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Firearm Laws Inquiry

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP  -  Wednesday, 29 August 2018

Tags: Gun Control, Port Arthur, Supreme Court

That -

(1)  A select committee be appointed with power to send for persons and papers to inquire into and report upon current firearms laws, with the following terms of reference -

a.    Current and future firearms licensing regimes, including training and testing, licence renewal, licence infringements and licence categories;

b.    Compliance with the provisions of the National Firearms Agreement;

c.    The roles of Tasmania Police, Firearms Services (FAS) and the creation of a broad-based consultative committee.

d.    Consideration of public submissions to the Legislative Council firearms laws inquiry in relation to (a), (b), and (c) above; and

e.    any other matters incidental thereto.

(2)    That the following Members of this House be appointed to serve on the committee:—

a.    Mr Shelton (Chair),

b.    Mr Brooks,

c.    Mr Broad (Deputy Chair), and

d.    one Member nominated by the Leader of the Greens.

(3)  The Chair of a Committee has a deliberative and a casting vote.

(4)  A quorum for any meeting of a committee shall be three (of whom one is the Chair of the committee or Deputy Chair)

(5)  That the committee report by 14 March 2019.

(6)  That should the House not be sitting, a report may be presented to the Speaker of the House, or in their absence, the Clerk of the House, and any report so presented is taken to have been published by order of the House of Assembly.


Dr WOODRUFF (Franklin) - Madam Speaker, gun laws are a very serious topic of conversation. The proposed inquiry we are speaking to today has come on a long tail of conversations in the Tasmanian community that started some 22 years ago now in 1996. Following the terrible violence that occurred at Port Arthur and the strong representations not only of survivors of the shootings there but of a widespread uprising of concern in the Tasmanian and wider Australian communities, there a tripartite agreement was struck by the federal government, strongly supported by the Greens, the Labor Party and the Liberal Party in Tasmania and at the federal level.

It was that agreement that created the National Firearms Agreement, a historic agreement that was led by then Liberal prime minister, John Howard. It ushered in following that common legislation across all of the states. There was a gun buyback scheme that followed and, as a result, at that point in time 660 959 rapid fire weapons were taken out of the community.

I am aware that in the 22 years since that national agreement was made there have been no public mass shootings where firearms have been used. The use of firearms as a murder weapon has declined by nearly half across Australia. That runs starkly against the trend of what is happening in order countries, where gun ownership has been unrestricted and gun-related violence, including mass shootings, is increasing.

Within that context I make a contribution about the very point of having this inquiry in the first place. This inquiry has come on the back of recent events that started just prior to the state election. The Liberals made a secret policy commitment to firearms stakeholders, which we now know parts of their policy contravene the National Firearms Agreement. It is quite clear that the policy commitment they made of extending firearms licences to operate for 10 years contravenes clause 34(d) of the National Firearms Agreement. That clearly states, in no uncertain terms, that a licence must be issued for a period of no more than five years.
The policy commitments made also includes 'no longer confiscating firearms for some unspecified storage offences', but clause 44(b) of the National Firearms Agreement requires that a storage offence must result in the confiscation of firearms.

The policy also proposes the creation of a category E for firearms that are currently prohibited. The creation of new categories is in violation of the National Firearms Agreement. Parts of these policies unambiguously contravene the National Firearms Agreement. This was repeatedly denied by the Premier. People concluded that either the Premier was willfully and strategically lying to the public or that there was some other unexplained reason - but there was none. It is a matter of fact that they contravened the firearms agreement.
Into this space we are talking about having a firearms inquiry in this House. We have to ask of what purpose that inquiry will be and we have to make sure that the terms of reference for that inquiry in no way gives succor to those pre-election Liberal policy commitments that were made. In no way should an inquiry be predicated on an investigation of those policy commitments because some of them do breach the National Firearms Agreement.

Speaking to the amendment, to move it from a lower House inquiry to a joint inquiry, it is also relevant to say that the upper House proposed to hold a firearms inquiry themselves after the state election Thank you to the Greens for making this apparent to the media one day before the election. After Tasmanians found out about this policy commitment to weaken gun laws, widespread outrage was generated in the community. Very strong public statements were made immediately by survivors of Port Arthur, survivors of that violence, and by gun control advocates and medical professionals who could not believe that these changes were being proposed.

