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Monday, 20 May 1996
Page: 729

Senator BOLKUS(4.17 p.m.) —I move:

That, in the opinion of the Senate, the following is a matter of urgency:

The necessity of unanimous support for the joint statement and resolutions made by the Council of Australian Police Ministers on Friday, 10 May 1996 and support for the proposed increase in the Medicare levy to fund the buy-back of prohibited firearms.

I move this motion in the spirit that has characterised the opposition's position on the issue of guns and, particularly in recent days, on the issue of the proposed increase in the Medicare levy to fund the buy-back of prohibited firearms. This motion represents a continuation of the position that we took before the election. It also represents a recognition of the need for bipartisan support on this issue.

Some nine years ago the then Premier of New South Wales, Barry Unsworth, whilst leaving a meeting of ministers discussing gun issues, stated that it would take a manslaughter in Tasmania before we got nationally uniform and effective gun laws. Unfortunately for Australia, for Tasmania, for Port Arthur and particularly for the 35 people and their families who were involved in the tragedy a few weeks ago in Port Arthur, he was right. It has taken such a massacre to force all of us to face our responsibilities.

Those responsibilities should have been faced earlier than this. There were the killings in Hoddle Street, in Queen Street and in Strathfield. This issue should have been addressed by then. Unfortunately, we have essentially had to force reluctant state governments to meet their national and domestic responsibilities. The responsibilities should have been faced by governments in this country over the last few years when the former Minister for Justice, Duncan Kerr, was developing an agenda for national uniform legislation to cover guns.

This debate has come on in the wake of 35 people being killed at Port Arthur, with the impact that has had on their families. We are also having this debate in recognition of the fact that each year some five and a half thousand Australians die from gun related suicides and one and a half thousand from gun related homicides. Almost 7,000 Australians die in this way each year.

We also have this debate at a time when, gladly, on a national level, all sides of politics have moved on to banning the importation and the use of not just automatic weaponry but also semi-automatic weaponry. Both parties decided on the same day, just a few days after the Port Arthur massacre, to ban semi-automatic weaponry. It is an important decision because it provides a comprehensive base for giving some effective protection to Australians.

The more recent agenda builds on the one that we were pushing before the election. The bipartisan support for it recognises that what the government is doing is much of what we tried to do. By working together in this parliament, we can shore each other up against a very strong, strident and sometimes quite erratic and dangerous lobby group.

Kerr's national laws were to go to a meeting of state ministers in February this year, but that meeting was deferred because of the election. Those laws related to import bans and to a register of firearms. This goes to the core difference on this issue between Labor and the coalition. The coalition wanted a register of those who were too unstable to possess firearms. Gladly, the broader approach has now been taken by the government and the Keating government's proposal for a register of firearms has been embraced.

The laws go to all aspects of marketing, ammunition, mail order, qualification and training. It is a very comprehensive agenda. It is a necessary agenda. Together with the buyback scheme and the ban on automatic and semi-automatic weaponry, this agenda ensures that, when it comes to protecting Australian citizens from guns, we do not go down the same road as the United States. It is an agenda which is built on the fundamental principle that, in this society, ownership and use of a gun is not a right, it is a privilege. That has underpinned the coalition government's proposals in this area. It was also a core part of the previous government's agenda, as reflected in Kerr's document to state ministers.

We also argue, in the spirit of bipartisanship that we have been showing on this issue, and that we continue to show, that there needs to be further commitment by government on not just the gun laws and the bans and so on but also on the maintenance of programs that have been put in place to ensure that we can raise the levels of safety awareness and the levels of consciousness against violence of all sorts, domestic and otherwise, in our community. We cannot afford to cut back on the level of funding in this area which has been organised through the access to justice statement and funding quite separate to that. There are quite a number of programs which in a sense we ask the government not to cut back in its ideological bent for savings over the next few months. We need to protect the Safety Australia programs. We need also to maintain our law enforcement agencies, the AFP and the National Crime Authority, and ensure that they get the protection and support necessary. We say to the government that this is something it should continue to do.

In the few moments I have left, it is important for me to focus on the implementation of the scheme. Getting the scheme right is one thing; making it work is another. What is needed to make it work is a degree of monitoring from our level of government. The states have been asked to go off and implement legislation to reflect the agreement they reached with the Prime Minister (Mr Howard), but we have to make sure that is what they do, we have to make sure that the legislation they put in place does not deviate from the proposals agreed to at that meeting some nine or 10 days ago. We need to focus on the laws to make sure they are consistent, and we need to focus on the implementation of those laws to make sure that that is also consistent.

I think an appropriate mechanism we should work through is the Standing Committee of Attorneys-General. That committee should be charged with monitoring the implementation. Also, I think it should table in this parliament a report on how and at what pace the states implement the agenda agreed to at a federal level. That committee needs to monitor the exemptions granted under the proposals agreed to by the Prime Minister and state ministers. For instance, we need to get quarterly reports on the number of exemptions in states and in regions to ensure that the spirit, if not the letter, of the agreement reached some 10 days ago is maintained.

In a sense these are historical times for us because the level of agreement that was achieved is something that has not been possible for quite some time. Those involved in it from the Prime Minister to other ministers ought to be recognised for their work. I think Duncan Kerr and members on this side of the parliament ought to be recognised for the spirit of bipartisanship which has been important in ensuring one national voice on this issue.

As I said a few minutes ago, we are in this with the government to ensure that bipartisanship gives strength to the national position. Bipartisanship needs to extend across the parliament, and it needs to be voiced by members of this parliament. This bipartisanship basically reflects the voice of the overwhelming majority of Australians who are saying very loudly at the moment, `We have rights too; we have had enough. We need to ensure that we are not pushed around by the gun lobby. We need to ensure that our rights to live in safety and away from the violence of guns can be protected by the parliament.'

It is with regret that we have to move this motion given the genesis of it a few weeks ago but, from the opposition, I can say that our bipartisanship will continue to be maintained on this issue, despite tricky waters ahead.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator McKiernan) —Before calling the Leader of the Government, I would advise the Senate that informal arrangements have been entered into on speaking times. With the concurrence of the chamber, I ask the clerks to set the times accordingly.