Criminal Code Amendment (Firearms Trafficking) Bill 2016 - Second Reading Speech

The reintroduction of these measures is clearly a desperate attempt by government to distract from the fact that it is hopelessly divided when it comes to guns—among other things. Of course, Labor supports tougher penalties for firearms trafficking, but we will not support measures which are ineffective. What we seek to do is to remove the mandatory minimum sentences which do not work and instead we propose amendments to introduce new offences for aggravated firearms trafficking with a maximum sentence of life in prison.

Let's recap on the history of this bill. The coalition government introduced it to give effect to mandatory minimum sentences to those found guilty of trafficking illegal firearms, despite the last parliament rejecting these measures twice. Yet here we are again, Groundhog Day, with the introduction of this bill. In February 2015, Labor successfully moved amendments in the Senate to remove the introduction of mandatory minimum sentencing contained in the government's Crimes Legislation Amendment (Psychoactive Substances and Other Measures) Bill 2014. In August 2015 Labor was again successful in moving amendments in the Senate to remove the reintroduction of mandatory minimum sentences, this time in the Crimes Legislation Amendment (Powers, Offences and Other Measures) Bill 2015. Now we have the Criminal Code Amendment (Firearms Trafficking) Bill 2016 before us.

There is no convincing evidence to prove that mandatory minimums act as a deterrent, and presumably that is the whole point of the government's intent in this legislation. We know this because the minister's own department has said that mandatory sentences may create an incentive for a defendant to fight charges, even in hopeless cases. The Attorney-General's Department's document, 'Guide to framing Commonwealth offences, infringement notices and enforcement powers' states at 3.1 that minimum penalties should be avoided. The government is ignoring its own departmental advice. Why did the Attorney-General's Department say they should be avoided? Because they, inter alia, may: 'interfere with judicial discretion to impose a penalty appropriate in the circumstances of a particular case'; 'create an incentive for a defendant to fight charges, even where there is little merit in doing so'; 'preclude the use of alternative sanctions such as community service orders that would otherwise be available in Part IB of the Crimes Act 1914'; and 'encourage the judiciary to look for technical grounds to avoid a restriction on sentencing discretion, leading to anomalous decisions'.

Further to all of that evidence which the government had before it, the Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs received evidence from a number of stakeholders in inquiries for the two previous bills, which I outlined earlier, who strongly opposed the introduction of those amendments. The Law Council of Australia referred to a number of unintended consequences of mandatory sentencing, which included 'undermining the community's confidence in the judiciary and the criminal justice system as a whole'. The Australian Human Rights Commission noted that these 'amendments give rise to the potential for injustices to occur' and 'run counter to the fundamental principle that punishment should fit the crime'. There were also concerns previously raised by state prosecutors, who believed that these provisions could lead to unjust results and impose a significant burden on the justice system.

Here we have the government moving into its rhetoric, unfortunately, which it continues to do rather than look at the facts, rather than look at the evidence, rather than a look at its own government department's advice. But this, I think, all comes down to the government's bitter division and disunity within itself on gun control. It has still not come out and supported the measures that we put forward, and now it is 2017. So, yes, Labor will stand on the side of reason and will push for tough new penalties to allow judges to put the worst gun traffickers away for life. And Labor will, as I mentioned, recognise that tougher penalties for firearms trafficking is an important step when looking at the evidence provided.

Last year was a very telling year in gun control. The government lost on gun control last year. Tony Abbott and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull were both willing to let the dangerous Adler A110 lever action shot gun into Australia in exchange of course, as we know, for a vote in this place. The National Party then split from the Liberals on the floor of the Senate, voting to let a dangerous weapon into this country. The Deputy Prime Minister, Barnaby Joyce, then contradicted Malcolm Turnbull's position on national television and members of Malcolm Turnbull's own party came out in favour of weaker gun laws. It was an absolute shemozzle. And that shemozzle has not gone away. That division is still there within this government. If we needed to see any evidence of that division in the last week, it was the resignation of Senator Bernardi from the Liberal Party, who simply could not stomach the rank hypocrisy within this government any longer. But under this government's watch, a record number of weapons have flooded into the illicit market. Right now the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission estimates that there are more than 260,000 firearms in the illicit firearms market and possibly as many as 600,000. The commission estimates that 10,000 of these are hand guns, the weapon of choice for gangs and criminals and the like. But of course the government is too divided to fight it.

The Liberal Party and the Nationals are too divided on guns to take meaningful action to address this issue of illicit firearms. The reintroduction of these very ineffective measures for the third time in this place is just an attempt to distract from the fact that they are still divided. It is about smoke and mirrors to show that they are doing something. Well that something is certainly not good enough.

