.
However, notwithstanding the argumentative spectacle of question time, there are many other times when our elected officials come together in the national interest. Bipartisanship is surprisingly common, and its impact is often felt for decades. The national interest and the security and safety of citizens are the best reasons for politics to be put aside. Gun laws will always be a contentious issue, but the post-Port Arthur bipartisanship, under John Howard’s prime ministership, as reflected in the 1996 National Firearms Agreement and subsequent legislation, was a landmark of politics and policy.
Tasmania moved quickly following Port Arthur
In Tasmania, the Labor Party, with Michael Field as its leader, quickly worked with the minority Liberal government (under premier Tony Rundle) and the Greens to legislate reforms to what had been some of the most-lax gun laws in Australia.
Not everyone, though, was onside for reform. Kerr also mentioned the sad irony that pressure for backsliding was coming out of the Liberal National Coalition Government in Victoria. He saw irony in this, because “in the struggles I was involved in, as police minister, to try to get uniformity, it was the Deputy Premier of Victoria, Pat McNamara [of the National Party], who was probably my strongest ally”. Graeme Campbell, the independent member for Kalgoorlie, spoke strongly against what he called Prime Minister Howard’s ‘knee-jerk’ gun law reforms, saying, ‘I find it very difficult to be in agreement with [Victorian Liberal premier] Kennett, but I believe he is right on this issue. I urge this House not to vote for this, although I know that is pretty hopeless because of smug, sickening bipartisanship”.
Australia found itself at the fork in the road on guns
Follow the American gun-barrel highway or not? In 1994, out of an American population of 250 million, 39,250 people died in the US from firearms. In stark contrast, the UK and Japan – with a combined population of 181 million at the time – had just over 100 firearm deaths. In 2017, there were 39,773 gun deaths in the US – up for the third consecutive year. This figure included deaths from 346 mass shootings, among them the terrible Las Vegas massacre in which 59 people died.
In July 2018, the Royal Australian College of Surgeons (RACS) released a statement saying, “in the 18 years prior to the introduction of these gun laws, there were 13 mass shootings in Australia – 104 victims killed. Since their introduction, there has been only one mass shooting, in Margaret River. Australia acted and produced successful legislation to reduce mass killings by firearms. It has worked and continues to work.”
“Jacinda Ardern is copying [John Howard] exactly,” said Liberal Party vice president Teena McQueen in a remarkable performance on the ABC’s Q&A program on Monday 25 March 2019. Did Ardern copy? Not exactly. Without detracting from the great leadership John Howard showed in reforming Australia’s gun laws, which are now a model for the world, Prime Minister Ardern secured her own place in history with the leadership she showed in the wake of the Christchurch massacre. At the time of writing, New Zealand has announced a ban on military-style semi-automatic guns and assault weapons of the type used in the massacre. Prime Minister Ardern said of the ban, “It is in the national interest and it is about safety”.
Ardern’s announcement of the ban was immediately endorsed by the opposition National Party and the NZ Federated Farmers (NZFF). NZFF spokesman Miles Anderson conceded, “This will not be popular among some of our members”. Keeping in mind the history of John Howard’s gun reforms, Prime Minister Ardern knows she must move quickly before there is any kind of gun-lobby backlash. She wants the new laws passed through the NZ Parliament within three weeks.
Keeping the peace
Organised conflict is fundamental to our system of law and government. It determines the physical shape of our courts and our parliaments. The standard Westminster chamber is a squashed colosseum in which two dominant parties battle it out. In the middle of the legislative assembly of Victoria’s state parliament, the dispatch table is one-and-a-half sword lengths wide – so, in the heat of debate, one party’s champion cannot reach across and run his or her counterpart through.
Good policy, though, depends on political cooperation in the national interest. John Howard, Australia’s second-longest-serving prime minister, led Australia through one of the most bipartisan moments in our history. Agreement on this issue has to be maintained. To lose bipartisanship on guns would be to kill a mockingbird.