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Monday, 13 February 2017
Page: 610


Senator WONG (South AustraliaLeader of the Opposition in the Senate) (13:06): I rise to speak on the Criminal Code Amendment (Firearms Trafficking) Bill 2016 on behalf of the opposition and I indicate at the outset that, with amendments, the opposition will be supporting this bill. We welcome the chance to strengthen Australia's laws to combat firearms trafficking. There is a growing firearms problem in Australia, and there is growing gun crime in our communities. The Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission estimates that there are as many as 600,000 illicit firearms in the community. Once firearms fall into the illicit market, it is extremely difficult to get them back, and they can all too easily end up, as we know, in the hands of criminals, gangs and terrorists. We can and we must do more to tackle illicit firearms.

The Australian community rightly expects the government of the day to take responsible and effective steps to crack down on gun crime. On this measure, the government is failing the community. We saw this most clearly last year, when this government was at war with itself on firearms policy. It was a government so focused on its own internal division that it could not provide the leadership Australians expect their government to show on matters of community safety. Today we see the Turnbull government trying to distract the community from this division. When leadership is called for, what we see yet again is cheap politics. Instead of putting forward sensible measures which would address this problem, the government continues to put forward failed Abbott government measures in a desperate attempt to distract from the fact that it is hopelessly divided on guns.

The bill proposed by the government would see the introduction new mandatory minimum sentences of five years for the offences of trafficking firearms and firearms parts within Australia; and trafficking firearms and firearms parts into and out of Australia. It would also amend maximum penalties to imprisonment for 20 years or a fine of 5,000 penalty units or both. This is the third time that this Liberal government has attempted to introduce mandatory minimum sentences for firearms-trafficking offences. On each previous occasion, the Senate has wisely rejected such measures, and I ask the Senate to consider doing so again. The opposition has circulated an amendment to remove the mandatory minimum penalties in this bill. The reason for this is very simple: mandatory minimum sentences do not work. State prosecutors, including the directors of public prosecutions in New South Wales and Tasmania, have criticised them. The legal profession is opposed to them. Experts agree they are ineffective in making the community safer. One would have hoped that that is the measure that the government of the day should apply, not cheap politics.

In fact, in its very own document, A guide to framing Commonwealth offences, infringement notices and enforcement powers, the Attorney-General's own department says that mandatory sentences should be avoided. In that document, Senator Brandis's department states that mandatory minimum sentences interfere with judicial discretion to impose a penalty appropriate in the circumstances of a particular case; may create an incentive for a defendant to fight charges, even where there is little merit in doing so; preclude the use of alternative sanctions; and may encourage the judiciary to look for technical grounds to avoid a restriction on sentencing discretion, leading to anomalous decisions. And reviews of the implementation of such provisions confirm these concerns.

In December 2015, the Northern Territory Department of the Attorney-General and Justice published a review of the Northern Territory Sentencing Amendment (Mandatory Minimum Sentences) Act 2013. It was assessed that the introduction of mandatory minimum prison terms 'resulted in an increase in the length of time and number of court appearances required to finalise defendants who pled guilty, and may have contributed to a decrease in the percentage of defendants with a final guilty plea'. In other words, you tie up more of the court's time and get fewer outcomes. Not only do these measures drain precious law enforcement resources; they increase the chances of reoffending. It is therefore unsurprising that the government has been unable to provide any evidence in the EM to this bill to support the idea that mandatory minimum sentences for firearms trafficking will enhance or sustain Australia's firearm's control regime by deterring potential offenders.

Of course, this chamber and the Australian people have not forgotten that this government has been playing politics with our world-leading gun laws for more than a year. We all saw just how cynically the coalition could behave when we learnt that the government was trading guns for votes. Trying to use the mass importation of a rapid-fire lever-action for its own political gain has to be one of the low points over the last few years. It was a government willing to trade community safety for partisan advantage—a shameful episode. And, of course, when it suited them, the Turnbull government also welched on its deal with Senator Leyonhjelm. It broke its word to a senator and it failed in its most important duty: to ensure the safety of the Australian community.

Who can forget last year, when we saw Prime Minister Turnbull and his predecessor, Mr Abbott, openly contradict each other on the floor of the House of Representatives? Then, in this chamber, we saw the National Party split from the Liberals on the floor of the Senate, with cabinet ministers being very conveniently absent and Nationals senators voting to let a dangerous weapon into the country. On national television, we saw the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Joyce, contradict Mr Turnbull's position. And we saw members of the government, including Senator McKenzie, Senator Williams, the member for Parkes, the member for Flynn and the member for Moore all calling for a weakening of our gun laws. This bitter division on guns, the way this has played into the Liberal—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Gallacher ): Senator Wong, resume your seat. Senator Williams?

Senator Williams: I have just come into the chamber. I am just gobsmacked by the statement by Senator Wong.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: There is no point of order. Resume your seat, Senator Williams. Senator Wong.

Senator WONG: I suppose the truth hurts, Senator Williams. This bitter division on guns and this weakness of leadership and the division inside the government, which was played out so clearly on the floor of both the House and the Senate through that time has very real consequences. We have a government that is much more focused on internal division and on playing political games than on good, strong and effective policy. In fact, on this government's watch, a record number of weapons have flooded into the illicit market. The Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission estimates that 10,000 of the guns in the illicit market are handguns—the weapon of choice for gangs and criminals.

We can and must do more to stop guns flowing into the illicit market, whether it be through illegal importation, theft or other methods. And we can and must do more to find these guns and stop them being trafficked across state boundaries. The reintroduction of the ineffective measures that are set out in this bill, for a third time, is not amongst the appropriate responses. It is just an attempt to distract from the fact that we see a government still divided on guns.

The opposition has also circulated an amendment to introduce new aggravated firearms trafficking offences, with a maximum penalty of life in prison. I propose to expand on the detail of the amendment in the committee debate rather than in the second reading debate. Labor believe that the amendments we propose, comprising tough new aggravated offences, alongside the higher maximum penalty for the basic firearms trafficking offences in the bill, which we support, will send a clear message that gun trafficking is as serious as drug trafficking and will attract the same severe penalties.

We all saw the government's real commitment to gun control last year, when it was prepared, extraordinarily, to trade guns for votes and water down Australia's gun laws. The opposition had sincerely hoped that the government's approach to our gun laws could have improved this year. Unfortunately, it does not appear to have been the case. That is a disappointment to all Australians who want to see effective action taken against gun crime.

The opposition will continue to fight for tough gun laws. While the Turnbull government reheats failed Abbott government proposals, we are putting forward strong and sensible measures that will actually contribute to the fight against firearms trafficking. I commend the opposition amendments, to be moved in the Committee of the Whole. I would encourage the government to approach this area of policy not with tired political games but with a sensible approach to ensure that we do in fact make our community safer.