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Tuesday, 24 October 2017
Page: 11807


Ms O'NEIL (Hotham) (18:39): I rise to speak on behalf of the opposition on the Criminal Code Amendment (Firearms Trafficking) Bill 2017, and I have been waiting about eight months now to do so. What the minister failed to mention in his remarks is that this bill was amended and adopted by the Senate in February. That's eight months for which this country could have had tougher, stronger, better gun laws, supported by almost every single political party represented in this country, and yet, due to the bloody-mindedness of the minister on the other side of the table, who has rudely walked out for this contribution to the debate, we've not had those laws in place. It's not because of the detailed amendments to this bill that the government is moving. I have the amendments in my hand here. They're two pages long. They could have been lodged many, many months ago. But how can the government come into this chamber and talk about how seriously it takes strong gun laws when, for eight months, it has had bipartisan support to do something about this?

I've written to the minister multiple times. I wrote to him first in May to ask why there was this ridiculously lengthy delay in bringing these forward. I wrote to him again in October, after the minister, in a disgraceful act, I must say, chose to politicise the tragic shooting in Las Vegas. I did not do that, but I did write to the minister to ask why, if he was so concerned about gun violence in Australia, he had not brought this bill back into the parliament.

Everyone in this chamber, everyone in this House, everyone who works in this building, should know that, for eight months, this country could have had tougher, stronger gun laws—gun laws that had bipartisan support—but, because the minister didn't want to be ashamed to have to come into this chamber and support what is essentially a Labor-written bill, we have not had those laws in place. Such is the height that politics takes over good public policy with the minister who operates on the other side of the chamber.

The opposition will be supporting the bill as amended by the Senate, and I say that this is essentially a Labor bill because we took a piece of political legislation—a piece of legislation that was written only because the minister believed that Labor would not support it—and we amended it. We made it tougher. We made it stronger. We put in place life sentences for serious gun traffickers. We supported the Nick Xenophon Team in the other place, who also sought to strengthen the bill. Those are amendments that the government backed. Now what we have before us is essentially a very good law. It's a good law that has support right across the parliament. I am very concerned, though, to see the minister move amendments—amendments that have already essentially been rejected by the Senate. Here he is playing petty politics with gun safety again. He's moving amendments to this bill that he thinks Labor will reject, so they're going to go back to the Senate, where the Senate will reject them again. This is pathetic.

I believe we do have problems with gun violence in this country. I want our community to be safer. I want to get more guns off our streets. I want people who seriously traffic in guns to go to jail, and, if a court deems it necessary, to go to jail for life. Yet the minister stands in the path of those reforms because he wants to play little boy political games in this parliament. And I think that is absolutely disgraceful.

There are 600,000 illegal weapons in the illicit market in this country at the moment. Ten thousand of these weapons are handguns. They are the weapon of choice for gangs and criminals. We do need tougher sentences for gun traffickers. That's why Labor worked with the crossbenchers in the Senate to create a bill that ultimately the government supported.

We first proposed amendments that are similar to those that form the basis of the bill supported by the Senate in 2012. There were mass trafficking incidents in 2012 that we did not believe were being appropriately dealt with by the courts. In recent years, and five years on from that problem, the problem remains. Law enforcement recently intercepted a consignment from the United States of six fully automatic assault rifles and 96 semi-automatic handgun frames bound for Australia. These are incredibly serious crimes. One of the comments that I always get from law enforcement on this very important problem is that the issue with guns is that, once a gun is in the country, it's essentially here, as a tool that can be used for crime, indefinitely, because guns last for a very, very long time.

Last year, an alarming 3,542 firearms were stolen from legal gun owners and entered the illicit firearms market. That is 633 more illicit guns flooding into that firearms market than the previous year. In the home state of the Minister for Justice, Western Australia, the number of firearm weapons stolen in the space of a year doubled. What we are concerned about is these guns falling into the wrong hands. We need our law enforcement and our prosecutors to be able to pursue more serious charges for the most egregious type of firearms trafficking, such as the examples I have mentioned.

This is a tough bill that Labor amended in the Senate to contain life sentences for the very worst kinds of firearms traffickers. When the government introduced this bill in the Senate it contained mandatory minimum sentences. It was a flimsy piece of law. It was mandatory minimums and not a lot more. I talked about how we worked with the crossbenchers. It was very hard in the Senate to take this piece of petty politicking and create a bill that actually works. That is the bill that has been sent back to this chamber from the Senate and that we will be supporting. We want tougher penalties for gun smugglers, so we proposed sweeping amendments that were supported by the government. The aggravated offences will ensure that the worst traffickers can be sent to jail for life. Those aggravated offences apply to the trafficking of more than 50 firearms, firearms parts or a combination of firearms and firearms parts within Australia in a six-month period or the trafficking of more than 50 firearms, firearms parts or a combination of firearms and firearms parts into and out of Australia in a six-month period. Both of those offences will attract a maximum of life imprisonment or 7,500 penalty units or both. We selected those penalties because those are the penalties that apply to the trafficking of controlled drugs and the importing and exporting of commercial quantities of border control drugs or plants under divisions 302 and 307 of the Criminal Code. The number of firearms or firearms parts for these aggravated offences which Labor put into this bill in the Senate is to be calculated over a six-month period. This is quite specifically aimed at capturing a process where criminals structure their trafficking arrangements to avoid detection by sending small consignments on a regular basis. These measures were previously proposed by Labor in 2012. They passed the House of Representatives in 2012 with the support of the coalition. In opposition we put them into the Senate and they passed again with the support of the coalition. That is the part of the bill that Labor will be supporting.

