Turnbull takes a hit in the Adler gun debate

A shootout, not at the O. K. Corral but at Parliament House this week, had all the drama of a spaghetti western. In the white hat was the dumped prime minister Tony Abbott. The wounded baddie was Liberal Democrat David Leyonhjelm. Limping away with a bullet in the foot was the current prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull. And just out of frame was the opposition leader, Bill Shorten, not exactly an innocent bystander. In fact, he was more an effective agent provocateur.

Abbott’s role has infuriated many in the government, mainly because they believe he is being completely disingenuous on the issue. Under his prime ministership and with the approval of his office, his government was prepared to allow Adler lever-action shotguns into the country after the expiry of a one-year import ban. The ban, so Senator Leyonhjelm was led to believe, was to allow the states and territories to consider what classification the weapon should have.

Abbott had a completely different understanding. On Wednesday he was adamant: “As far as I was concerned as prime minister there was absolutely no way on God’s earth with a heightened terror threat we were going to allow perhaps tens of thousands of rapid-fire weapons into the country.” This begs the question why his chief of staff, Peta Credlin, allowed a written undertaking to be sent to Leyonhjelm on August 15, 2015 – as confirmed by someone close to the negotiations.

The email was straightforward: “We confirm that ministers Dutton [Immigration] and Keenan [Justice] have agreed that the government will amend the Customs (Prohibited Imports) Regulations 1956 to insert a sunset clause of 12 months into the recently amended provisions which ban the importation of lever action shotguns with a magazine capacity of more than five rounds.” It goes on to say the effect of this sunset clause would be that 12 months after the amendment comes into effect the ban will automatically cease.

In the meantime, the government promised to consult widely with a number of gun enthusiast organisations. In return, Leyonhjelm “will vote against the Labor amendments to the Migration Amendment (Strengthening Biometrics Integrity) Bill”. Leyonhjelm duly honoured his end of the bargain, but when the 12 months were up the Turnbull government extended the ban, ignoring the written undertaking. But the precedent had been irrevocably set. The Abbott government was prepared, in writing, to trade guns for votes. On Tuesday, at least for five hours or so, the Turnbull government was as well. The prime minister explicitly kept the option on the table in two interviews. At stake was the crucial vote of the LDP senator in the government’s jihad on the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union. With Labor and the Greens voting against it, it needs nine of the 11 crossbenchers to support its two contentious bills.

By midday Tuesday Bill Shorten leapt into the fray, accusing the prime minister of being prepared to trade away John Howard’s gun laws to “pass the Abbott government’s industrial relations bills”. Instead of pulling his usual trick of shutting down the debate, the leader of the house, Christopher Pyne, allowed Shorten and his deputy, Tanya Plibersek, to give the government both barrels for 15 minutes while an urgent call went out to get the prime minister into the parliament.

When he came, Turnbull’s return of fire didn’t completely hit the mark. He did what he failed to do on Radio National and vowed never to trade away Howard’s gun laws but to strengthen them. But he then mired himself in an apparent contradiction. The Adler ban, he said, “is not a temporary ban. It is permanent. It is set in stone. It can be amended, but it is there like any import ban.” Turnbull said the ban would remain until the states and territories agreed on a satisfactory reclassification of these guns. He was prepared to let in the Adler providing they were more restricted. This was a message tailored to repair some of the damage with Leyonhjelm. The senator was half impressed, saying his trust had been betrayed and there was only a “50-50 chance” he will support the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) bills.

But completely unimpressed was Tony Abbott. Much to Turnbull’s embarrassment, he posted a message on social media saying: “Disturbing to see reports of horse-trading on gun laws. ABCC should be supported on its merits.” One frustrated Liberal backbencher had no doubts what Abbott was up to: “It’s hypocrisy betraying his real purpose of causing trouble for Turnbull.” Abbott didn’t hold back, canvassing his views on the ABC’s 7.30 on Wednesday night.

