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Firearms Amendment (Community Safety) Bill 2023

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP  -  Tuesday, 31 October 2023

Tags: National Firearms Agreement, Legislation, Community Safety

Dr WOODRUFF (Franklin - Leader of the Greens) - Mr Speaker, the Greens certainly take any amendments to the Firearms Act extremely seriously and we always have. It was 1987 when Dr Bob Brown, who was a member of the Greens in Tasmania, moved to introduce a bill to ban rapid-fire weapons. Sadly, that was not supported. We know that what happened less than a decade later at Port Arthur in 1996 was one of the darkest days in our history. Having spoken to people who survived one of the 23 people who survived that shooting massacre where 35 people around her were murdered it was something which has changed people and communities.

It has left an enormous effect on people who were first responders, police officers, ambulance officers and especially the doctors and nurses who were at the Royal Hobart Hospital, many of whom were there for a medical conference. It was incredibly good fortune for Tasmania that there was a conference at the time of many doctors who ended up jumping into the Royal Hobart Hospital and dealing with the many wounded and managing the grief and trauma that went on from that day and continues for many people in Tasmania today.

That is the history of the National Fire Arms Agreement. It is the basis upon which we in Tasmania have an extraordinary responsibility in the world. We have what are widely regarded across all countries as the strongest firearms laws. We have a proud history of being the crucible for the world, of strength where other countries have chosen the path of weakness, where the National Rifle Association in the United States is one of the most powerful lobby groups on the planet. Their tentacles are felt anywhere on the planet in any parliament where legislation is up for discussion about increasing the strength of firearms laws. They will be there, their trolls will be there, attacking members of parliament who seek to bring in laws to strengthen the firearms legislation in any jurisdiction.

I know that from personal experience when, in 2015, on behalf of the Greens I introduced a bill to ban the lever-action Adler shotgun and to prevent it from being classified as it has since been classified as a category A weapon. I experienced the full weight of the National Rifle Association from the United States, their members in Australia and in Tasmania, and the trolling that went on and the abuse, from simply trying to introduce legislation to make Tasmania a safer place.

The lever-action Adler shotgun has been a point of dispute in Australia for a number of years now, and this legislation makes a change in that regard. We do not support the classification of the lever action as a category B. It is currently, in Tasmania, category A. We recognise the arguments that the minister makes for why this is what has been agreed at the national level by some other states, but it does not fit within the National Firearms Agreement. The National Firearms Agreement is, as Ms O'Byrne said, the arrangement that was struck between all states and territories after Port Arthur. It was through the leadership of the then prime minister John Howard and all state premiers, that the agreement was written.

The National Firearms Agreement is not just an agreement of principle. It is an agreement with a number of resolutions. There are 58 resolutions and each of those is specific and is something that was agreed to. It has not changed since. It still stands as a document that all states and territories in Australia are in agreement on. The opening statement of the National Firearms Agreement is that it constitutes a national approach to the regulation of firearms. The agreement affirms that firearms possession and use is a privilege that is conditional on the overriding need to ensure public safety and that public safety is improved by the safe and responsible possession, carriage, use, registration, storage and transfer of firearms.

It says in clause 9 that individuals must demonstrate a genuine reason for acquiring, possessing or using firearms. In other words, there is no 'right to carry' arms in Australia. We are not the United States: we do not have any inalienable right to have a firearm. It is a privilege. Public safety must be first and foremost at the front of all of our decision-making when it comes to any changes to our Tasmanian firearm legislation in reference to the National Firearms Agreement and what was decided in 1997.

We have some concerns with parts of this legislation and we welcome other parts of it. The proposed amendments to the extended amnesty - section 129, in relation to including parts and ammunition in amnesties, when amnesties are declared and available - is welcome. It makes perfect sense to widen any firearm parts and include them so they can be disposed of. We also support the prohibition on the use of 3D printers, and the work in the bill around the possession of digital blueprints for the manufacture of firearms.

Thank you very much for the briefing that I had and the details that were provided. I think it was mentioned that there has been intelligence provided that digital blueprints - 3D printing - are becoming a problem, and I wonder why. This is something the Greens have raised, and I commend Roland Browne from Gun Control Australia, who has been on the forefront of this issue for years now. He is the voice in Tasmania, and one of many nationally who are clarion voices for keeping strong gun laws. Roland has been raising the issue of the 3D printing dangers for many years now. I wonder why it has taken the Government so long to get to the point of doing something about this, when this has been flagged as a concern for at least five or six years that I am aware of.

Clearly, digital blueprints are available now to replace parts. This is seeking - appropriately - to make sure that it is controlled, and that it is an offence if a person uses a digital blueprint to make a part of a firearm, but why has it taken this long? It has certainly been discussed for many years now.

