Prime Minister and Attorney-General on mandatory sentencing for trafficking of illegal firearms

On March 15, the Hon Tony Abbott MP, Prime Minister, and Senator the Hon George Brandis QC, Attorney-General, held a joint press conference at the Australian Federal Police (AFP) Headquarters in Sydney to discuss mandatory sentencing for the trafficking of illegal firearms; the two Australians currently facing execution in Indonesia; Operation Sovereign Borders; departmental secretaries; and higher education reforms. The following is a transcript of the discussion related to mandatory sentencing for illegal firearm trafficking.

Prime Minister Abbott: Thanks for coming along today. As you know, the first responsibility of government is the safety of our community and part of community safety is doing everything we reasonably can to crackdown on illegal firearms.

Under the former government, there were very significant cuts to Customs and this resulted in a 25 per cent reduction in the screening of sea cargo, a 75 per cent reduction in the screening of air cargo. This Government has put $88 million back into Customs to restore screening levels both of sea cargo and air cargo. Nevertheless, there are still some quarter of a million illegal firearms in this country and it’s very important that we do everything we reasonably can to crackdown on those illegal firearms.

I want to thank Deputy Commissioner Close and her team for the briefing that the Attorney-General and myself have just received, but it’s important that we give the police and the security agencies the tools that they need to do their job and one of those tools is adequate penalties on people who are trafficking in illegal firearms. Earlier, this Government sought to introduce a mandatory five year sentences for people who were trafficking in illegal firearms. Regrettably, that particular piece of legislation did not pass that Parliament. I’m here to announce today that the Government will this week reintroduce that particular legislation as part of the package of measures that will be going into the Parliament to be dealt with by the Parliament.

We must keep our community safe and part of keeping our community safe is cracking down hard on criminals trafficking illegal firearms and that’s exactly what you’ll get from this Government.

I’ll now call on the Attorney to support these remarks.

Attorney-General Brandis: Thank you very much indeed, Prime Minister, and might I elaborate a little further on what we’re proposing to do in the coming week. The Government introduced into the Parliament in February, as the Prime Minister has said, a suite of measures designed to crack down on and expand the bases of criminal liability for the importation of illegal firearms. That included, among other things, expanding the offence to include the importation of firearm parts so that if a firearm was dismantled and the parts were sent separately, there was doubt whether the law applied to the importation of individual parts – it now does – but part of that measure was to give effect to the Coalition’s policy for the 2013 election to introduce a mandatory minimum sentence for this offence of five years imprisonment. Unfortunately, the Labor Party and The Greens have got together in the Senate to remove the mandatory minimum sentence from the legislation. That was done on the basis that the Labor Party claimed to be against mandatory minimum sentences, although they themselves, of course, introduced mandatory minimum sentences during the period of the Labor Government.

So, my colleague, Mr Keenan, the Minister for Justice, will be reintroducing that part of the legislation to the House of Representatives on Thursday. It will be dealt with by the Parliament we expect in the coming fortnight. We call upon the Labor Party to allow us to honour the commitment we made at the 2013 election to introduce a mandatory minimum penalty of five years so as to give real teeth to the Government’s crackdown on this very, very serious criminal and public safety issue.

Prime Minister Abbott: Thank you, George. Any questions?

Journalist question: Do you have confidence that this new legislation will get through the Upper House?

Prime Minister Abbott: Well it should – it really should – because the Labor Party, despite claims recently, has supported mandatory minimum sentencing in the past. In government, the Labor Party introduced a mandatory minimum sentence for people smuggling and it’s entirely false for the Labor Party to claim, as it did in February, that Labor had some fundamental problem with mandatory minimum sentences. So, I say to Bill Shorten and the Labor Party: if you’re fair dinkum about protecting our community from gun crime, you should support these mandatory minimum sentences for people who traffic in illegal firearms. You saw earlier today the sorts of firearms which are typically seized by police. These aren’t just handguns, they also include semi-automatic weapons of the type that could fall into the wrong hands and be used in incidents of the utmost seriousness.

So, I say to the Labor Party: please joins us here. The Labor Party, to its credit, has a fair record in this Parliament on national security. I don’t believe you can properly separate out this crackdown on illegal trafficking in firearms from our overall national security effort. That’s why I think it’s very important that the Labor Party support us on this one.

Journalist question: Have you made any tweaks to the legislation or have you just copied and pasted the legislation that failed previously and now you’re bringing it back forward?

Prime Minister Abbott: We believe that the Labor Party’s opposition to this legislation previously was fundamentally misconceived. Because, I’ve got to say, we’ve had reasonable cooperation from the Labor Party on national security, because of our anxieties about the interest of all sorts of people in acquiring weapons that could be used in mass-casualty events, we think it’s more important than ever that this legislation pass.

Journalist question: Has the change in the makeup of the Senate with the Independents and the PUP Party, is that going to help your cause here or is that going to still impinge?

Prime Minister Abbott: Obviously, if we don’t get support from the Labor Party, we’ll seek support from the crossbench, but my appeal in the first instance is to Mr Shorten and the Labor Party because I’m not saying that the Labor Party are soft on crime, I’m not saying that the Labor Party are soft on national security, but if you want to be as tough on crime and as relentless in supporting Australia’s national security as I believe the Labor Party wants to be, you should support this legislation.

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