But he made a telling point when he said a flood of rapid-fire guns coming into this country only increased the opportunity for “people who want to do us harm” accessing them. He rightly pointed out that the only direct way the Commonwealth can restrict guns is by an import ban. Classification of guns is a state and territory matter. Turnbull was ducking Abbott’s challenge to permanently impose the ban. Abbott says even the idea of letting them in is “crackers and it should never happen”. No matter what the classification given to the Adler, once the ban is lifted there will be a huge demand. Nationals MP Mark Coulton says in his electorate of Parkes hundreds of orders have already been placed.

The Adler is more lethal than the old sawnoff pump-action shotgun Man Haron Monis took into the Lindt cafe in Sydney’s Martin Place two years ago. That could fire four shots in five seconds. Gun Control Australia says the Adler can fire off eight rounds in eight seconds. Or, as its website more bluntly says, it could kill eight people in eight seconds. Gun Control Australia also points out the majority of illegal guns now on the black market in Australia were stolen from legal gun owners. A staggering 9000 firearms have been stolen nationwide since 2004.

But in parliament Turnbull asserted that more than 90 per cent of gun crimes are committed with illegal weapons smuggled into this country. He yelled at Shorten that he was duplicitous and “dripping with sanctimony” for refusing to support a Criminal Code amendment that would impose a mandatory sentence on gun smugglers.

This, apparently, is the panacea for gun crime. Labor cites the considered view of the Attorney-General’s Department that fixed or minimum penalties should be avoided. One of its guidelines states, “The judiciary may look for technical grounds to escape restrictions on sentencing discretion when faced with minimum penalties, leading to anomalous decisions.”

This is a mere bagatelle to a politician under pressure. Labor’s Kevin Rudd ignored the guidelines to impose mandatory sentences on people smugglers. He was desperate to show how tough he really was on boat people after he comprehensively mishandled border security. Boat turn-backs have proven more decisive, why wouldn’t “gun turn-backs”?

Privately, Abbott has been telling people he allowed the original ban to have a sunset clause to keep the Nationals happy. Now, he seems to be saying he would have extended it permanently if he were still in charge. Believe that if you will, but he would have been in a similar pickle to Turnbull on the industrial relations bills. Indeed, in his time the senate rejected them outright.

Adding to Turnbull’s degree of difficulty mustering the senate numbers is the departure of Family First’s Bob Day. Day was a rubber stamp on the government’s agenda, even when it meant slashing family payments. In one debate during the election campaign, former senator Glenn Lazarus said it was a pity Day didn’t put families first.

There was no one more enthusiastic for bringing back the Howard government’s draconian ABCC. Indeed, Turnbull was using him to help persuade the crossbench to come on board. The irony is powerful. Day quit the senate because of the collapse of his building empire. It has left hundreds of tradesmen and contractors out of pocket. Two hundred and seven families around the nation have been left with homes partially built or unbuilt by Day’s companies, with hundreds of thousands of dollars lost.

Day channelled $484,000 to Family First at a time when his subcontractors and suppliers weren’t being paid. The Australian Electoral Commission’s records show he bankrolled Family First to the tune of $2.158 million over the past six years. The government is anxiously waiting to see who his replacement is. Both candidates vying for the nod have said they will need to do things differently. Day lost votes at the last election, and they are still trying to fathom why.

Whatever happens, Turnbull will need to compromise to get the nine votes he needs. Nick Xenophon wants security for subcontractors built into the legislation before his three senators come onside. Leyonhjelm agrees with Labor and the Law Council of Australia that, as it stands, the ABCC bill is in fact “contrary to the rule of law”. It denies the right of silence, a lawyer of choice, the presumption of innocence and the need for search warrants.

Pauline Hanson’s four One Nation senators can probably be counted on, but getting another five is extremely problematic. Guns for votes will definitely not do the trick.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 22, 2016 as "Gun for mire".

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Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.

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