Australia needs to remain steady as a beacon for gun control - Speech, Parliament House


Parliament House, 19 September 2018

I’d like to thank parliamentary colleagues from all sides of the Parliament for joining us tonight to launch the Parliamentary Friends of Gun Control, particularly my co-chair John Alexander. Welcome back Tim Fischer, it’s terrific to have you here. I also welcome the extraordinary Walter Mikac, CEO of the Alannah & Madeline Foundation Lesley Podesta, and public health experts who have joined us here for this important event.

In 1996, I was a summer clerk at the Sydney law firm of Minter Ellison. Each of us were assigned a mentor. Mine was an energetic, charismatic 28 year old by the name of Zoe Hall. I couldn’t have gotten a better mentor. Zoe was somebody who kept on reaching out to say ‘how are you doing’, offering little bits of advice. And then she took a holiday to Port Arthur and became one of the victims of the Port Arthur massacre.

That impact resonated through the Sydney legal community, as the deaths of so many victims did throughout Australia. Yet Australia acted with a speed that we haven’t seen in the United States. Before all the funerals had taken place, police ministers had met and agreed to put in place the National Firearms Agreement. It was an extraordinary act of political courage. I can't help thinking if only the United States had some conservatives with the cojones of John Howard and Tim Fischer, perhaps they would have a whole lot more lives saved.

As a Labor member, I don’t normally make a practice of praising the Howard Government. But it is extraordinary that this is remarked on as one of the chief legacies of that government. An unexpected but bold decision to do the morally right thing at the right moment.

Kim Beazley, Governor of Western Australia and formerly the Opposition Leader, wasn’t able to join us in person tonight. But Kim has send a message which he has asked me to read:

Looking back at the tragic massacre at Port Arthur in April 1996, and the Legislative response Federal and State several months later, I am surprised how the events and the response still resonate in public memory. It was a shock to the new Parliament and Government. It was for the families of the dead and wounded a tragedy which never left and never will leave them. Government and people put their hearts and hands out to them and said, with integrity and purpose, the capacity to commit this mayhem with the weapons most effective for that evil pursuit will end.

The response was hard and effective. This was partly because we had thought about it. Previous massacres at Hoddle St and Queen St had seen the states and Commonwealth put together a committee on violence. 1990 killings at Strathfield saw the Commonwealth ban importation of automatic and high velocity weapons. The laws swiftly enacted after Port Arthur had been swirling around Attorney General meetings for a number of years. With the buyback scheme the vicious nonsense ended.

I thought the then Prime Minister and Deputy acted with courage. The public was massively behind them. After serving six years as our Ambassador to the U.S I have emerged with an even deeper appreciation of the actions of our governments then and the firm public support. We have become the ‘poster child’ for both sides of the argument in The United States. An example feared and often counter-factually traduced by the supporters of unlimited gun ownership. On the regulated side we exemplify nirvana! Not a week goes by that a “mass shooting”, defined as four dead not including the gunman, occurs. An image in my mind is of a frustrated saddened President Obama with an “our thoughts and prayers go out to the loved ones” theme on a regular basis. A community numbed by the tragedy, overwhelmingly supportive of regulation but politically atrophied. For many young Americans it feeds a perception of ineffectual adult leadership.

Ideologising guns is a new thing. In the 19th century the second amendment was completely understood in its Defence context. Far from being wild, the West tried to regulate itself. The gun ideology has been fed by recent, not old judicial interpretations. Nevertheless it gives you pause for thought that if every suggested regulation I have seen proposed in the U.S was legislated, the US would not have gun laws as tough as we had before the Port Arthur massacre.

It also has to be understood gun regulation does not mitigate the mental issues, anger, criminal intent, despair which creates a murderous or suicidal cast of mind. What it does do is massively mitigate the damage and the spread of misery to the uninvolved. That is major. The families of the victims of Port Arthur know that their suffering drove an exemplary determination in the Australian political class and community. The then Prime Ministers’ and the State Governments’ leadership stands now like a beacon. It is the example to which nations handling this problem aspire.

Thank you all for joining us tonight. This is an important group to avoid to avoid backsliding on Australia’s gun laws, to remember the tragedy of Port Arthur and the reforms that followed, to acknowledge the leadership of people like Tim Fischer and to make sure that Australia stands still as a beacon in the world able to prevent gun violence and ensure that we balance the needs of sporting shooters against the demands of the community to stay safe.

Authorised by Noah Carroll ALP Canberra.

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.