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Transcript of the Prime Minister the Hon John Howard MP joint press conference with the State and Territory premiers and Chief Ministers, Parliament House, Canberra.
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6 December 2002

TRANSCRIPT OF THE PRIME MINISTER THE HON JOHN HOWARD MP JOINT PRESS CONFERENCE WITH THE STATE AND TERRITORY PREMIERS AND CHIEF MINISTERS,

PARLIAMENT HOUSE, CANBERRA

Subjects: COAG » meeting; handguns; water rights

E&OE…………………………………………………………………………………

PRIME MINISTER:

Well ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to brief you on the just completed « COAG » meeting. I should explain the Premier of New South Wales because of the deteriorating fire situation in and around Sydney has returned already. And I’m very pleased to announce that we’ve had a very successful « COAG » meeting. The most important area of agreement has been in relation to a very significant strengthening of laws across Australian in relation to handguns.

The « COAG » meeting has endorsed the 28 resolutions made by the Australasian Police Ministers' Council, and it’s been agreed that the legislative and administrative measures should be in place by the 30th of June next year. In two important respects the « COAG » decision has gone further than the police ministers. We’ve agreed that handguns will be limited to a maximum of 0.38 calibre except for specially accredited sporting events where handguns up to 0.45 will be permitted and details of that will be worked out quickly and endorsed by a committee of officials to report to « COAG » . There has been consultation between the Minister for Police and Customs and sporting shooters' organisations.

We’ve also noted the importance of removing easily concealable handguns from the community and as a result we’ve gone further than recommended by the police ministers in one other area, and we’ve agreed that semi-automatic handguns with a barrel length of less than 120 millimetres, and revolvers and single shot handguns with a barrel length of less than 100 millimetres will be prohibited. Highly specialised target pistols, some of which have a barrel length of less than 120 millimetres will be allowed.

PRIME MINISTER

Could I say that this is a very important step to making the streets of Australia safer. I want to thank the Premiers and Chief Ministers for the highly cooperative spirit and the united approach that’s come out of this meeting. Issues involving the safety of the population should always be above any differences of the partisan kind and that has provend to be the case. We reached what I regard as an eminently reasonable understanding relating to the cost. There will be a buyback, there will be an amnesty of both legal and illegal guns. And the buyback will be funded initially from the $15 million which is left over from the buyback monies from the post Port Arthur buyback, and the rest the Commonwealth will meet two-thirds and the states one-third. And I think it’s a very good arrangement. We were very keen at the Commonwealth level to see the tightest possible laws. The Premiers and Chief Ministers endorsed that approach and we have reached a very happy understanding but importantly it’s an extremely good outcome for Australia and this is particularly important for people who are worried about crime and worried about the danger to their children and to themselves. And I’ve frequently said and I’ll say it again today there are many things I admire about America but one thing I do not admire about the United States is their gun culture and I will do everything I humanly can to make sure that culture never seeps into Australia and spreads into the streets of Australia. I think the ready availability of handguns is a curse in our kind of society and the more that we can all do to take them out the better.

Could I report that we had a very good discussion on counter-terrorism and security matters. We’ll be issuing a communique. We also dealt with matters relating to water rights. We’ve agreed to circulate the « COAG » paper of « COAG » officials and that matter obviously will be discussed again at a subsequent meeting of « COAG » .

But I’d like to thank my colleagues, Premiers and Chief Ministers. The last time we sat around here I think was stem cells legislation and it’s coincidental that only yesterday the Senate passed the legislation and I think that was a very good example of Commonwealth/State cooperation and that’s what the Australian people want. They want these issues tackled cooperatively and we’ve been able to do that and we’ve done it again today with handguns and I think the Australian people will welcome the result.

