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Thursday, 9 May 1996
Page: 766


Mr KERR(3.30 p.m.) —I thank very much all members of this House who rose to support this opportunity to reflect on and to give support to the Commonwealth's initiatives to achieve stricter gun control. On Sunday, 28 April, like many other members of this House, I had flown to Canberra to begin the first week of the sittings of parliament. At about 4 o'clock I received a phone call to tell me that there were reports that perhaps up to 12 people had been shot in an incident in my state.

Frankly, I did not know whether to accept that proposition. It seemed to me—and it still seems to me—that something of that kind could not happen in my own state of Tasmania. I made a very rapid decision, after ringing both the office of the Prime Minister (Mr Howard) and the Leader of the Opposition (Mr Beazley), to return to Tasmania. At about 11 o'clock that night I had a briefing with the police who were running the response to the tragedy at Port Arthur. I met with the Tasmanian police minister, Mr John Beswick, and for the first time the enormity of what was happening sank through.

John Beswick was there with all the blood drained out of his face—he looked absolutely ashen faced. The police were obviously in charge of the operation and they were acting through a process they had been trained to deal with, but in every lift and every corridor there was a sense of complete disbelief. On that same day, I, the Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister expressed our grief and our sense of helplessness. We all felt that loss of innocence that came with that tragedy.

Of course, that was just the beginning of what has been a terrible incident in Australia's history. We, the Tasmanian members of the parliament, with the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, attended a service on 1 May. The Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition went to Port Arthur and later returned to attend a deeply moving service. The director of the emergency health team at the hospital needed to be consoled, crying at that service. Dick Adams and I were both in tears during part of that service—and I am sure that was the case with many of our colleagues. This tragedy has made us confront the frailty of our own lives. Seeing how such innocent people had their lives snuffed out brought home to every one of us that it could have happened to each of us.

We were also confronted with the impossible question of what to say. Dick Adams and I went to the hospital and met, for example, Mr Neville Quinn. Mr Quinn had been shot through the neck. After his wife had been shot, he had been chased, cornered in a bus and shot. He then staggered to the pavement to lie next to his wife, Janet, while she died. What can you say to such a person? If you see someone with a bandage wrapped around their neck, what can you possibly say? Yet another appalling consequence of the tragedy was that Mr Quinn's mother-in-law, his wife's mother, died of a heart attack when she heard of the news.

As a result of this tragedy, there has been an enormous and proper response by the Australian community to demand that we take action to reform our antiquated and inadequate gun laws. The Prime Minister has made a number of statements to this House, the tone and content of which we endorse entirely. The Leader of the Opposition has also spoken, both in the House and publicly, about the complete commitment we have as an opposition to supporting the government's initiatives to obtain, as the Prime Minister has said, a minimum of outcomes—that is, the wholesale registration of firearms throughout the Australian states and territories and a ban on all automatic and semi-automatic weapons.

Now, fortunately, my state is beginning to return to normalcy. Port Arthur has been reopened. The people who have suffered loss and tragedy are dealing with their grief. Those who are not directly affected are going about their business more or less as if this incident can be put behind them—as it must, ultimately.

Of course, there is a problem with returning to normalcy. Too frequently in the past, when incidents of this kind have happened, there has been this initial burst of concern, but it has been followed by a period where time has passed and the 90 per cent of Australians who support stricter gun laws go about their business. The 10 per cent who are opposed find their voice and find opportunities to bring political pressure on weak parts of the political system to stop what is the genuine public mood for reform at this time.

I believe we do have an historic opportunity. We have an historic opportunity in the same way that historic opportunity presented itself to the people of the state of Tasmania through tragedy. There the Labor Party, with Michael Field as its leader, has joined with the Liberal Party and the Greens in an historic commitment to reform what were some of the worst gun laws in this country.