As a result of that, an upper House inquiry was proposed - probably to take some heat off the situation and to park it. The Premier then committed subsequently, after he was repeatedly challenged to provide the advice he had been given to the police minister from Tasmania Police, to the Tasmanian people, that he will show that the police have ticked off the Liberal's policy commitments to firearms stakeholders and said that they do not contravene the National Firearms Agreement.

The Premier could not provide that advice and has not provided that advice. Despite the fact that he said there has been advice and they do not breach it, he will not provide that advice. This matter is so serious that the Premier is being taken to court for refusing to provide the RTI chain of evidence that will show that advice exists. We have a situation where the Premier of Tasmania is still, as I understand it, in proceedings in the Supreme Court to review the decision that the Premier made to refuse to release information under the Right to Information Act.

In this toxic public conversation about why the Liberal Party is trying to weaken gun laws in Tasmania, the Upper House decided to abandon an inquiry. This amendment to the Government's amendment to their motion to introduce a gun inquiry into the Lower House, seeks to make a joint inquiry. We will not vote against that. We can see a range of pitfalls and potential concerns. It may be that members in the other place might seek to make changes to the terms of reference. It is not within the control of this place to be certain about the membership of the committee and how it may proceed. We accept the Labor Party is trying to have a genuine and open conversation on this topic. For that reason, we support that move but we flag that it comes with risks.

The Greens are here to speak for people who want to keep strong gun laws in Tasmania, and for survivors of gun violence. We make the point that this is not only about Liberal Party policies; this is about Labor Party policies.

The Labor Party bought a Liberal-like policy on firearms to the last election as well. They kept theirs very quiet, especially after the stink came out about the Liberals' commitments. The Labor Party has also made an attempt to court the shooting lobby and the firearms owners lobby. In government, the Labor Party's policy said, for example, that they will consult with firearms organisations and clubs to establish an agreed, formal, expert-based structure that is able to provide timely advice to government on firearm policy and issues. That sounds much too concerningly close to the Tasmanian Firearm Owners Council that has been proposed and funded by the Liberals.

There is also a move to introduce 'the use of infringement notices in lieu of a summons for very minor breaches of firearm storage regulations'. The term 'very minor breaches' is very wide and very open and that is a serious concern. The Labor Party is also interested in working with the TFGA regarding regulatory issues that frustrate and impede the legitimate day-to-day use of firearms. These areas have been well covered by the National Firearms Agreement and these so-called annoying and frustrating regulations are the bread and butter of what keeps Australians safe.

Owning a firearm is not a right. It is granted with rules that the state imposes to ensure that we are kept safe. The Greens will always make sure those rules are upheld and there is no weakening or eroding of the National Firearms Agreement. We do not think the Labor Party should walk away from the fact that they are prepared to put the interests of firearms owners and organisations at the forefront in this discussion. We want the interests of survivors of gun violence, medical professionals and gun control advocates to be right in this conversation. We will continue to speak on the other aspects of the amendments the Labor Party have proposed, but I think we have made our position on this particular one clear.

Dr WOODRUFF (Franklin) - Madam Speaker, this is a very important amendment to the amendment that the Government has moved on their motion. We very much support it. I am pleased to hear that the Government will also be supporting this amendment because the Greens would not have been able to support a motion that had this amendment in it. We are very pleased that, that is the case.

We are also very pleased that the minister has listened and understood that the inclusion of a broad base of people's voices on any advice or any committee to government is essential on this matter. The minister wondered what sort of stakeholders might be included in this group. We could suggest a few: for example, the Hobart Women's Shelter, the Women's Legal Service, or perhaps someone who has been outspoken from the Alannah and Madeline Foundation that was set up after the Port Arthur mass shooting occurred, and representatives of Gun Control Australia. They are the sorts of bodies and other voices that should be included in any firearms advisory council, should such a body ever be established. This is an essential amendment to the amendment of the Government's motion.