PREMIER BRACKS:

Could I just add a couple of comments to the Prime Minister’s assessment of « COAG » today. It was an excellent « COAG » meeting. Very productive, very cooperative and agreement was reached on almost every item associated with the « COAG » agenda. Can I also indicate that the decision made on handguns is an important decision for the nation and a very important decision also for Victoria. That means effectively that there's going to be 20 % less handguns now available as a result of a buy-back, restrictions on some calibres and some types of guns, the handing in of handguns and the buy-back of those handguns. That takes out of circulation about 20 % of the current handguns that are circulating around our community currently. I think this is a stunning outcome, a very good outcome, when you think that the Police Ministers were, at some stage, recommending a different option which would have meant about 6 % reduction in handguns. The Prime Minister, the Territory leaders and the Premiers agreed today we should lift that to 20 % and to make it a tougher and a

harder regime that's important for the safety of our community and I think it's one which we can all be proud of and I'm very pleased to be a part of that today.

RANN:

Say on behalf on South Australia that I think that we would have let down the people of Australia today if we hadn't have come out with a very strong agreement for a major toughening up of the rules relating to handguns. Every Australian that I meet wants a safer Australia, particularly in regard to recent events. So this is a substantial, and I think a historic, agreement between the Federal Government of the States and Territories to limit, as Steve Bracks said, a 20 % reduction in the number of handguns available in Australia with a range of other restrictions. In South Australia, we are actually doing some other things, we are converting firearms offences that are summary offences into much more serious offences with very hefty penalties and times in jail. We're also taking action in relation to outlaw motorcycle gangs. All of us, I think, would be concerned by the fact that so much crime in Australia seems to come out of outlaw motorcycle gangs who build fortresses in our cities and we've just announced legislation that will allow, with the arrangements with the Police Commissioner, for us to bulldoze bikie fortresses. So this is across the board, I think, a major step forward to make Australia a safer place.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard and Mr Bracks, you say that 20 % of guns are going to be removed but both of you wanted stronger plans - 27, 30 % of guns. Is this in any way watered down what you have…?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, it's not.

JOURNALIST:

A stronger option originally.

PREMIER BEATTIE:

No.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Rann, can I ask if you support today's decision…

PRIME MINISTER:

Who are you talking to?

JOURNALIST:

Mr Rann. Why did South Australia originally refuse to sign onto that agreement at the Police Ministers meeting?

PREMIER RANN:

This is a different agreement on a different area. I mean, what we've done is actually now reached a different funding formula which we're now happy with and also, of course, there has been an understanding between us on how it will apply. As I said, the people of Australia did not want to see Premiers and Prime Ministers and Chief Ministers disagreeing on something of such fundamental importance such as the safety of Australians. So, you know we think that a very good agreement has come out of this both in terms of the nature and the extent of the buy-back and also the funding arrangements.

BEATTIE:

To answer your question, everyone acted here today in the national interest. Yes, there were various models consulted, but when we sat down we wanted to act in the national interest. And these issues are difficult. I mean, I know in parts of Queensland there'll be some people who may have some criticism, but I appeal to all those people regardless of where they are to think about the national interest because the people who lose today are the criminals, the people who have illegal handguns. We're talking about concealed handguns and frankly, I agree with the Prime Minister. I think that is simply unacceptable in a civilised society to have people with concealed handguns who are not involved in some law enforcement agency.

JOURNALIST:

The Prime Minister threatened to put a curse on Queensland New South Wales and South Australia over its intransigence over this matter. I mean, have relations gotten better since then?

PRIME MINISTER:

… a colouful phrase…

PREMIER BEATTIE:

… Well let me put it in these terms. I've never felt way about the Prime Minister. He's always…

PRIME MINISTER:

No, no.

PREMIER BEATTIE:

He's always been very warm in relation to Queensland and I know it's one of his favourite places…

PRIME MINISTER:

It is.

PREMIER BEATTIE:

And I'm hoping to encourage him to holiday very recently.

PRIME MINISTER:

Queensland treats me very well, too, so…

PREMIER BEATTIE:

[inaudible] I’m not quite sure…

JOURNALIST:

In terms of the amnesty, what period are we talking about and do you have any estimates on what the totality the buy-back might be in terms of the cost?

