Crimes Legislation Amendment (Organised Crime and Other Measures); Bill 2012; Second Reading
House of Representatives, The Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia
6:36 pm: Jason Clare (Blaxland, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Defence Materiel): Last year at my request the Australian Crime Commission conducted a national investigation of the illegal firearms market. They presented their report to police ministers in June of last year. It is a very serious document. It reveals a black market of a quarter of a million firearms in the hands of criminals.
In the conduct of that investigation, the Australian Crime Commission traced 3,168 firearms that police had seized across the country. That tracing analysis found that 44 per cent of those weapons were not surrendered or registered after the Port Arthur massacre, 12 per cent of those firearms were stolen or involved in staged theft and less than one per cent of those firearms traced by the Crime Commission were illegally imported. In other words, the majority of those weapons that form part of this massive illegal black market are weapons that either were not handed in after the Port Arthur massacre or were stolen. In New South Wales alone, 10 firearms are stolen every week. In the last decade, 7,000 weapons have been stolen in New South Wales and not recovered. I read in a South Australian newspaper today that there have been more than 11,000 weapons stolen in South Australia in the last decade.
All of this fuels that black market. Criminals do try to import weapons. We have seen evidence of that. One illegal gun import is one too many. That is why I have established a Firearms Intelligence and Targeting Team inside Customs, and it is getting results. It is working with the New South Wales police, as well as the FBI, the ATF and the DEA in the United States. They broke a gun-running syndicate only late last year. It is also why I have brought forward this legislation, but it must be clearly understood that this is one small part of what is a massive illegal firearms market: a quarter of a million guns in the hands of criminals across the country.
If we are serious and if we are going to tackle this illegal firearms market then we need to tackle it from every angle—not just on the border but on the street. We need to make sure our police have got the powers they need to seize those weapons off the criminals that are infesting Western Sydney and shooting up streets. We need to make sure that our law enforcement authorities have got the powers that they need to break the code of silence surrounding people that are too afraid to talk and to give information to police. We have to improve our ability to trace the firearms that police do seize. We have got to strengthen laws – and this is an example of that – and harden the border.
I put a package of reforms to police ministers in June last year and got their in-principle support for a package. This legislation is the first of these reforms. It introduces tough new penalties for firearms trafficking across state and national borders. It creates new aggravated offences for people who traffic 50 or more firearms or firearm parts either within Australia or across its borders. The maximum penalty for these offences will be life in jail, which is the same maximum penalty for drug trafficking. Additionally, the bill expands existing offences to cover the trafficking of firearm parts as well as the trafficking of firearms. It will also create new offences relating to the trafficking of firearms across Australia’s national borders. This will send a strong message that trafficking in firearms and the violence that it creates will not be tolerated.
As I said, this bill is just one part of a package of reforms that I took to state and territory police ministers last year. These reforms have been agreed in principle, but there is now a lot of work to do to ensure that they are fully implemented. They include, firstly, the establishment of a national firearms register. There are firearms registers in each state and territory. According to the federal agency CrimTrac, about 14,000 firearms disappear off these registries ever year and can slip into the black market. We need to fix this, and that is the purpose of a national firearms registry.
The next thing we agreed on was the in-principle rollout of an Australian ballistics identification network nationwide. This is effectively technology that enables police to identify, from the firearm they seize, the firearm’s involvement in previous crimes. It is like DNA testing for stolen weapons. The New South Wales police have this technology and so do the federal police. We need to roll it out to all police across the country. That is what we agreed to in principle last year.
We also need to improve the skills and the training of our law enforcement officers across the country in the tracing analysis that they do of firearms. For that purpose, this month I am bringing to Australia experts from the United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to train state police, federal police and Customs officers. I mentioned the Firearms Intelligence and Targeting Team that I have established in Customs and the work that it is doing. In addition to that, one of those officers has now been embedded inside the New South Wales police. This makes sure that officers are working together with a common aim. The next step is to embed Customs officers in similar squads and similar task forces right across the country.
If we are serious about this and if we are serious about making sure that we get these guns of the streets, I think we need to go one step further and give police the powers that they really need to go and get these guns. What I am talking about here is the power for police to randomly search serious repeat offenders for guns. Police know who most of these criminals are, but people are too afraid to talk. We need to give them the power to go and get these guns. If someone is a serious criminal and they have a record of using firearms then police should have the power to stop them and search them for guns at any time. South Australia has laws like this at the moment and I have asked state police ministers across the country to consider implementing this as well. If we are serious about this, if we are serious about tackling this a quarter of a million firearms on the streets of Australia, then this is what we have to do. We have to tackle this from every angle.
This bill also makes important improvements to laws that allow our law enforcement agencies to target unexplained wealth—the ill-gotten gains of the actions of organised criminals. They are very important reforms. They are the first stage in the implementation of the recommendations of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Law Enforcement. The Attorney-General’s Department at the moment is consulting with our federal law enforcement agencies in preparation for the implementation of the other recommendations in that report. The key one in that report was the recommendation of the committee that the states and territories of this country refer their powers to the Commonwealth to create national unexplained wealth laws so that there are no soft spots across the country, no safe havens and no place for criminals to hide their assets—the same law across the country. It will give police more powers to seize the cash, the cars, the homes and the assets of these criminals.
I have spoken to police who are at the centre of the drive-by shootings in Western Sydney, and their advice to me is pretty plain. They say the best way to break these gangs is to seize their assets, to take their cash off them. A lot of them are gen Y criminals. It is all about the power and status that comes with the crime—and power comes from money, which enables them to pay off the people who are involved in the criminal enterprise. Take their cash and you take their power. They are often more afraid of losing their money than they are of going to jail. That is why these laws are so important.
As I said, money creates power in the criminal underworld. The more powers we can give our law enforcement agencies here, the more it can help to alter the balance of power on the street and undermine the influence of these criminals. If states do as our Parliamentary Joint Committee on Law Enforcement has recommended—and it is a bipartisan recommendation; both sides of the House think this is the way to go—if states agree to give the Commonwealth these powers to create these laws, then states will have the option of using their existing unexplained wealth laws and asset seizure laws or using these laws as well. So they give up nothing. Any concern the states have that they will lose out from this is a concern that is misplaced. This will only add to the powers of state police and add to the ability of states to recover more assets.
In the course of this debate, one member of the opposition said that this was a good thing and asked why the government was not implementing it straightaway, and then another member of the opposition said that this was just a distraction. Well, the Australian Federal Police Association and the Police Federation of Australia do not think it is a distraction. The police in Western Sydney do not think it is a distraction. They think it is a critical part of the armoury that police need: seize their cash, seize their assets and shift the balance of power on the street. So I back these calls. I back the recommendation of our committee, and I will work as hard as I can this year to see it implemented.
I put this case to attorneys-general last year, twice. I asked them for these powers, and on both occasions they rejected that. I think that is a mistake. I think our committee got it right. I think it is a bad decision by the states to think that national laws here will not help. I will continue to prosecute the case for these laws and for national antigang laws this year. This is a good bill. I thank the opposition for their support for this bill. I commend the bill to the House.
Question agreed to.
Bill read a second time.
Read the full House debate including comments by Ministers Michael Keenan, Nick Champion, Chris Bowen, Chris Hayes, Scott Morrison, Andrew Leigh, Laurie Ferguson and Jason Clare.