This is the second article in a three-part series on the formulation of Australia’s firearms policy.
Australian bipartisanship after Christchurch and Port Arthur
In the hours after the terrible 2019 Christchurch massacre, there was no daylight between the words of condemnation from Australia’s Liberal prime minister, Scott Morrison, and Labor opposition leader, Bill Shorten. ‘We condemn absolutely the attack that occurred today by an extremist, right wing, violent terrorist,’ said Prime Minister Morrison on 15 March 2019. ‘Australians and New Zealanders are brothers and sisters. So today we mourn for our New Zealand brothers and sisters,’ Opposition leader Bill Shorten said.
The Port Arthur massacre, too, drew a bipartisan response at the national level. That massacre rocked Australia to the core. On 9 May 1996, the federal Labor member for Denison in Tasmania, Duncan Kerr, rose in the House of Representatives to reflect on the killings in his home state. A former lawyer, judge and Minister for Justice from 1993 to 1996, Kerr gave his support to stricter gun control in Australia. He spoke of his grief and a sense of helplessness. He also spoke of the danger of returning to normality. Too often, after an initial outburst of concern, things would quiet down, and the 10% who opposed stricter gun-laws would apply political pressure on vulnerable politicians to stop reform.
‘I believe this historic opportunity is right before us,’ Kerr said. ‘The Prime Minister (Mr Howard), the Leader of the Opposition (Mr Beazley), the Attorney-General (Mr Williams), and the shadow Attorney-General (Senator Bolkus) should continue to make sure we walk in lock step so that there can be no cleavage between us, no point of weakness, where the gun lobby can enter and take advantage of that moment of weakness.’
Daryl Williams QC, the Liberal member for Tangney in Western Australia, was Australia’s Attorney-General. He welcomed the contribution from his learned friend the across the aisle. ‘The member for Denison mentioned the sequence of bursts of concern that have followed massacres such as Hoddle Street, Queen Street and Strathfield massacres. From the vantage of a week on, this one does seem different. The fact that the public has expressed across the country, across political party divisions, across state and territory boundaries, virtually unanimous support – to the extent that you can get that sort of measure in opinion polls – for banning automatic and semi-automatic weapons and for instituting a national gun register is a good measure of the public demanding action.’
Attorney General Williams maintained the mutual tone. ‘I welcome the opposition’s continuing bipartisan support for the strong stance taken by the Commonwealth.’ That stance was reflected in the 1996 National Firearms Agreement and associated legislation.
Tasmania moved quickly after Port Arthur
The Firearms Act 1996 (Tasmania) received Royal Assent on 30 August 1996. The preamble of the Act emphasises its bipartisan origins and character: ‘Whereas (a) following the tragic events which occurred at Port Arthur on 28 April 1996, the three political parties represented in the Parliament, namely the Australian Labor Party, the Liberal Party of Australia and the Tasmanian Greens, have agreed together that the laws relating to control of firearms in Tasmania should be consistent with the laws applying in other States and Territories of the Commonwealth of Australia; and (b) the Australian Police Ministers’ Council has adopted a set of resolutions specifying common standards which are applied to be applied in all States and Territories, and those three parties have agreed to support the implementation of those standards in Tasmania.’
A key element of the National Firearms Agreement was a $500 million gun buy-back scheme. As required under the Australian Constitution, the scheme would deliver ‘just compensation’ for gun owners, and it would result in the successful collection and destruction of over 650,000 firearms. On the unforgettable day in Sale, Prime Minister Howard fielded angry questions about the buyback from the crowd of about 3000 people. ‘What are you going to do when the money runs out…because your $500 million will go nowhere near the mark.’ ‘I find it rather disgusting that you state your government has no money for conservation but you’re prepared to throw in excess of $500 million on this exercise to advance your own agenda.’
Civil and rational
The 25 March 2019 episode of the ABC’s Q&A program (watch below) is now notorious for the claim made by Liberal Party vice president, Teena McQueen, that Jacinda Ardern had somehow copied John Howard in relation to gun control. But that same episode is important for other reasons, too, including a significant moment of genuine bipartisanship. Labor shadow minster for water and environment, Tony Burke, came to the defence of Greens Leader Richard Di Natale when McQueen accused him of hate speech.
‘I am going to defend Richard Di Natale in this,’ Burke said. ‘Absolutely. And there is an argument coming at the moment that is trying to establish an equivalence between somebody saying we need to have a “final solution”, we need to ban Muslims from the country, from people who describe Islam as a disease – and because they say that angrily – think it is the anger is the only thing that makes it hate speech. And if someone responds with some anger and a bit of passion – that is somehow hate speech too. It’s not. Yes – we will disagree on a whole range of issues – but to imply that somebody who is standing up against racism – is guilty of the same sort of hate speech as the people who we have allowed the hatred that we have seen in the last couple of weeks to fester, have a base, and be legitimised by so many people. It just doesn’t add up… It is fundamentally different.’
Another powerful instance of bipartisan amity had followed Senator Anning’s notoriously racist ‘final solution’ speech. Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull reached across the dispatch table in Parliament House to shake the hand of Labor opposition leader Bill Shorten. Around the same time, Liberal Josh Frydenberg hugged his close friend, Labor member Ed Husic.
And in another historic moment of bipartisanship on 3 April 2019, the Coalition Liberal-National Government joined forces with Labor and the Greens to condemn Senator Anning for ‘his inflammatory and divisive comments’ regarding the Christchurch terror attacks. The condemnation motion was moved by Senate Leader Mathias and the leader of the opposition in the Senate, Senator Penny Wong.
What unites us is greater than what divides us
Instances such as these ones, of cross-party rationality, decency and goodwill, are essential if Australia is to maintain national agreement on the gun laws that have had such a dramatic impact on public safety here.
Just as important is agreement on complementary laws that relate to political donations and that affect the integrity of our political discourse and the viability of our firearms consensus.
Those complementary laws, and the important differences between Australia and the US on gun laws and the power of the gun lobby, are the subject of Part 3 of ‘Lawyers, guns, money – and politics’.