PRIME MINISTER:

The amnesty's from the 1st of July 2003 until the 1st of January 2004. The estimates vary quite a lot. I'm not going to at this stage commit myself to a precise figure, I'm really not going to do that. They do vary a lot. Could I just take up the point that Phil Hudson asked about watering down, our position always was that providing you could have a sensible discipline carve-out for genuine sporting shooters you should get rid of the rest and that's essentially what's happened.

PREMIER BRACKS:

Could I just add on to those comments from the Prime Minister to talk also that a resolution today is almost three times as strong as that which was recommended by the Police Minister. This is toughened up. This is 20% of handguns coming out of the community. This is a very strong robust regime and one which makes us much safer.

PRIME MINISTER:

It does go, in two important respects, significantly beyond the Police Ministers' recommendation. I mean, that is the point.

JOURNALIST:

How many types of handguns? The Police Ministers have previously discussed it in numbers of types, how many types of handguns will be banned and do you know how many individual guns?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think we are banning some hundreds, I think about 350, 300 - 350.

PREMIER BEATTIE:

But it doesn't remove though - we need to be really clear - it doesn't remove the competitiveness for Olympic gold medallists or Commonwealth gold medallists to get on and be internationally competitive and that's the strength. It protects the community but allows our athletes to be able to compete and train.

JOURNALIST:

[Inaudible] last Police Ministers' meeting looked at an option of up to 400 types of handguns. Do you believe that the argument over funding effectively ruled that off the table?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, in the end the funding thing did not result in a weaker arrangement. Can I make that clear. It would be wrong of anybody to go away from here thinking that in some way because of money we ended up with a weaker regime. We ended up with a regime that does exactly what Peter Beattie said. It takes the guns away from people who shouldn't have them other than those who want to engage in Olympic, Commonwealth Games and other recognised sporting shooting events. And that was the template that I had in mind when I started talking about this a couple of months ago and I’m personally very happy with this outcome. It's beyond the Police Ministers. It's tougher than what they recommended and I think it will be very widely welcomed in the community. But the sporting shooters have been properly accommodated and I think any reasonable sporting shooter will see this as a fair outcome. There will be some people unhappy with it, that's always the case, but I think by and large a reasonable sporting shooter will say, well, in an ideal world we might have wished it hadn't happened but we don't live in an ideal world, we have lunatics in the community, criminals, who want to use guns and the Governments have done the right thing by the public but they've also given us an opportunity to continue our sport under proper conditions and restrictions. And I think that is the sensible outcome and it's an outcome that Australians will welcome.

JOURNALIST:

What progress was made on water property rights reform?

PRIME MINISTER:

I beg your pardon?

JOURNALIST:

Water property rights reform, what progress was made?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, we discussed the issue. There's obviously a range of views on it. The concrete things to come out of today's meeting is that we've agreed to circulate the paper prepared by the Chief Executives' « COAG » paper and that details a possible water rights regime. We'll be seeking reaction on that. That was something that we always knew would need to be the procedure. There are a range of views on it and obviously there will be debate in the future on funding. The Commonwealth put on the table a paper outlining its position. That was noted but obviously not agreed at this stage. I didn't expect it to be and I didn't seek agreement for it but it's certainly on the table. Our position is known. The Premiers made their contributions and outlined the approaches they were taking. This is a difficult issue. I think we've made a good start. I think there's a recognition of the need to have, I think, a nationally compatible approach. There will be debate about points at which compensation becomes payable. There'll be some who will say it should be the certain point, others will say it should be a later. We haven't attempted to reach agreement on that but we've opened the batting and scored a few runs and haven't lost any wickets. So I think that's a good start.