Not only has the Tasmanian parliament made that historic commitment, but it has already legislated. It would not allow the time to pass to allow business to go back to normal, to allow the very small minority in our community the opportunity to cleave divisions between us, between our political parties, between our political interests, and to stop the process that is now well and truly afoot.

I believe this historic opportunity is right before us. The Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, the Attorney-General (Mr Williams), and the shadow Attorney-General, Senator Bolkus, should continue to make sure that we walk in lock step so that there can be no cleavage between us, no point of weakness, where the gun lobby can enter and take advantage of that moment of weakness.

We have an historic framework here. There have been instances in the past where resolve has weakened over time. There was a committee on violence which led to a series of recommendations which were pursued by my predecessor, Senator Tate, with partial success. But Senator Tate obtained at least a starting point in each of the states and territories. For example, before his initiative, there had been no firearms control legislation in my state of Tasmania. By 1991, with the pressure from the Commonwealth, even that last state had moved. The Commonwealth has banned all military-style automatics and semi-automatics from importation. It has banned their bullets. It has taken many initiatives to try to bring a system together. But at the time of this tragic shooting, that system was still patchwork, with progress being gained inch by inch.

I said to the Prime Minister yesterday, `I have been in your shoes.' Unfortunately, it was not with quite the same weight of public support. There was a Launceston meeting of police ministers where, after the officers had completed six months of work, we had before us a paper which had been prepared and was the product of a lot of consultation. It would have dealt with an effective ban on all these military-style weapons—automatics and semi-automatics. It would have banned private and mail order sales. It would have put tough rules on genuine reasons. It would have introduced a tougher licensing and training scheme and storage scheme. It would have done all the things that are the core of the Prime Minister's initiatives. But the day before the meeting, I became aware that that arrangement had fallen apart. The irony was that the chief protagonist of the resistance then was the state of Tasmania.

It is another sad irony that the backsliding in the present debate seems to be generated out of Victoria. In the struggles I was involved in, as police minister, to try to get uniformity, it was the Deputy Premier of Victoria, Pat McNamara, who was probably my strongest ally. I make no partisan point there other than to say that this is a moment of time in which we must seize the opportunity to make these changes. Mr Howard is right—any watering down will invite further pressure for exemptions, making the national system a mockery.

I believe that gun owners in the main are entirely responsible and sane citizens. They are people who understand the need for national gun law safety rules. There would not be 85 or 90 per cent public support for these changes if that were not the case. Unfortunately, there is a small minority of advocates of unrestricted gun ownership of a kind which we must reject. People like Ron Owens and his Lock, Stock and Barrel organisation, the magazine, claim that people need guns so that the democratic state that we represent can be set aside if their freedoms are affected. Those kinds of people need to be rejected utterly.

We do have a fork in the road, and we could go down the American way. In the United States in 1994, out of 250 million people, 39,250 died from firearms. In the UK and Japan, out of a total population of 181 million, there were just over a hundred deaths from firearms. There is a point: we must act, and act now. That voice must be a unified voice, representing all of the parties in the political system.

When I was seeking to work through this, I wrote to the Leader of the Opposition, the Leader of the National Party of Australia (Mr Tim Fischer) and my counterpart the then shadow Attorney-General, Amanda Vanstone, seeking their active and public cooperation. It is incidents like this, however, that draw the need for that out. It was not there. I make no point of that, but now we must act together. An incident like this cannot be allowed to be a tragedy without an outcome. The Prime Minister should know that he goes into tomorrow's meeting with his resolve steeled by the knowledge of support by all those members of this House who rose in support of this matter of public importance.

I say to the Attorney General: I know you have a difficult task and I know that there are some voices already raised who suggest your task may be more difficult than it ought be, but what is said before that meeting ought not matter. What matters is what comes out of that meeting. I ask that you and the Prime Minister steel yourself to ensure that there be no backtracking now and that we as a parliament unite in this issue, as we have on virtually no other, and come together to insist on an outcome in the interests of the safety and future of all Australians.