I have talked a bit about the letters I have written to the minister. I will say again how frustrating it is for those of us in this chamber who are trying to get a good policy outcome, and to create laws that will better protect the Australian community, to see silly politics being played, especially with a matter that is as important as national security. I said that I wrote to the minister. I've written to him twice about this. It is good that, after those long eight months I've been waiting to make this speech on the second reading, the bill has come back to us here.

The coalition has two choices. It can pass the bill as it is, as it was agreed to by the Senate. In fact, we could have a vote in the parliament this evening to accept that this becomes a new law—we could make this happen today. Or we could do what it appears the government is choosing to do, which is play a ridiculous political game with gun violence and gun safety by moving amendments that it thinks that Labor and the crossbenchers will not support. I mean, please: this is absolutely just pathetic.

The minister keeps coming back to his obsession with Labor. It's not Labor. A wide range of crossbenchers in the Senate took out of this bill the aspect that doesn't work, the mandatory minimums. That was done as a joint approach in the Senate. Sometimes people say that Labor's stance on mandatory minimums comes down to principle. I want to talk about something that's got not much to do with principle, and that is what works for law enforcement. My main aim as a shadow minister for justice is to create a safer community for Australians.

Now, mandatory minimums do not make us safer. In fact, there is good evidence that mandatory minimums will increase danger in the Australian community. They will do this for a few reasons. The first reason is that we have very good evidence that juries are less likely to convict the perpetrator of a crime if mandatory minimums are in place, because juries believe in the judicial process. If they know that a judge is not going to have any control over the sentence that's given to a perpetrator, they are less likely to convict that person of a crime. What that means is more gun runners on the street. I don't want gun runners on the street; I want them in jail.

We know that law enforcement officers tend to hate mandatory minimums, and the reason they do that is because mandatory minimums mean that perpetrators do not cooperate with police to bring down the kingpins and the organised crime bosses who operate these networks. We know that people who are running this sort of criminal organisation will get the junior people in the organisation to do the work that's involved in committing a crime. They are often the people who are apprehended. We need those people to cooperate with police if we want to make a serious dent in crime in this country. I'm not going to stand in this parliament and vote for a bill which is going to reduce the incentive for people to cooperate with police, as we want them to do.

A final point that I want to make about mandatory minimums is that there are unintended consequences. There's actually very good reasons why we want judges to have discretion when it comes to determining sentences. The Law Council of Australia have called repeatedly on the government to try to work with Labor to make the Australian community safer by taking the mandatory minimums out of this bill. The Law Council of Australia in fact provided some very interesting examples of what they thought were unintended consequences of the mandatory minimums that the government is now moving as amendments to this bill. I will share one of those examples, and no doubt we will get right into the detail of this as the debate continues. The example from the Law Council of Australia is as follows: a farmer who has never been overseas before goes to the US and attends a gun show. He finds a gun part that he thinks will be helpful to use when he is controlling pests back on the farm. He buys one for himself and one for his mate down the road that he intends to sell to him. He gets caught returning to Australia when he is going through Customs. He is honest with the officer and tells him that he intends to sell one of the parts to his friend. That will satisfy the elements of trafficking that are contained in this bill and he will be looking at a five-year sentence in jail. The judge will have no choice but to jail him.

This is not my view; I didn't dream this up in my office. And it's not the view of the crossbenchers who voted down the mandatory minimums in this bill in the Senate; it is the view of the Law Council of Australia, a group of eminent people who make it their business to try to create a safer community and good public policy for our country. There are other examples that have been put forward, including one where the Law Council of Australia believes that Simon Overland, the decorated Victorian police commissioner, may have put himself foul of this bill. Under the mandatory minimums that are being proposed by the government, he could face a mandatory five-year jail term.

So we don't support the mandatory minimums in this bill. We don't support them because they won't make the community safer. Juries will not convict people; they are less likely to convict people who face mandatory minimums. We want people to cooperate with law enforcement, especially in an area like this, which is so much within the purview of organised criminals in this country. And we won't do it because we don't want innocent people, or people who have committed a crime that clearly doesn't line up with a five-year jail term to end up in jail. And it has a bigger consequence than the things I've just talked about: it risks undermining the justice system. When Australians who trust us to make good laws for them see arbitrary consequences from laws, they don't have faith in this parliament to do its job correctly, and that's something I cannot support.

So the Liberals and the coalition on the other side of the House have two choices. They can vote for the bill that was sent back from the Senate: a good piece of law, a law that was mainly written by Labor but with the assistance of some amendments made by crossbenchers up in the Senate. It's a good law that will make the community safer. In fact, it's a good law that could have been in place since February. It's a good law that the government voted for.

We could have this law in place tonight in this parliament, but instead what do we see? The justice minister comes in and tries to play politics once again. What is he trying to achieve? If he thinks he's going to win this debate by preventing this from becoming Australian law tonight, by sending back to the Senate a bill he knows the Senate will not agree to, then he is making a mockery of his position and he is showing himself to be the petty politician that he is. I wouldn't bother appealing to the justice minister on this because I think we all know his politics. We understand that, and we saw his silly performances in question time.

There are good people on the other side of this parliament. One of them is the member for La Trobe, who served in law enforcement, and I greatly respect the work he has done to try to protect our community. I want him and the other people on the other side of the House who care about good public policy to understand the choice that the leaders of their party are making for them. They can choose a law that could be in place tonight, providing better protection for the Australian community, providing better laws to prosecute people who are running guns or who are helping organised criminals in this country, or they can play the petty politics.

There are Australians who feel that this chamber is not serving them appropriately. There are people who feel that they are losing faith in the political process because we create these ridiculous stalemates without really seeking an outcome. We need to prove those people wrong. We need to show them that this chamber can cooperate. If we're ever going to cooperate, it's going to be on this bill, as amended by the Senate, which has bipartisan support. The only thing standing between this becoming Australian law—a good law—is the petty politics of the justice minister.