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Monday, 17 June 1996
Page: 2013


Ms WORTH(8.44 p.m.) —The Medicare levy is imposed on the taxable income of people who are residents of Australia for income tax purposes and is collected in association with income tax. The levy is currently set at 1.5 per cent of taxable income and will increase to 1.7 per cent for one year as a one-off moneys collection scheme to fund the compensation scheme which the states and territories will be required to pay gun owners as the nationwide ban on semiautomatic firearms comes into effect.

The Medicare levy is not payable below certain income levels and shade-in ranges also apply. In 1995-96, the low income threshold is $12,870 for individuals and $21,718 for couples and sole parents. There is an additional threshold with each child so that, for example, a family with three children and a taxable income below $28,000 will not pay the Medicare levy in 1995-96.

Since that terrible Sunday afternoon at Port Arthur on 28 April, the debate about gun ownership in Australia has gone through at least two stages. After the initial shock felt around Australia came discussion on how best to deal with the availability of certain types of firearms in the Australian community. This included technical debate on what constituted a semiautomatic firearm and how gun owners were to be compensated.

To his credit, the Prime Minister (Mr Howard) moved quickly on the issue. After dialogue with state authorities, they came to an historic agreement to ban all semiautomatics except in some exceptional circumstances and to fund the buyback of these weapons with a one-off increase in the Medicare levy. The Medicare Levy Amendment Bill provides the Commonwealth with the finances to make good on its commitment to take these firearms out of the community.

Since the agreement with the states, however, the debate on gun ownership has expanded to incorporate discussions over the threat to civil liberty and the right to bear arms. To some degree, the debate has been appropriated by a vocal and extremist minority. It is this development in the debate which I would like to address tonight.

The right to bear arms in Australia is an implied right. It is not enshrined in the constitution, as it is in the United States. This implied right to bear arms is not inalienable but confirmed by this country's tolerance of gun ownership in the past and is enshrined in state and Commonwealth law.

Unlike America, the necessity of owning a firearm has not been translated into an inalienable right. The reason for that difference is that the history and cultural development, especially in regard to gun ownership, of Australia and America differ dramatically. I believe that the radical elements within the gun owning community would do best to keep this in mind when they next contribute to the current discussion on gun ownership.

Let me say from the outset that any attempt to locate the existence or necessity of a dominant gun culture in Australia's history is a farce. Although the tragedy of colonisation for indigenous Australians has many unfortunate episodes, such as the 1928 Coniston massacre in which 70 Aboriginals were gunned down, relative to the United States the gun has played only a small part in the development of this country.

The scale of the Indian wars in North America, for example, surpasses anything experienced in Australia. Modern America was founded upon the often brutal suppression of the indigenous people. The scale, duration and intensity of the conflict confirmed the firearm as a centrepiece of America's frontier culture. The status of the United States as an independent republic was guaranteed only after the War of Independence, which was waged against the British not by organised armies but most often by militia units armed with their own firearms.

The normalisation of gun ownership was considered an appropriate guarantee against tyranny and oppression from the colonial masters. Later, the modern boundaries of the United States were confirmed after conflict with Mexico. Perhaps most tragically of all, the American Civil War, which set the precedence for savagery in modern warfare, embarked America on a course which determined the modern culture and political make-up of that country.

America has had an undeniably violent past where the gun has played a crucial and central role. As such, the right to bear arms has been enshrined in the constitution despite the problems that the easy availability of firearms causes in the urban centres throughout the country. Currently in America 70 per cent of homicides are gun related.

But Australia has no such history, nor has it witnessed the physical scale of such human conflict. This country was pioneered not with the gun but with innovation and perseverance—mostly against Australia's harsh environment—of explorers, humanitarians and settlers. The modern Australian culture of multiculturalism, mateship and helping out the underdog is based on a history of tolerance, of openness to difference and persistence in times of hardship, drought and flood and fire, not upon the prolonged clash of cultures as seen in the United States.

A sticker in a Tasmanian gun shop states `God, Guns and Guts made Australia free'. Well, certainly guts helped, as did a good deal of self-help. The gun has only been involved in some of the more unfortunate episodes of Australia's history and has never contributed in peacetime to the improvement or development of modern Australian culture. There is simply no justification for gun culture in modern Australia. The gun is not, nor should it be, a fixture of Australian folklore.

Some of these unfortunate episodes continue today. Currently, one-third of all homicides take place within the family. Of these, one-third can be attributed to firearm deaths. In 1994, there were 79 firearm homicides, 420

firearm suicides and 20 accidental deaths from firearms. Recently, the National Committee on Violence concluded:

The vast majority of firearms homicides are unplanned and impulsive, and in all likelihood should not occur if such a lethal weapon were not to hand. The availability of a firearm in these circumstances makes death a far greater likelihood, for research has demonstrated that the death rate for victims assaulted by guns is seven times that of those assaulted with lethal intent by knives or other weapons.

I therefore fully support the statements by the AMA which have equated the Prime Minister's gun control initiatives with sound preventive medicine. As the Prime Minister has commented, this bill `represents an enormous shift in the culture of this country'.

Australia, as a sovereign nation, has chosen not to blindly follow where America has gone before. This is a decision to maintain Australia's separate and unique identity and Australia's culture is unique. Its colonised past and the more recent influence of multiculturalism and the success of integration make us a vastly different country to the United States. I believe that this bill is a sign of national maturity, particularly given the bipartisan support the agreement with the states has received from all major parties.