With regard to the minister's comments about the fact there is a budget line item for the fire owners council, ipso facto, it must exist. If only it were the case that other advisory councils that this Government funds had a voice. If only it were the case that they were listened to. The Animal Welfare Advisory Committee is a body for which there is a line item in the Budget and it is never listened to. From that very committee, we had such a well-credentialed and respected principal solicitor for the Melbourne-based Animal Law Institute, Malcolm Caulfield, who quit the Animal Welfare Advisory Committee because he felt that the Government was not listening and that there are deep-seated problems in the way that it handles investigations.

There you have it. You can fund these things and not listen to them; you can put them in the budget and not continue with rolling out the funding. All of this is possible. Clearly, what we would want to see is that there an evidence base for establishing an advisory council of any type and that when it is funded, that the work of that council is respected and the voices on that council are listened to. They must have the support of the community.

The terms of reference of the firearm owners council as reported in Mr Hidding's letter to stakeholder groups, which was on his website when he was the previous minister for police, said that the council would be a nine-member statutory body with the chair and members to be paid positions and nominations open to major stakeholder bodies. It was a body intended to provide advice on all matters to do with the regulation and use of firearms in Tasmania. But given that none of the organisations I referred to previously, the Gun Control Australia advocate, none of them had any correspondence or heard anything about the proposal to establish this committee, I think it is something which ought not to be acted on until that has been a full investigation into whether it is required in the first place.

This particular amendment seeks to remove the words 'proposed Tasmanian Firearms Owners Council'. We do not want to labour this issue but there is a question in the amendment which the Government has moved about why we would be having an inquiry into the roles of Tasmania Police and the roles of the firearms services. It is not clear what is meant by that in the terms of reference for the committee. What is the basis for needing to investigate the roles of the police? Which roles of the Tasmania Police?

Dr Broad - By interjection, if I may: if there are purely administrative functions it might be a better use of time if an administrator instead of a police officer did that.

Dr WOODRUFF - Yes, all things are possible, Dr Broad. It leaves it very open for a whole number of investigations that may or may not be appropriate or reasonably within the remit of such a committee. That stands and this amendment to amendment 6 to change the part in relation to the proposed Tasmanian firearm owners council and replace it with the creation of a broad-based consultative group. We do support that.

Dr WOODRUFF - I believed we have reached a position where we have a substantially amended motion from the motion that was initially brought into the House. It brings us to a place where we are able to have a formal conversation and inquiry into issues of serious concern to all Tasmanians and have a formal conversation and investigation into the concerns of many stakeholders about Tasmania's gun laws.

The Greens will be very keen to focus on the legislative changes needed to bring Tasmania's Firearms Act into compliance with the National Firearms Agreement, because we are not in compliance with the National Firearms Agreement. The extensive report and investigation that was done by Her Excellency Kate Warner, before she was in her current role, has demonstrated many ways in which Tasmania, along with some other states, no longer comply with the National Firearms Agreement. Those are matters that need to be addressed in such an inquiry.

The Greens will very strongly represent and seek to hear stories and concerns from people who want reforms to minimise and, if possible, prevent domestic violence and abuse involving firearms, as well as a better understanding about what we can do to reduce the violence that still occurs, sadly, to people in the family violence space regarding firearms. We will also continue to promote the absolute requirement for a ban on semi-automatic handguns.

There are many other matters the inquiry will and must consider and, with goodwill and tripartite support, the Greens will work hard to make sure Tasmania is a bulwark against the push by national firearms associations and some shooting lobby groups to erode firearms legislation for convenience.

As a firearm owner myself, yes the regulations are sometimes frustrating. Yes, there are onerous things that need to be attended to. Yes, there is care that needs to be taken in storage and yes, there is a level of detail that needs to be attended to, to make sure that all of the paperwork is up-to-date and all of the licence requirements are fulfilled. That is as it should be. That is a small price to pay for keeping Tasmania one of the safest places to live in the world.

With that, we thank the minister and the Labor Party for the conversations we have had where we have reached this position.