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Tuesday, 22 October 2002
Page: 5581

Senator BARTLETT (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (2:22 PM) —My question is to the Minister for Justice and Customs, representing the Attorney-General. I refer to the latest shooting tragedy, which occurred at Monash University yesterday. Given that previous tightening of Australian gun laws by both state and federal governments in the past have clearly led to a reduction in shooting deaths—both homicides and suicides—will the federal government now show further leadership on this issue by putting forward and ensuring the adoption of new measures to further reduce the number of hand guns available in the Australian community?

Senator ELLISON (Minister for Justice and Customs) —I am sure that all senators would join with me in extending condolences to the families and friends of those who died or have been injured in that shooting. We hope that there are no more deaths as a result of the tragedy which unfolded at Monash University yesterday. The Prime Minister has indicated that he will be meeting the premiers and chief ministers on Thursday and that he will be raising with them, apart from the counter-terrorist measures that he has mentioned, the issues of tighter gun control and this latest tragedy. He will be discussing that matter with the premiers and chief ministers. I think it is important to remember, however, that we need to look at the situation of this particular tragedy. I have written to the minister for police in Victoria, Mr Haermeyer, to ascertain the details of what took place: how the guns were obtained and the circumstances of the tragedy. I think it is important that we look at that closely.

As far as the measures that have been taken are concerned, the Commonwealth has introduced stringent regulations in relation to the importation and use of hand guns. Certainly, the Commonwealth led the Nationwide Agreement on Firearms Control in 1996. It increased penalties in the year 2000, making offences relating to the smuggling or importing of prohibited firearms a criminal offence, punishable on conviction by a penalty of up to a quarter of a million dollars or 10 years jail or both. We tightened import restrictions in April last year, requiring that the sale of imported hand guns needs permission from the state and territory police. We must remember the role that state and territory governments play in relation to the licensing and regulation of firearms in their respective jurisdictions. We introduced tougher controls on the importation of hand gun frames and receivers, which we found were being converted and activated for use by the criminal sectors of the community. We promoted the National Firearms Trafficking Policy Agreement and announced that we would introduce legislation for a Commonwealth offence for the illegal trafficking of firearms across state and territory borders. This, of course, relies on the constitutional powers that the Commonwealth has. You have to remember that we have a federation where the day-to-day control of firearms rests with the states and territories. Also, at the last Police Ministers Council we adopted a firearms trafficking agreement which was a move towards more uniform gun laws in Australia. At a meeting in two weeks time between the police ministers of Australia and me, firearms is definitely on the agenda, and that was put on the agenda prior to the tragedy which has just occurred at Monash University.

We have also tightened our import controls in relation to the surveillance of what comes in over the border. One hundred per cent of postal items are either X-rayed or inspected—indeed, any parcel capable of carrying a gun or gun part through Australia Post is X-rayed or inspected. Seventy per cent of all air cargo consignments entering Australia are X-rayed, and we are introducing into the ports of Australia for the first time container X-ray provisions; in November this year we will see the first facility of its kind being opened at Melbourne. After my recent visit to the United States, I can tell you that this is state-of-the-art material in relation to X-raying containers at our ports. We will be introducing these measures at ports in Sydney, Brisbane and Fremantle over the ensuing 12 months. This is a very strong step towards guarding against prohibited imports generally, be it illicit drugs, guns or, for that matter, any aspect of disease which might threaten Australia. (Time expired)

Senator BARTLETT —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I thank the minister for his answer. I note the statement that the Prime Minister will be taking this matter to the premiers and chief ministers later this week. I also note that, after previous tragedies, the quick, firm response from the Prime Minister at a national level was crucial in that leadership reaching agreement for significant advances in firearms controls. Nonetheless, given that the number of hand guns in the community continues to grow— and clearly the more guns there are, the more prospects there are of gun deaths occurring—will the Prime Minister be bringing to that meeting of premiers and chief ministers concrete measures to ensure that the number of guns in the community is reduced?

Senator ELLISON (Minister for Justice and Customs) —Senator Bartlett referred to the growth in the number of guns and deaths by guns. There was a report in the Canberra Times today in which I think the Australian Institute of Criminology was quoted as saying that the rate of homicides by guns had in fact reduced. We have to balance this with the legitimate interests of the law-abiding people who are involved in sporting activities. At the Olympics there are various sporting events which involve the use of semiautomatic hand guns. The Prime Minister stated his concerns in relation to this very issue. He will be raising that on Thursday with the premiers and chief ministers.