It is also interesting to note that Australia is a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Article 6 of the covenant states:

Every human being has the inherent right to life. This right shall be protected by law.

Shooters in Australia still have a vast array of weaponry to choose from. Bolt action rifles, the most common type of rifles, are still readily available, as are some types of shotguns. There is simply no practical need for semiautomatic firearms in this country. Indeed, military style rifles have only been available in Australia in significant numbers since the mid-1980s. I do not think it is a coincidence that the gun lobby also emerged about the same time.

Whilst acknowledging that many law abiding gun owners will be inconvenienced by this buyback, this bill is not a vehicle to remove guns completely from this community. It is a sensible attempt to ensure that the scale of bloodshed witnessed at Port Arthur is not repeated. High rates of fire and the large magazine capacity of these military style firearms allow rapid, indiscriminate firing at targets and require no mechanical action that allow a break in the mood of the operator.

Michelle Levine, a Melbourne businesswoman in the vicinity of the shooting at Port Arthur, recalled, `Shots came in bursts, as if he was hunting.' Another eyewitness, Jim Laycock, also recalls, `I just heard the gun going off repeatedly and she'—in reference to another of the gunman's victims—`didn't have a chance.' The gunman fired several hundred rounds from his centre-fire semiautomatic rifle. In a space of eight minutes, he managed to kill over 20 people and wounded many more at the Broad Arrow restaurant.

Currently, a semiautomatic assault rifle with detachable scope, bayonet and 30-shot banana clip will set you back about $500. Research conducted by the Parliamentary Library also notes:

. . . the ballistic characteristics of military style rifles also reduce their usefulness in roles other than those that they were designed for—that is, killing enemy soldiers.

As the Association of Professional Shooters says, no civil occupation or recreation in this nation lends itself to the need for rapid-fire as opposed to single-shot weapons. Yet Firearm Owners Association Vice President, Ian McNiven, assures us that gun control is a `brutal totalitarian attack on our fundamental freedoms', but at least in Australia the right to possess a firearm is neither a fundamental right nor a freedom. It is more so a privilege granted to individuals that needs to be consistently reassessed as social dynamics change around us. In the wake of Port Arthur, the time to redefine the terms of gun ownership is ripe. After talking to family members in the country, Sydney Morning Herald writer Sally Loanne reported:

People on the land, reasonable people who use single barrel shot-guns responsibly as one of their tools of the trade . . . are horrified that they have been lumped together with the loony, extremist fringe of the gun lobby . . . they wear flannel shirts and American baseball hats . . . On weekends they load up their arsenal and drive into the bush . . . They blast the daylights out of road signs, mailbox es and native birds . . . The sensible heartland of the bush, which has no use for military-style guns of any kind . . . is appalled . . . the views of sensible, mainstream rural Australia are reflected in the support of the Prime Minister's gun control proposals.

I must say that family members of mine in rural Australia hold exactly the same views.

It is known that the gun lobby is well organised and well financed and, whilst most shooter organisations are legitimate and are part of the democratic make-up of Australia, I would encourage all members of this House to remain focused on the issues at hand and not be intimidated by the gun lobby's more radical elements. As reported in the latest issue of the Bulletin magazine, only four per cent of those polled would vote against a political candidate if advised to do so by a gun group. Ninety-six per cent said they would not. Forty-three per cent responded that the gun lobby already wields too much political power. In an Age poll of over 2000 Australians conducted on 3 to 5 May this year, 90 per cent of those surveyed supported a national ban on all automatic and semiautomatic firearms. A recent article in Time pointed out:

Members and supporters of the Australian gun lobby who lament the so-called erosion of their `fundamental freedoms' should accept that all their rights, all their freedoms, flow from, the same founding principle—democracy. It says that the will of the majority will prevail. In the weeks since the Port Arthur killings the majority has spoken very clearly.

In a recent letter to the Sydney Morning Herald , Elyse Singleton of Lane Cove wrote:

I heard a member of the Queensland gun lobby complaining about the loss of freedom. Excuse me sir, but what about the freedom to eat one's lunch in a cafe or walk with one's daughter down the road unharmed?

The support shown by the mainstream political parties for tighter gun control is important. At the launch of a petition supporting uniform gun laws and the gun levy, which is incorporated in the bill before the House, the Prime Minister stated:

It is a rare event in Australian politics that brings together the leaders of the two major political parties . . . in a united commitment to a piece of legislation and a political Act, clearly designed to improve the future of this country. I can't think of an event in the 22 years that I've been in politics that has so galvanised the politic leadership of this country, has so brought together the major political parties of this country for a purpose which will achieve a permanent change for the better in the way in which this country conducts its affairs, and the circumstances on which the men and women of this country live out their lives.

A one-off increase in the Medicare levy to help rid the community of these weapons is a very pragmatic solution to a problem which is caught up in many moral and legal complexities. I agree with Michael McCabe from my electorate, who said in a recent letter to the Advertiser that he was happy to contribute to the nominated levy, which in his view was `more an investment than an expense'. It not only invests in public safety and the reduction in the menace these weapons present to the community but also distinguishes Australia as a nation determined to maintain its cultural and historical integrity. This bill is about working towards a safer Australia. I commend this bill to the House.