THE HON MARK DREYFUS KC MP
MEMBER FOR ISAACS
SEVEN THE LATEST
WEDNESDAY 14 JUNE 2023
SUBJECTS: Port Arthur massacre historic letters; National Firearms Register; Nazi hate symbols ban; Right wing extremism; Lidia Thorpe claims.
MICHAEL USHER: … Prime Minister John Howard just released for the first time tonight. In it he spoke of his support for gun control legislation being considered saying “with all my heart, I implore you to restore Australia to being the best place in the world.” In a letter two months later, he described sitting “with tears streaming down my face still reading cards for Nanette, Alannah and Madeline” and again implored the Howard Government to “maintain the intestinal fortitude and foresight to stand firm” on the reforms. Correspondence between the two became a defining catalyst in the country's crackdown on firearms. Tomorrow, those letters will be handed over to the National Museum, a reminder of that decisive chapter in our history. Let's go to be Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus in Parliament House tonight. Attorney-General thanks for joining The Latest tonight.
ATTORNEY-GENERAL MARK DREYFUS: It's good to be with you Michael.
USHER: It goes without saying these letters are incredibly important. Why is it important that they're made public and preserved in this way?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: These are letters written in, I think, everybody watching would understand was unimaginable grief following the deaths of Walter Mikac's entire family. But they were a very important part of what were what was an amazing reaction of our country to the deaths of 35 Australians at the hands of a single gunman at Port Arthur. And what followed was a uniting of the parliament, John Howard and Kim Beazley, uniting to make sure that Australia passed some of the strongest gun laws in the world. And the path that was played by these two letters - and I think that also being delivered to the museum tomorrow is John Howard's response - is a very important part of this. What we're left with is a legacy of some of the strongest gun laws in the world.
USHER: Those letters are incredibly powerfully emotional, but they also united creating some rare bipartisanship. I understand you've met with police ministers around the country a few days ago. The plan for National Firearms Register got underway all those years ago, but certainly spurred along by the recent police shootings in Queensland in December. It's taken a long time to get the National Register implemented. Why has that been and how significant is that now?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: It's a demonstration that there's always room for improvement. Yes, we've got some of the strongest gun laws in the world but we can always do more. And in the response to the tragic deaths of the two police, two young police officers at Wieambilla in Queensland last year, and the neighbour, we've seen a response where the First Ministers of Australia got together earlier this year and asked the Police Ministers to advise them on how we can have a National Firearms Register to keep police safe to keep the community safe. And I'm very pleased that the Police Ministers meeting last Friday in Brisbane, we reached an agreement on how to go forward with his National Firearms Register. That will now go to the First Ministers of Australia and I hope we can make progress on what is another very important step. What it would mean is that we'll have real time information for police officers. And I hope it will avoid ever again, police officers being exposed in the way that they were at Wieambilla.
USHER: WilL that also save some of those absolutely appalling situations of domestic violence where guns are used and registers, either not in place in some parts of Australia or are not properly monitored. Will that change that situation as well?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: It's going to raise the level of reporting and raise the level of information so that it will be available in real time everywhere in Australia. Police officers responding to any type of call will be able to check on whether or not there are firearms present or recorded as being present in a house that they're about to enter. We want to know that when police officers are standing at the top of the driveway, about to go into a dangerous situation, that they have as much information as possible and, most importantly, whether or not there are firearms present. The National Firearms Register is going to enable that.
USHER: It's a point of pride in our gun laws in this country from that bipartisanship all those years ago, 27 years ago, but we've seen in our nightly news, there's still a cycle of gun violence in gangland wars, for example. Are we losing the battle against some of the criminal organisations and will they be affected by a National Firearms Register? I would imagine most of their weapons are highly illegal and imported somehow?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: We've still got too high a level of unregistered illegally held firearms in this country. It is a constant battle. It is a cooperative effort between the Australian Federal Police and the state and territory police forces. As I said earlier in this interview, there's always room for improvement. We have reduced the number of guns in circulation in Australia and we have reduced, we think, the number of illegal firearms in circulation in Australia but there's more we still need to do.
USHER: You're also introducing a ban on hate symbols to Parliament like the Nazi swastika, a strong move, but are you worried also that some of those far right extremists are also getting access to guns, which are some of the security fears as well?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Of course, and it's something that the Director-General Security, the head of ASIO has spoken about. For the past three years in a row in his security speech to the nation he's talked about the rise of far right violent extremism and of course, we're concerned about guns falling into their hands. There's more we can do, but today, I introduced a bill to ban the public display or online display and trade of these Nazi symbols and we think that's an important step. It's complementary to recent laws passed by state and territory governments.
USHER: The reforms all those years ago, as I mentioned, Attorney-General, were was a rare moment of bipartisanship. Why do you think that's remained so strong, and continue when it comes to gun control in Australia?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: I think there's an understanding right across Australia that this is something we can be proud of, that we have a much safer community than many other countries one could point to. And part of that has been the control of guns and reducing the number of guns in circulation, improving registration practices. This is what Walter Mikac in his letter, his touching letters hoped for, that we would never again see the tragic event that took his wife and two little daughters. And we haven't since that time, since the tragic slaughter of 35 Australians at Port Arthur. We haven't seen anything of this scale again. I hope we never will, but it's something we have to keep working on. And I do think that there's bipartisan agreement on this. We've had cooperation, bipartisan cooperation in this Police Ministers Council and I'm hoping that there'll be continuing bipartisan cooperation in the Federal Parliament and in state parliaments on this National Firearms Register.
USHER: Let's hope so. Finally, Attorney-General, a developing story tonight, those explosive claims made by Lydia Thorpe against Liberal Senator David Van today, quite extraordinary in the Senate. Your response to those?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: They are extraordinary claims and I'm going to leave that matter to be dealt with by the Senate.
USHER: It is also a legal matter I'd imagine though. What's sort of standing does David Van, the Liberal Senator have in this situation with those accusations levelled against him?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: It's a matter for the Senate, and as a courtesy to the Senate, I'm a Member of the House of Representatives. I'm going to leave it to the Senate to deal with that.
USHER: Your personal remarks on this happening in Parliament today?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: They are extraordinary claims and very concerning claims.
USHER: Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus, thanks for joining us tonight.