The Labor Party is the only party that is willing to protect our world-leading gun laws. Coming from the state of Tasmania and recognising the steps that former Prime Minister John Howard made—something very much supported by both sides of parliament after that atrocious and terrible event that occurred in Port Arthur—I have a duty to ensure that we have and continue to have world-leading gun laws, not a weakening of them and not the introduction of these illicit firearms of the magnitude that I just outlined coming into this country.

The proposals put forward by the Abbott and Turnbull governments to tackle firearms trafficking only contain maximum sentences of 20 years. Labor believes that prosecutors should be able to pursue tougher penalties for the worst forms of firearms trafficking. In 2012, Labor introduced legislation that would have created an aggravated offence for firearms trafficking with a maximum sentence of life imprisonment, the same as the maximum penalty for drug trafficking. These measures passed the House of Representatives with the support of the coalition at that time. But the bill lapsed in the Senate at the end of the 43rd Parliament. So Labor is seeking to amend this bill to implement these provisions, which we proposed when we were in government. That is the consistent nature, the consistent policy position of this party as opposed to the constant inconsistency that we continue to see from the coalition. These amendments that we put forward are for new aggravated offences for people who traffic 50 or more firearms or firearm parts either within Australia or across its borders in a six-month period. The maximum penalty for these offences will be life imprisonment and this will send a very strong message that trafficking in firearms and the violence that it creates will not be tolerated.

The Liberals are proposing ineffective measures in order to distract from the fact that they are weak on gun control. Labor is proposing tougher measures to create new aggravated offences with the strongest penalties available—that is, life imprisonment. And only Labor can be trusted to protect Australia's world-leading gun laws. The government's fixation on mandatory minimum sentences makes, I think, a hollow mockery out of the Australian people's desire for our community to be safe. It really does make a mockery of it. If the government really does support tougher gun laws, it will vote for Labor's tough aggravated trafficking offences.

I would like to highlight the importance of why we should be delivering this, not just for the community but also because we are a part of something a bit broader. We are part of a number of treaties when it comes to dealing with trafficking of firearms. Looking at it from a criminal justice angle, for example, not only is there the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime but also the Protocol against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking In Firearms, their Parts and Components and Ammunition supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime treaty series. I understand we have signed that protocol; I think we have not yet ratified it, and I would hope to see that we do that. There is the Arms Trade Treaty as well. There are a number of instruments other than those important treaties that we also need to take into account as to why this is important when we are talking about the trafficking of firearms, because it could be trafficking within our country, out of our country or into our country; it could be trafficking of parts of guns, whole guns, all of the components or the ammunition. All of that needs to be taken into account. That is our multilateral framework that we act upon when looking into how we form policies to make our community safe and go forward with tougher gun laws.

Finally, I want to highlight the fact that this government, as I think I made fairly clear, is not serious about tough gun laws. Labor are pursuing tough new penalties to allow judges to put the worst gun traffickers away for life because we are serious about tough gun laws. That is the whole point and meaning behind our amendments. We all know that the government trades its vote with some crossbench senators in this place, but I cannot think of a more important issue right now to not trade a vote in relation to than not weakening gun laws. Yet last year we saw the government do just that. We saw the government trade guns for votes. Mr Turnbull and Mr Abbott at that time contradicted each other on the floor of parliament. The Nationals then split from the Liberal Party, voting to weaken our gun laws. Do you really think that division has gone away? The government is too busy fighting within itself to come up with effective policies to fight gun crime.

I outlined figures from the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission of 600,000 illegal weapons in circulation in Australia. The fact that the community is simply at risk with these numbers of guns circulating illegally in the market should be something to cause alarm for this government. That should be a reason in itself for the government to not trade guns for votes. Once guns enter that illegal market, they are difficult to get back. We do not want to see in our community these illegal guns stay on the streets and be available to criminals, gangs and terrorists. That is why we need these tough gun laws, and that is why Labor, in putting our amendments forwards, very much hope the government will support them.

We have had enough, though, of the Prime Minister's weakness on guns. We have had enough of the Prime Minister's backflips on a number of policy issues and the fact that he does not stand for what he believes in anymore, but weakness on guns is simply unacceptable. It is beyond the pale. We are moving these substantial amendments to this bill, to create the new aggravated firearms trafficking offences, because we need serious action, not absurd and childish game-playing within the Liberal and National parties. I hope the coalition stop wasting the time of this Senate and the time of the Australian community and start acting on the tougher gun laws that Labor have put forward. They should stop wasting time on things that simply do not work. I hope that they join Labor in putting serious gun traffickers away for life, and the only way to do that is to support Labor's amendments.