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Thursday, 20 June 1996
Page: 1921

Senator SPINDLER(12.51 p.m.) —The Senate is debating the Medicare Levy Amendment Bill 1996. The bill makes amendments to the Medicare Levy Act 1986 in order to fund the buyback of certain firearms that are soon to be declared illegal in Australia. In general terms, the Australian Democrats are pleased to support this bill. Our only reservation is that the government has decided to use the Medicare levy to raise the money to finance the buyback of guns rather than establish a new and specific levy. We appreciate that it might be administratively easier to increase the Medicare levy, but we are concerned that it could send a mixed message about what the Medicare levy is actually for.

Having said this, the Democrats regard the need for unity in the drive for gun law reform as far more pressing, and so we will be pleased to support the bill. We do, however, ask the Assistant Treasurer (Senator Short) to explain what will happen to any surplus funds and to assure us that all money raised will be used solely for the purpose of funding compensation for surrendered guns.

Our support for the buyback scheme has its origins in the Democrats' longstanding support for gun control in Australia. We had become heartily sick of calling for uniform gun control laws every time there was a mass shooting. We did it after Queen Street. We did it after Hoddle Street. We did it again after the Falkner shooting and then once again after the appalling shooting of Mrs Jean Lennon outside the Family Court at Parramatta.

We awoke on 29 April to the horrifying pictures that someone had gone on a shooting rampage at Port Arthur with a semi-automatic rifle that he had bought in the local Trading Post. I turned to the people in my office and said, `What in heaven's name do we do? How many times does this have to occur before politicians in this country have the guts to take on the gun lobby?' To our collective relief, it must be said that the nation finally was ready for its politicians to take action. I congratulate the Prime Minister (Mr Howard) for taking that action. With the various premiers, he has managed to cobble together a comprehensive plan that, although far from perfect, has turned out to be the most ambitious gun control proposal ever to come from an Australian government.

On Friday, 10 May 1996, the Council of Australian Police Ministers agreed to prohibit the importation, ownership, sale, resale, transfer, possession, manufacture or use of all military-style centre-fire rifles including those which substantially duplicate military styles, all other self-loading centre-fire rifles, all self-loading and pump action shotguns and all self-loading rim fire rifles. The council also agreed that the importation ban would be effective immediately.

While we welcomed this at the time, we also said that in some ways the joint statement did not go far enough. We would prefer that: firstly, gifted, inherited and privately purchased guns go through the licence, permit and registration permit process; secondly, the buyback of guns cover all guns and not just semi-automatics; thirdly, only practising members of genuine gun clubs be licensed to carry firearms and not people who are simply members of sporting shooters associations in terms of being part of a lobby group; and, fourthly, the advertising of guns be banned. However, we are pleased to take what we can get and, for this reason, will wholeheartedly support the Prime Minister's plan and this bill, which is a fundamental part of it.

We note with some concern, however, that the agreement seems to be fraying at the edges with both Queensland and New South Wales baulking at some parts of the agreement and with reports that the government is considering making some amendments to the legislation. We will be watching developments very closely and wish to make it quite clear that we have drafted a referendum bill designed to give the Commonwealth the power to pass national gun laws, and if the states welsh on their agreement we will proceed with that bill.

The mood of the community suggests that any politician who hinders the passage of strong uniform gun laws after Port Arthur will do so at their own political peril. That might counterbalance some of the other threats that politicians are receiving from the pro gun lobby, and I wish to make some comments about the gun lobby.

At the outset, it is worth making the distinction between people who use guns for genuine sporting purposes and professional needs and the extremist elements who attempt to pass for gun enthusiasts and who are peddling amongst others the idea that they need guns to defend their freedoms against our democratically elected government. Then there are those who have incited Australia's gun owners to flout the laws of this country and refuse to hand in their arms and, worse, to spill blood in defence of their political views. Then there is the Vice-President of the Firearms Owners Association of Australia, Mr Ian McNiven, who, when asked if there was any place for semi-automatic weapons in Australia, said:

They're great for shooting Indonesian soldiers who come down here and rape young ladies like you.

Finally, there is Mr Ron Owen from Gympie who suggested that the proposed gun laws were a conspiracy between the homosexual lobby and the ABC. I make the suggestion to other otherwise law abiding and respectable gun owners that they should expel these extremists from their midst if they want to maintain any semblance of credibility. They should avoid becoming a haven for rednecks and racists and should dismiss them as such.

I will quote from one of the letters sent to my office—and, by far, the majority of letters that we receive on this issue are in favour of gun control. The letter states:

We wish to express our concern that this legislation might be derailed by a small highly vocal minority.

We believe that this is a very clear expression of what may happen but the Democrats give their assurance to the people of Australia that we will do all we can to prevent this from happening.

In conclusion, the Democrats welcome the national approach to gun law reform but believe it is disappointing that it has taken the tragedy of Port Arthur to bring it about. We congratulate Mr Howard for the leadership he has shown on this issue and extend our support for the joint statement and resolutions made by the Council of Australian Police Ministers and the subsequent announcement about the proposal to raise money through the levy to finance the buyback of banned firearms. I make once more the point: the gun lobby is powerless while all parties remain united on gun control. For this reason, the Democrats are pleased to support the Medicare Levy Amendment Bill 1996.