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Thursday, 20 June 1996
Page: 1923


Senator WATSON(12.59 p.m.) —The Medicare Levy Amendment Bill 1996 represents a very significant step in the implementation of the government's policy to reduce the number of guns in our community so Australia can become a safer and happier place. We have the opportunity here to reduce the likelihood of the type of massacre which took place at Port Arthur ever happening again. Agreement to this bill will be a vital step in curbing violence in the homes and on the streets of our nation.

At a special firearms meeting of the Australian Police Ministers Council held on 10 May 1996, it was resolved that all jurisdictions—that is, all states as well as the Commonwealth—ban the sale, resale, transfer, ownership, possession and manufacture of certain types of firearms. The firearms have been listed into categories. I will not go into details of the different categories, but categories C and D list the firearms prohibited except under special circumstances.

The Commonwealth, for its part, has agreed to ban the importation of all semi-automatic, self-loading and pump action long arms, and all parts including magazines—such as firearms included in licence category D—to control the importation of those firearms included in licence category C. A system of national registration was also agreed to, involving the establishment of an integrated licence and firearm registration system. The databases are to be linked through the Nation al Exchange of Police Information to ensure its effectiveness.

While much of the onus for the implementation of these resolutions has fallen on the states because the matter of gun licensing comes within their responsibility, it has been the federal government which has provided the leadership in gaining nationwide agreement. In addition, the federal government has agreed to shoulder the burden of raising the revenue required to enable tighter gun laws to be implemented.

The final resolution at the meeting of the Australian Police Ministers Council included provision for the establishment of a common basis for fair and proper compensation. Firearm owners will be compensated for surrendering their weapons to an amount based on the value of each firearm as at March 1996.

It is the Commonwealth, especially John Howard, which has taken responsibility for the funding of this compensation, with the states bearing the cost of administering the buyback scheme. The government sees compensation as vital because it is a fair and an Australian thing to do. Those who have bought and owned weapons legally and in good faith and for honourable reasons should not and will not be treated as criminals. Their weapons will not be confiscated unless they are found to be in breach of the law after the amnesty has concluded.

The value of the firearms will be set by people with appropriate expertise in the field. I understand these values will be set by a national panel to include a government and gun industry representation as well as independent experts. Under this bill, owners who do the right thing will be given fair compensation. Compensation to those who have surrendered their firearms will also be seen as an incentive to people to hand over their weapons. It is not an easy thing to give up weapons that have been treasured. This is clearly understood, and our Prime Minister, Mr Howard himself, has on many occasions expressed his apologies to those who have to suffer the loss of their weapons because of the outrageous actions of a few.

I myself appreciate the difficulties of those who have had weapons passed on from generation to generation and whose weapons may be a family heirloom, for those who have collections as memorabilia, and for those to whom they have other special significance. Being a gun owner myself for the purposes of pest control on my farm, I fully understand the anxiety facing those who must surrender their guns. The compensation scheme funded by a 0.2 per cent increase in the Medicare levy will provide some incentive for those who have firearms which have become illegal, to surrender them.

The introduction of this bill follows the announcement by the Prime Minister in his press statement on 14 May that the necessary funds will be raised by an increase in the Medicare levy from 1.5 per cent to 1.7 per cent for the income year 1996-97. It will be a one-off levy. It is not a permanent change to the Medicare rate. The entire revenue raised from the extra 0.2 per cent will be used for one purpose only: to compensate people for their firearms. It is estimated that the extra levy will raise approximately $500 million. Any surplus will be returned via the Medicare levy system. No government likes to impose an extra charge on taxpayers. It is with great reluctance that the coalition has taken this measure. However, with the overwhelming number of Australians wanting tighter gun controls, some scheme to implement those tighter measures must be desired.

The passage of this bill will enable the compensation to be put into operation. Tasmanians watched in horror as the tragedy of Port Arthur unfolded on their television screens and in their national newspapers. Most Tasmanians believed their home state was isolated from this kind of bizarre behaviour. The peaceful setting of Port Arthur seemed so immune from violence but, on that quiet Sunday afternoon on 28 April, that immunity was absolutely shattered.

The support that streamed in from the rest of Australia was wonderful. As a Tasmanian senator, I want to take this opportunity to thank my fellow Australians for the warmth of the many expressions of sympathy that they have conveyed and for the way in which they have identified themselves so closely with those who have suffered directly from the tragedy. I believe that, through this tragedy, there has been a strengthening of our ties with each other and a strengthening of our national entity. I want to thank my fellow Australians most sincerely for fostering that. I am sure that, as a tangible expression of their sympathy, an overwhelming number of Australians will be prepared to accept this new charge.

The federal government has not taken this step lightly. It brings no joy to extract this extra levy of approximately $1.40 per week from the average Australian worker. Under the circumstances, this is the fairest and most equitable way of allowing tighter gun controls to be implemented. The increase in the Medicare levy for this purpose is the most desirable of several options, in terms of both equity and efficiency. This is endorsed by a recent study by the University of Canberra.

This bill puts the same onus on defence personnel, even though they may be exempt from the Medicare levy. I am sure that those people, who are fully aware of the catastrophes that can result from the misuse of weapons, will be prepared to sacrifice to the same extent as their fellow Australians.

A pensioner in north-western Tasmania rang her local member of parliament to make her contribution to this fund, so concerned was she that these laws be made effective. She expressed her belief that all pensioners should be prepared to give $1, knowing that this would help to make their lives safer. She put that suggestion to her local member, even though she had little money to spare and was constantly paring her spending. She was concerned about keeping safe in her home and she was prepared to make a sacrifice for that. I think hers is a useful example of the sacrifice that some people in our community are prepared to make.

In his address at St John's Cathedral in Brisbane on 5 June, the Prime Minister made reference to the link between the murder rate and the proliferation of the possession of firearms. In the United States, the murder rate is 14 per 100,000. There, the gun lobby is so powerful that authorities have been too frightened to restrict or curtail the use of firearms. The gun lobby has intimidated both Democrat and Republican politicians.

By contrast, the murder rate in England and Wales is about one per 100,000. In England and Wales, firearms are far less widespread—less widespread than in Australia, and far scarcer than in the United States.

In Australia, our murder rate is approximately two per 100,000. While that is nowhere near as high as that of the United States, we can do better. We will do better, by taking the measures agreed to by the police ministers on 10 May. If we do not, we will be headed for the murder rates experienced in the United States.

I wholeheartedly endorse this bill. I commend it to honourable senators as a vital instrument for making Australia a safer and happier place in which to live.