I will talk about other parts of the amendment act, the parts relating to infringement notices in particular, and also make some comments around silencers. At this point it is important to go back into the history of the firearms inquiry that was held in Tasmania and completed its report in 2019.

I was one of the members, and so was the Speaker, Mr Shelton. So was Dr Broad, who is here in the Chamber. To give context for that, before the 2018 state election on 9 February, the then Liberal police minister, Rene Hiddings, wrote to a consultation group of people - principally from the Tasmanian Farmers and Graziers Association - and made a number of promises to encourage people to vote for the Liberals at the 2018 election. These promises were around weakening firearms laws. He proposed, on behalf of the Liberals, to do a whole range of things that would have breached the National Firearms Agreement. He promised that if re elected, the Liberal Government would extend the active period for licensing of firearms to include options for up to 10 years for category A and B for all licence holders, and for two years for category C, agent of a primary producer, which is currently every year.

That is a flagrant breach of the firearms agreement, because it is an offence under the firearms agreement to have a licence for longer than five years.

The other proposal, which was a breach, was to provide for genuine employees, including contractors or agents of primary producers, to be able to hold category C licences. This was widening the scope of people who could have a category C licence. Also, to allow the use of sound suppressors, to develop a protocol that would allow the operation of shows for antique firearms and militia groups, which would be essentially about trade and display of firearms material, promoting a gun culture. It was also proposed to establish a new category E to encompass prohibited firearms. Again, in breach of the National Firearms Agreement to allow the carriage of firearms in public places in vehicles to deal with practical circumstances, a protocol for the convenience of people who used firearms. Again, a breach where it is not a right, but it has to be about public safety first.

It was an outrage for Tasmanians. When people found out about this - the Greens heard about this - we certainly did our best to make it known to Tasmanians. People were deeply concerned and outraged that this was a secret deal being done behind closed doors by the Liberals in consultation with the shooting lobby and other firearm owners. It was not just the Liberals who were moving in this direction.

The Labor Party was having their own go at this. The Labor Party made their own proposals for weakening the National Firearms Agreement. Not quite as extensive and blatant as the Liberals, but they also saw a copy, according to the witness evidence that was presented to the Firearms Inquiry later by John Jones. He said from the Tasmanian Farmers and Graziers Association, the firearms group, that he was in possession of the information from the Liberal Party - their package of firearm weakening reforms at least three weeks before the eve of the election. He said he made the Labor Party aware of it three weeks prior to that date. It was clear the Labor Party knew about this. They were silent; they were not letting on. They were having their own conversations with firearm owners, because there was Labor Party material which they released which said that: (tbc)

Labor recognises the legitimate use of firearms for competitive shooting, hunting and as an important tool of trade for farmers. They recognised the issues encountered by farmers and others which frustrate and impede legitimate day-to-day use of firearms and that they would be looking at introducing infringement notices for very minor breaches of firearm storage regulations.

These things are in breach of the National Firearms Agreement and Tasmania ended up having a firearms inquiry. I was a member on that inquiry. It was a very deeply moving experience to have so many people make submissions. I will read a couple of them that are important. Some of the most important ones came from people who had survived Port Arthur and people like the Honourable Michael Field who was the Chair of the Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority in 2019. He said: (tbc)

I would like to put Tasmania's review of gun laws in an international and national context. Anything we do as a state by definition, because of the events that stimulated and enabled Australia to pass gun laws will be picked up nationally and internationally.

Internationally, if we weaken gun laws it would be picked up by every gun advocate lobby in the world and it would get press around the world, but particularly if we break from the national gun agreement, and that is the second point.

Every time there is a massacre anywhere in the world, there is a reference to Australia's gun laws. I am sure you have noticed that. It is always referred to back to Port Arthur. (TBC)

It was Ellen and Finn Seccombe who said:

In the decade before 1996, there were 11 mass shootings in Australia. The importance of strong regulatory reform as an effective means for preventing mass shootings and gun deaths is highlighted over and again by experts and researchers. (TBC)

What came through very clearly in the inquiry was around this question of infringements and so-called minor changes, minor infractions in the storage and use, and matters to do with registration of firearms.

I will talk about the proposals in the amendment bill. The minister's second reading speech uses the words:

The new infringement notice offences relate to minor failures of firearm storage and also to technical breeches of the Firearm Act to assist in enforcement and compliance actions and reduce time in court.

This discussed at great length during the firearms inquiry. It is fair to say there were many views on either side about what was appropriate in this situation. I recognise the argument that has been presented by Firearms Services and by Tasmania Police about the benefits of having an infringement system. I am not blind to the argument about being able to have a stepped approach, I suppose, to putting people on notice and instead of the situation as is currently is, where there is a discretion for Tasmania Police to just have a warning but not to record and offence or not to remove the firearm.