PREMIER BEATTIE:

Sorry, before we do this can I just answer your question on this, because you initially raised it with me, I’m sorry, I just want to make it clear. I’m not complaining Prime Minister, there are times when I prefer these questions to go to you Prime Minister and this one, in fact I’d like to refer a few more your way. But Prime Minister there are just two points I want to make in this, Queensland’s obviously signed off on this issue in terms of the « COAG » agreement today and the communique, we have clear views on it but there are two things that are not understood properly in my view. One is that we do need to have, if we’re going to have reform in relation to water and salinity, and the Prime Minister’s led in the relation to the issue of salinity and the states have signed up previously to support the Prime Minister’s initiative in salinity. But we need to maintain clear ability to bring about reform and to do it in a way that protects the environment, to give blanket property rights in my view at an early stage without those reforms would deny that. Secondly, and I want to make this very clear 'cause this is not understood in this debate, we have in Queensland and other states have the same thing, particularly New South Wales, water resource management plans which are for a period of time, for example 10 years. If there is any alteration to the water allocation during those 10 years then people are entitled to compensation, now that is guaranteed by legislation, my government bought that in recently, the Prime Minister’s made the point about the need for that to be done at a national level and for co-ordination and I share his view about it. But don’t anyone think that there is not already in place as part of water resource management strategies appropriate compensation if those plans are put in place that are environmentally and socially sustainable.

JOURNALIST:

What will be the penality for continuing to have these guns after the amnesty’s over?

PRIME MINISTER:

Severe. I think there are some jail terms aren’t there? Yes there will be some jail terms. Look I just can’t tell you precisely, there will be very severe penalties. If they’re not severe enough there’ll be made even more severe.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister does this ban include those models of guns used in the Monash shootings.

PRIME MINISTER:

I think it takes out all but one or two.

JOURNALIST:

… Premiers and Chief Ministers believe they have an obligation under competition policy to compensate farmers for lost water rights?

BRACKS:

Well the question’s premature.

PREMIER BEATTIE:

Cause this is being evaluated now, the discussion papers are being released, we all express views, that’s an issue for the future, I’ve already spelled out my answer to you.

JOURNALIST:

Does that mean no?

PRIME MINISTER:

No look I agree with my two colleagues, on both the left and the right, that this, that is premature, we have as I said opened the batting on it and we’ll just see how the game progresses, but we’ve started.

JOURNALIST:

John Anderson wasn’t allowed to come to the wicket, were you disappointed that the other leaders wouldn’t let him in the room?

PREMIER BEATTIE:

Oh look the basic decision was that we felt that the whole « COAG process is focused around the leaders and it’s no discourtesy to John, that’s a very important principle, I have a high regard for John personally, it’s no discourtesy to him, it’s the process and this is where leaders sit down.

JOURNALIST:

Given they’ve got a clean sweep of the states, do you think it was a little churlish of them to lock Mr Anderson out?

PRIME MINISTER:

Look, I’m in furious agreement with everybody and most particularly the Deputy Prime Minister and there’s no more a gracious and courteous person in public life. But you know Peter’s expressed the view of the Premiers and a very non- rancorous meeting.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Beattie, has Mr Anderson’s contribution to this debate been helpful?

PRIME MINISTER:

Are you talking to me?

JOURNALIST:

No Mr Beattie.

PRIME MINISTER:

Mr Anderson’s contributions are always helpful.

JOURNALIST:

No Mr Beattie.

PREMIER BEATTIE:

Of course he is, you’ve got to remember this is an open society, it’s a democracy, people are entitled to express their views. What we’re simply trying to do here is to manage a very complex issue in a structure way which is what’s been agreed today. You’ve got to remember this issue is close to the heart of a lot of people but we want to have long-term land management strategies which are sustainable. What’s forgotten in this debate is, and I don’t see it in any of the reports people write about this, and I say this with respect to all of you, that we have already legislated for compensation provided there was a water resource plan in place that takes into regard not just social implications but environmental implications for the future. Now no-one can sensibly suggest to me in an arid nation that we should pursue plans and strategies that don’t take into account river flows, land use, salinity, I mean that would be simply insane. Now we want to keep appropriate powers in place until we get the reforms to protect the land.

[ends]