HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES, 16 OCTOBER 2019
It's not often that a Labor Party MP gets a call from a former National Party leader, but when Tim Fischer picked up the phone a couple of years ago I was delighted to take his call.
Tim was calling to speak about research that I'd done, with Christine Neill at Wilfrid Laurier University, on the impact of the firearms buyback on Australian gun homicide and suicide rates. We had found that over the decade before the Port Arthur massacre Australia had averaged one gun massacre every year—that is, one mass shooting in which there were five or more victims. We found that in the decade afterwards there wasn't a single gun massacre.
Looking at homicide and suicide rates, we found that there was a significant drop. When there aren't guns in the home, domestic disputes are less likely to turn deadly. When teenagers don't have access to a gun they're more likely to resolve their disputes with fists rather than with deadly force. When we combined the homicide and suicide effects, we estimated that the Howard-Fischer reforms saved some 200 lives a year. That means that there are more than 4,000 Australians alive today as a result of those reforms.
We often look back at reform and think that it was easy—everything looks obvious with hindsight. But at the time it was anything but. The member for Kennedy, Bob Katter, and now Senator Pauline Hanson both opposed the National Firearms Agreement. While Labor leader, Kim Beazley, gave his full support it was clear that Tim Fischer would fight a tough battle in the rural electorates in order to persuade them that this was the correct call.
He recalled a particularly vocal meeting about guns in Gympie in Queensland, on a Sunday afternoon. He said:
… as we pulled up, you could see on the branch of a tree an akubra wearing image of my good self with a hangman's knot. And it was a fierce meeting until a young lady, school prefect, stood up about half way through the meeting and laid it on the line in a way that just completely flipped the meeting in support of a sensible harmonised approach on gun laws … At Gympie it would've been fairly hot … what I did not wear was a gun vest or any form of protection.
He had come to the issue in 1986, when a young man armed with a hunting rifle stormed the immigration department's regional office in Albury, right above Tim Fischer's electorate office. As Tony Wright tells the story, the 29-year-old man with a gun was a member of a refugee family from Laos. Tim Fischer was a Vietnam veteran and he knew something about the Lao community that had settled in Albury. The police advised Mr Fischer not to go in. He ignored them, walked in and spoke to the man for some hours.
Eventually, he reappeared, according to Tony Wright, rifle in one hand and a big arm slung over the shoulders of the young man. He had discovered that the young man's mother, grandmother and brother were stuck in a refugee camp in Thailand, and had made a bargain. Tim Fischer had agreed that he would fly, at his own cost, to Thailand to the refugee camp to see if he could get the family reunited. Tony Wright accompanied him to the camp in Nong Khai. They found the people and spoke to them about their plight. He made the case to the United Nations and Australian immigration officials, but was unsuccessful. The young man who had taken a gun into the immigration department office in Albury moved towns, established a restaurant and saved his money. Ultimately, he was able to get on with his life.
Tim Fischer's bravery in that moment, literally putting himself at risk, reflected his political bravery in facing down the far Right over the issue of gun control in Australia. He saw, in retrospect, that the Port Arthur massacre was Australia's equivalent of the US Sandy Hook massacre. He told Vox in an interview in 2017:
There has to be some leadership. The debate has to be taken into the public square, as John Howard and I did 21 years ago. We managed to get the right legislation through, and the results speak for themselves.
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It was very hard work persuading people to surrender their guns. But it was the correct call. I took the argument to the public square, and the Australian people chose to step back from laissez-faire dysfunctionality, which now exists in the USA.
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I made the correct call and gained majority support, even in country electorates. I defended farmers, hunters, and Olympic shooters having the right kind of weapon as they go about their work, recreation, and sport. I'm not anti-gun. I'm anti automatics and semiautomatics dominating the suburbs.
Many of the two-thirds of a million weapons that were handed back were .22 rifles that had been sitting in the backs of closets, left unused but still a danger to a depressed teenager or in the presence of an angry spouse. The result was to reduce Australia's gun stock by about a fifth, providing fair compensation for those weapons that were handed back.
I note that, in the US Democratic presidential primaries, Beto O'Rourke has been calling for a gun buyback in the United States—a much more modest form of gun buyback but one which would learn the Australian lesson. Additionally, it would be splendid if there were more US conservatives with the political courage of Tim Fischer who were willing to bear the political cost of making tough decisions in the national interest. In the 1998 election, the National Party did go backwards, did suffer electoral losses to One Nation, but history has judged those decisions kindly. It's recognised the hard work that Tim Fischer did.
When the member for Bennelong, John Alexander, and I set up Parliamentary Friends of Gun Control, we did so with the Alannah and Madeline Foundation, a foundation established by Walter Mikac after losing his wife, Nanette, and his two young daughters in the Port Arthur massacre—an almost unimaginable loss. At that event, Walter spoke, and Tim Fischer spoke as well. He spoke about the United States experience, about the importance of staying strong to Australia's gun reforms. There will be periodic attempts to water down the National Firearms Agreement. But I'm pleased that many of those on the coalition side see this as a proud legacy of theirs.
All Australians should admire Tim Fischer for his moral courage on the issue of gun control. Of course, we on this side of the House disagreed with him on many matters. But, in honouring his legacy, this is something of which all Australians can be rightly proud.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.