This amendment is introducing another 20 occasions where an infringement notice can be given to a firearm owner for a breach of the act, instead of the removal of the firearm or the suspension or removal of the licence. That is the concern that every time we add to the list of infringement notices: we are weakening the strength of the laws by sending a message that there are such a thing as minor breaches of something that is a lethal weapon.

Steven Bendall is from the Alannah and Madeline Foundation. Alannah and Madeline were two young children who were murdered at Port Arthur. That foundation has been set up to maintain strong gun laws in Australia and to campaign and be advocates for the protection and safety of children. He said:

We understand the rationale for that position, the position in terms of making an argument for licence and storage infringements. It introduces a grey area and we believe that as soon as you've introduced one grey area, such as one bullet, do you put in your legislation that one bullet is okay? Do you put in your legislation that a box of bullets is okay? As soon as you start introducing grey areas, we think that is a slippery slope.

It is very clear that clause 44(b) of the National Firearms Agreement says that any breach is an offence that results in the cancellation of licence and confiscation of all firearms. We understand that's a tough penalty, but we think any decisions on any of the issues you are considering should be made in the interest of public safety and not the convenience and ease of practice for firearm owners and users.

We understand that makes it difficult. We understand that makes it tough for farmers and primary producers. It is our position that firearm legislation should not be in place to make it easy. We should not make it any easier for anyone to get a gun, use a gun or get another gun. We have an agreement in place and we should be making decisions in the interests of public safety, not in the interests of the ease of firearms usage. (TBC)

I am concerned that the schedule 1A, Infringement Notice Offences, that the offences that have been added increases the list substantially by an extra 20. It adds a further 12 offences that are at least in part contrary to clause 44(b) of the Firearms Agreement. In relation to the additions of the extra infringement notices for numbers 23, 24, and 32, as listed in the bill schedule 1A, there would be no cancellation of a licence with the issue of an infringement notice for knowingly transporting a firearm or a firearm part and ammunition. There would also be no cancellation of a licence for number 23, failing to comply with the prescribed safety requirements when conveying firearms or ammunition, or also for number 32, failing to comply with the obligation as the keeper of a firearm.

It is also the case that items 22 and 25 to 31 trivialise offences under the act and undermine the integrity of the licensing system and the matrix of regulations that require vigilance and scrupulous record-keeping. On the basis of that, we oppose the inclusion of those extra 20 infringement notice offences. It is concerning that there has been this slippery slope and we do not think it is in the interests of Tasmania to have a situation where we increasingly add infringement notices to things which are a lethal weapon when there are breaches, particularly something as flagrant as knowingly transporting a firearm or a firearm part and ammunition.

It was clear in the inquiry that was held that the vast majority of Tasmanians are extremely comfortable with our strong firearm laws. They are very happy with that steady state. In fact, they are very disturbed when they hear about instances of gun violence and misuse of firearms, which happens from time to time in the community. They definitely back Tasmania Police in doing everything they can to decrease gun violence and to make the community safer. They are not happy with a situation that is weakening the laws, which that clause schedule 1A does. We will go into Committee to discuss that.

My final question to the minister is about the comment that was made about a second tranche of legislation following this one, and that would include the use of sound-suppressors or silencers. A key finding from the inquiry was the widespread concern in the Tasmanian community about the idea of allowing silencers. This is something that the shooting lobby is relentlessly pushing. Unless we hold the line, we will end up being like other jurisdictions around the world where people can get a silencer on their gun, and it increases the risk against community safety. There is no doubt about it. We are concerned to know what is behind the move for an apparent second tranche of legislation.

Who is pushing that? What are you trying to achieve? What will the community consultation be about it - will it be an open and public community consultation? We expect you would be deluged by concern in the community about opening up for silencers. Silencers are a contravention of the National Firearms Agreement. There is an argument which is presented that because something is not in the National Firearms Agreement, therefore it does not contravene the National Firearms Agreement. It does not have rocket launchers and it does not have bazookas in the National Firearms Agreement, but it is clear that those things would contravene the National Firearms Agreement. Therefore, it is also the case that silencers, sound suppressors, are not specifically mentioned as an exclusion in the National Firearms Agreement because they were not considered as something that should be there in the first place.

There is a strong commitment amongst Tasmanians to have strong gun laws. The Greens have always been behind them from the very beginning and will be here at every opportunity to make sure we keep them as strong as they are. They have already been weakened by successive Liberal and Labor governments when it comes to permits for underage people to have firearm permits. There is plenty of opportunity to weaken them further. We call on the minister to be true to the spirit of the firearms inquiry held. We had a wide canvassing of community opinion and came up with some strong recommendations. Not giving in to weakening in the form of infringements was in the spirit of one of them.

We thank the minister for the parts of this bill which are strengthening our laws. We will be speaking against some of the other parts in the Committee stage of the bill.