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With NSW facing the possibility of a hung parliament, fear grows that the state’s gun laws – already eroded by two decades of deal-making with the Shooters party – will be further traded away. By Paddy Manning.

Shooters party set to wield power in NSW

NSW opposition leader Michael Daley campaigns in Sydney this week.
Credit: AAP Image / Lukas Coch

As the New South Wales election hangs in the balance, there is a real possibility that the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party could be kingmaker in the state. The latest published polls, including Newspoll and YouGov/Galaxy, have the two major parties locked at 50-50. It’s a result that indicates a swing away from Gladys Berejiklian’s Coalition government, though not one sufficient to deliver a majority to Labor, led by Michael Daley, whose final campaigning week was marred by a video surfacing of inappropriate comments he made about Asian immigration at a politics-in-the-pub event six months ago, as well as stumbles in the final leaders’ debate.

Most analysts expect today’s election will result in a hung parliament with an enlarged crossbench, comprising a motley crew of three or four independents, up to four Greens members and up to four Shooters MPs.

The Liberal Party this week enlisted former prime minister John Howard, who pushed through Australia’s National Firearms Agreement (NFA) after the Port Arthur massacre in 1996, for a high-rotation television ad. “Michael Daley has done a preference deal with the Shooters party. That’s bad!” Howard warned. “If Labor wins, they will demand a weakening of our gun laws. That must never happen.”

Shooters Party leader Robert Borsak says the Howard campaign is “the best thing they could’ve done for us”.

“We’ve just put a request for donations out on Monday, and that request, because Johnny Howard’s little campaign was running against us, has generated in four days nearly $20,000,” he says.

Borsak says the Christchurch shootings haven’t hurt his party’s support in NSW.

“If anything it’s increased it.” But he conceded it’s likely the suggestion that the Shooters have done a deal with Labor that has done damage, “even though we’ve tried to defend it we think it probably has, but we’ve got no way of gauging.”

He tells The Saturday Paper, unequivocally, that his party will not do any deals to form part of a minority government.

However, NSW Labor has agreed to swap preferences with the Shooters, which is contesting a record 25 lower house seats this election. After the Christchurch shootings last week, Daley, a former police minister, vowed to resign if the state’s gun laws were eroded. “I will not be a part of a parliament that weakens the gun laws in NSW,” he said. “... it will not happen if I am premier. There’s a big leap between what’s on a how-to-vote card and what might be in legislation.”

Former NSW premier Bob Carr tells The Saturday Paper there is “not the remotest prospect of a Labor government, even one dependent on the support of the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party, watering down the state’s gun laws. There is not a chance.

“Even if someone proposed it, cabinet would block it. If the cabinet proposed it, the caucus would block it,” Carr says. “If the government even contemplated it, the party rank and file would rise up in revolt and so would the electorate. It’s not going to happen, because it couldn’t happen. Politically, it would be an impossibility.”

For the entirety of Carr’s decade-long premiership of NSW, from 1995, the Shooters Party was a presence in the state’s upper house. Carr had to overcome the opposition of the Shooters Party’s founder, John Tingle, to the original NFA, but says he never came under pressure from the Shooters subsequently. “They knew where we stood,” says Carr.

“What we did explore with them was more provision of rifle ranges, for recreational shooters who had access to firearms,” he says. “[But] at no stage did Tingle come to us and say, ‘I’ll only support you on your agenda if you retreat from the tough gun laws.’ We were implacable – and there was no pressure, for that matter, from the Coalition.”

Labor did cave in to the Shooters in 2008, however, after Carr retired, by amending firearms laws so that unlicensed members of the public could shoot under supervision at a gun club – a clear breach of the NFA. The amendment was opposed by the NSW Firearms Registry. According to Gun Control Australia (GCA), the so-called “Try Shooting” program has since resulted in 10 deaths. It was how Sydney accountant John Edwards, who shot his two children last year during a lengthy custody battle, first got his hands on a gun, says Sam Lee, president of GCA. Both firearms Edwards used to kill his children, aged 13 and 15, and then himself, were lawfully obtained and registered.

The Coalition governments of Barry O’Farrell, Mike Baird and Gladys Berejiklian have all relied on the two Shooters members in the upper house, who share the balance of power with the Christian Democrats, to pass legislation. There has been a steady trickle of pro-gun amendments during these eight years. First there was the infamous 2012 deal with O’Farrell to allow hunting in national parks and state forests in NSW. The O’Farrell government partially reneged after a public outcry, but Lee says nobody is happy with the resulting compromise, “not even farmers”.

Earlier this month GCA released a report that found NSW now is “the most obvious example of compliance ‘slippage’ with the NFA”. The state breaches the agreement in 11 respects. Recreational hunters have been allowed to use silencers, for example, and non-occupational shooters are allowed to use high-powered semi-automatic weapons. Exemptions have been given to the 28-day cooling-off period for second or subsequent firearms, and no good reason is needed for a permit to acquire multiple firearms of a given category, resulting in the accumulation of private arsenals. More broadly, gun clubs are poorly regulated, arms fairs have taken off and illegal hunting is “rife and out of control”, according to the report.

