This is the third article in a three-part series on the formulation of Australia’s firearms policy.
In May 1996, just three days after the Port Arthur tragedy, Prime Minister John Howard invited Kim Beazley and Cheryl Kernot to join him on a visit to the site of the massacre. Beazley was Labor opposition leader; Kernot was leader of the Australian Democrats, the dominant crossbench party in the Senate. Prime Minister Howard’s aim was to build and keep consensus for gun reform. His reasoning reflected his deep political experience:
‘One thing I’ve known about politics for a long time, is that when you inherit a lot of political capital, you can be certain of one thing, it will deplete. Now, you either deplete it through doing something effective, or you just watch it deplete. Because it will deplete. It’s a law of nature.’
Howard’s ‘something effective’ in this case was a package of gun law reforms and a national agreement that would help protect Australians for years to come, and that would prove to be a core part of his political legacy.
In America, the National Rifle Association (NRA) is an unashamedly powerful player in state and national politics. The nonpartisan Centre for Responsive Politics estimated that, during the 2016 federal election, the NRA and its affiliates spent $54 million to secure Republican control of the White House and Congress, including at least $30.3 million to help elect Donald Trump. Right now, the state of North Carolina is proposing to relax gun laws to allow teachers to carry firearms in schools – and the NRA is a conspicuous participant in the associated political debate.
On 26 March 2019, our ABC replayed Al Jazeera’s hard-hitting piece, ‘How to Sell a Massacre’, in which actor-turned-journalist Roger Muller pretended to represent a non-existent, pro-gun lobby group Gun Rights Australia. Al Jazeera captured Steve Dickson, the state leader of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party, boasting how easy it was to change regulations.
‘You just do anything. I was changing shit all the time. It was great,’ he said. As a member of the Liberal National Party of Queensland, Dickson had been Minister for National Parks, Recreation, Sport and Racing under Premier Newman. In 2017, he resigned from the Liberal National Party over the issue of medicinal cannabis. On 28 March 2019, ABC and Al Jazeera revealed further damning footage that showed One Nation leader Pauline Hanson appearing to suggest the Port Arthur massacre was part of a conspiracy. That suggestion drew quick condemnation from victims’ families and the major political parties.
The gun lobby in Australia is nowhere near as big as in the US, but it still contributed more than $500,000 during the 2017 Queensland election (helping the Katter Australia Party and One Nation in particular). In the 2018 Victorian election, the Shooting Industry Firearms Association (SIFA) employed NRA-style tactics in a $200,000 ‘Not Happy Dan’ campaign, which asked people to put Labor last and vote for pro-gun politicians. The shooters’ party had only one of two members re-elected at the Victorian election, but they did better in the recent NSW state election.
Tasmania was again at a fork in the road on guns
In 2018, Tasmanian Liberal Premier Will Hodgman, a former barrister and solicitor, announced a proposed loosening of gun laws – and then back-tracked. On the eve of the March 2018 Tasmanian election, the controversial policy came to light. The Liberal Government said it would relax gun laws to support sporting shooters and help farmers get better access to their ‘tools of the trade’. (Apart from the merits of the policy, this episode raised important questions about the electoral process. Given that one in two voters cast their ballot before election day, should the Electoral Commission require all policies to be on the table and costed when the pre-poll booths are opened?)
Following the re-election of the Liberals, Tasmania’s former Liberal Premier Tony Rundle, who introduced the gun laws in 1996, was instrumental in getting the 2018 Liberal Government to maintain the laws. ‘I’m not in favour at all of watering down the gun laws in any shape or form,’ he said. On 17 August 2018, Liberal Premier Will Hodgman announced the proposal to wind back the gun laws had been abandoned, saying ‘there are deeply held concerns about public safety, and in an area as important to Tasmanians as gun laws, public confidence in our laws is essential.’
Keeping political donations in check
Australia’s current federal political funding and donations rules were first legislated in 1983. They provided for a system of public funding for political parties; disclosure of the sources of funding; and requirements for candidates and parties to record campaign expenditures. The Electoral Commission was established as an independent statutory authority. The funding and donations regime has largely remained in place as it was first conceived and with broad support across politicians and the wider community. There have, however, been exceptions.
On 17 August 2017, the Senate established the cross-party Select Committee into Political Influence of Donations. Chaired by Greens leader Richard Di Natale, the committee recommended caps on donations and greater transparency, as ‘key to saving our democracy from big business influence’. The recommendations did not receive bipartisan support. However, in November 2018, the national parliament passed laws banning foreign donations. The ban received bipartisan support from the major parties – and even One Nation voted for it.
The best and the worst
In Australia as in the US, the recent political history of gun laws and associated legislation shows the best and the worst of how parliamentary democracies can function.
Our political system is built on a foundation of conflict and partisanship, but effective policy and the public good depend on cooperation and agreement in the national interest.
Guns are an emotive issue, and the power of pro-gun interests has the potential to pervert our political conversation. Maintaining the viability of our national consensus on guns requires that we invest in the integrity of that conversation, and reward instances of political rationality and amity.