Malcolm Turnbull: With A Gun To His Head, He Shoots Himself In The Foot

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Malcolm Turnbull is talking about guns. Malcolm Turnbull doesn’t want to be talking about guns. Ben Eltham explains why.

In the normal run of politics, the status of the Adler A110 shotgun would not dominate Australian federal politics for a full week. But these are not normal times, as Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is discovering.

As more than a few commentators have pointed out, the idea that Malcolm Turnbull could lose an entire week to debate about freeing up gun laws would seem preposterous… if it wasn’t happening.

But it is happening. The problem is that the government wants to pass the Australian Building and Construction Commission bill. This is the law, long-cherished by the Coalition and business interests, to re-establish the ABCC.

That the Turnbull government is pursuing the ABCC in the first place shows the emptiness of the government’s legislative agenda, as we noted on Tuesday.

The ABCC is a perfect example of how this government is out of touch with ordinary voters. There is no major problem with construction unions in Australia; even the Heydon royal commission into trade unions could find little systemic malfeasance or corruption. The worst behaviour seems to have gone on, not in construction, but in the Health Services Union.

And during the years when it operated under the Howard government, the ABCC didn’t really do much. Industrial disputes in the construction sector are low, and have remained low since the abolition of the ABCC in 2012.

industrial-disputes-graph

The ABCC gets union busters in the Liberal Party and big business very excited. But a tougher regulator for construction unions has negligible impact on the broader economy, let alone the everyday lives of voters.

So the ABCC was never going to be a topic of huge benefit to a struggling Malcolm Turnbull. But the linkage between the ABCC and gun control has turned a marginal positive into a giant negative. Once again, what should have been a straightforward political set piece has blown up in the government’s face.

It started off as a minor irritation from the crossbench. Liberal Democrats Senator David Leyonhjelm is trying to bargain with the government over gun laws in return for his vote on the ABCC.

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Leyonhjelm wants the ban on the Adler A110 shotgun removed. Currently, the shotgun is prohibited under a government order, but Lyeonhjelm wants that changed so that gun dealers can start importing the shotgun again. Shotguns were not originally included in the 1996 National Firearms Agreement, but the Adler, with its five-shot magazine, is closer to a carbine. It was banned by Tony Abbott’s government in 2014, following the Martin Place siege.

All in all, it’s been another dismal week for Malcolm Turnbull. The sudden explosion of gun policy into the national debate puts the government in the unhappy position of having to talk about something most Australians agree is a settled issue.

It should not have been difficult for Turnbull to remove gun control from the discussion about the ABCC. All he had to do was to insist the government would not negotiate on the issue. But he didn’t get around to that, allowing the issue to run.

As the Guardian’s Katherine Murphy wrote on Tuesday, “gun control was the story of the day, because the prime minister allowed it to be the story of the day.”

Now it’s Thursday, and gun control is still the story.

Turnbull’s problem, as so often is the case in this parliament, is that his government is not united on the issue. Several Liberals and Nationals want the ban on the Adler lifted, including Western Australian Liberal Ian Goodenough, Victorian Nationals Senator Bridget McKenzie and New South Wales Deputy Premier Troy Grant.

Former Prime Minister, Tony Abbott.
Former prime minister Tony Abbott.

The appearance of a split in the Coalition has kept the issue running, when Turnbull would dearly love it to be put to bed. To make matters worse, Tony Abbott then popped his head up, criticising the move to cancel the Adler import ban. But Leyonhjelm countered that Abbott had himself negotiated over the shotgun ban.

Gun control in Australia is uncontroversial. Unlike the United States, there is little popular agitation here for the freedom to bear arms. Surely this is in part a legacy of history: a former convict colony, Australia has no constitutional protection for gun ownership. Nor do we have anything equivalent to the monolithic National Rifle Association. Ordinary Australians seem unconcerned about the fact that they cannot own semi-automatic weapons.

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Indeed, gun control is seen as one of the most important accomplishments of John Howard’s government. In the wake of the Port Arthur massacre of 1996, Howard’s determination to push through the ban on semi-automatic weapons, and the gun buy-back that accompanied it, remains one of his signature achievements.

The evidence is unequivocal. Tougher gun laws after Port Arthur saved lives. According to epidemiological data collected by public health experts Simon Chapman, Philip Alpers and Michael Jones, in the 18 years before 1996, there were 13 mass shootings totalling 104 deaths. There have been no mass shootings since Port Arthur.

Firearms deaths in total have also declined at a faster rate since the gun laws were tightened (they were already declining, but have declined faster since). Firearm suicides also declined. “The data in this study show that the declining rate of suicide by firearm accelerated significantly after the 1996 gun laws,” Chapman and his colleagues write. Fewer guns, fewer suicides.

Australian Bureau of Statistics data backs this up. Since 1996, we’ve seen a decline in the rate of firearm homicides. This compares with a slight increase in homicides using knives.

gun-knife-deaths

So why are we even talking about loosening gun laws?

The simple answer is that Malcolm Turnbull has lost control of the political agenda. Again.

By Thursday afternoon the issue had descended into outright Coalition civil war, as an aggrieved Tony Abbott took the floor of the lower house to defend himself against the charges levelled by Leyonhjelm that he had indeed made a deal on the shotgun ban. Turnbull was forced to watch on as Abbott complained he had been “most grievously misrepresented.” The Liberal back-bench thumped the tables in support. No-one was talking about construction unions.

Everyone was talking about gun laws … and the growing perception that Turnbull is losing control of his party room.

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Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.

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