A quarter-century of Shooters presence in the NSW parliament has resulted in an “annihilation” of much of the state’s gun law, says Lee, but it could not have happened without the Coalition and Labor governments. “We know what the Shooters party want, which is to wind back gun laws,” she says. “But what is not on the table is how government support the wishes of the Shooters party through supporting their legislation.”

Several long-run trends are combining in the Shooters’ favour. Foremost among them is the inexorable rise of the gun lobby in Australia – funded by the annual fees shooters are required to pay in order to be licensed under Howard’s gun laws. According to GCA, this is why the Howard era reforms carried “the seeds of their own destruction”. The Shooting Industry Foundation of Australia (SIFA), established in 2014, has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to political parties in recent elections.

SIFA spent $165,000 on its “Not Happy Dan” campaign in last November’s Victorian elections, and donated $14,000 to the Shooters party in support of candidate and former senator Ricky Muir, albeit without success. In last year’s Queensland election, SIFA tipped in $275,800 to support the likes of pro-gun Katter’s Australian Party. The wider gun lobby donated more than half-a-million dollars to minor parties on the right. The amount donated to the Shooters campaign in NSW will not be revealed until well after the election. But Sam Lee believes there is little doubt the returns will show the Shooters’ record election effort in NSW has been funded by hefty contributions from the gun lobby. “The fact that they’re able to campaign in so many seats is evidence of the money behind them,” she says.

Borsak denies this, saying his party hasn’t had a donation from the Sporting Shooters Association in years and SIFA has not contributed a cent to the NSW campaign.

The advent of SIFA marked a big change in Australia, says Lee, from club-based organisations such as the Sporting Shooters, to something that more closely resembles America’s National Rifle Association. “This new group has huge deep pockets and they’re able to fund these political campaigns, but they’re also very well connected in government, because they are the companies that actually have quite extensive contracts regarding defence, police and law enforcement, and supplying firearms and weaponry to government.”

A second trend aiding the Shooters election tilt is the broad decline of the base of the National Party, which is losing its rusted-on franchise in rural NSW, Queensland and Victoria. Shrinking support in country towns plays a part in the troubles facing the Nationals, as does voter rejection of the major parties in general. Recent elections have also seen the rise of country independents and rivals such as One Nation, Katter’s Australian Party and the Shooters. Election analyst Ben Raue, author of The Tally Room blog, rates the Shooters a chance in the key western NSW seats of Orange, Barwon, Murray and Cootamundra.

There may also be a broader cultural shift under way, marked by the increased popularity of shooting and the explosive growth in membership of gun clubs. NSW recently cracked a million licensed firearms. An Essential survey of NSW voters, conducted for GCA just after last week’s Christchurch massacre, shows 89 per cent support for the existing gun laws, with 52 per cent saying they are “about right” and another 37 per cent describing them as “too weak”. Younger voters seem much more relaxed about guns than older voters, however. Among 18-34 years old, only 18 per cent say gun laws are “too weak”, while 70 per cent say they are “about right”. The proportions are nearly reversed for voters older than 55, of whom 37 per cent say laws are “about right”, while 58 per cent say they are “too weak”.

Bob Carr points out that the rise of the Shooters is only partly about guns. The party only broke into the NSW lower house in the Orange byelection in 2016, when the Nationals suffered a swing of 34 per cent and Phil Donato scraped home by 50 votes. Carr says that vote was driven by anger over former premier Mike Baird’s local council amalgamations and the ban on greyhound racing. “The Shooters party exists as a protest at the neglect and complacency of the Nationals, that’s how they took the seat of Orange,” he says. Sure enough, the greyhound industry has donated heavily to the Shooters campaign this election, and the party has reciprocated with promises to increase government prize money by $25 million.

The Shooters have this week played down their pro-gun policies, backing away from earlier calls to allow 10-year-olds to obtain minor’s permits. Donato, campaigning in Orange, has reportedly dropped Shooters branding from his election material, in an attempt to broaden his appeal.

If the Shooters do find themselves the deciding vote in this weekend’s election, Lee fears the National Firearms Agreement will be completely gutted in NSW. One of the policy objectives of the Shooters party, for example, is a United States-style right to use firearms in self-defence in homes. Lee says that change would take Australia “back to pre-Port Arthur days”. And while she has no doubt the public supports tough gun laws, Lee has no faith in promises that Michael Daley – or any other politician – may make this side of an election. “As much as they might provide a narrative during election time that … gives people hope that nothing will change, the temptation to do deals with the gun lobby once the balance of power is held is way too enticing,” Lee says. “I just can’t see that he will keep his word.”

Paddy Manning
is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly.