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Parliamentary Friends of Firearm Safety

The Hon Mark Dreyfus KC MP
Speech

Walter Mikac Letters

Introduction

I begin by acknowledging the Ngunnawal People as the Traditional Custodians of the lands on which we gather today, and recognise any other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people here today.

I also acknowledge:

  • Walter Mikac AM
  • Sarah Davies AM, CEO of the Alannah and Madeline Foundation and your Foundation colleagues.
  • Katherine McMahon, Director, National Museum of Australia
  • The Co-Chairs of the Parliamentary Friends of Firearms Safety, Josh Burns MP and James Stevens MP
  • The Honourable Peter Dutton MP, Leader of the Opposition and all of my Parliamentary colleagues who join us here today.

In the days following the murders of 35 people at Port Arthur in April 1996 our nation united to demand our parliaments do whatever was necessary to ensure that such a tragedy never happened again.

We resolved as a nation that we would never again tolerate the easy access to firearms, and especially high-powered military style weapons, that made possible the mass slaughter of innocent people.

And critical to the success of that agreement was Walter Mikac and the letters he exchanged with John Howard that will now be on display in the Parliament that helped bring about those laws.

These are extraordinary documents – the first, written amidst unimaginable grief, as Walter flew to Melbourne for the funeral of his wife Nanette, and their two young daughters, Alannah and Madeline – is a letter of hope, offering support and strength to the Prime Minister.

Another, 10 weeks later, is a letter fueled by both grief and anger, amid reports that the national resolve on gun laws was faltering.

As Walter wrote:

"I believe I speak behalf of most of the victims left behind & the vast proportion of Australians in saying that you MUST have the intestinal fortitude & foresight to stand firm on the original stand & not waiver. To do anything else would be a betrayal for me & every other Australian who should have a right to walk, feel safe & live in this country."

It is a matter of enormous pride for all of us here today that John Howard, Tim Fischer and Kim Beazley did not waiver, and under their leadership parliaments across the nation united, agreeing to the historic National Firearms Agreement, and ushering in some of the strongest gun laws in the world.

But as good as those reforms were, they were never completed.

We outlawed many types of weapons and severely restricted access to those still legal, but the lack of accurate information about precisely which weapons are held across Australia and by who remains a significant gap.

Since Port Arthur, there has been broad support for a National Firearms Register, but for decades no agreement was reached on how to make it work.

It sadly took another shocking event at Wieambilla in December 2022, the murders of Queensland Police Constables Rachel McCrow and Matthew Arnold and the brave neighbour who came to their aid, Alan Dare, to jolt the nation into completing the agreement struck in the wake of Port Arthur.

A National Firearms Register will ensure police across all Australian jurisdictions have timely and accurate information to assess any firearms risk posed, and protect the community from harm.

It will address significant gaps and inconsistencies with the way firearms are managed across states and territories, allowing the near real time information about firearms ownership to be shared across the country.

Crucially, once implemented, the register will ensure that when police walk up a driveway, or knock on a door, they know what weapons may be held by those waiting inside.

National Cabinet’s agreement to the Register was made possible because of the work of great Australians like Walter. We are grateful to him, the Alannah & Madeline Foundation, the Australian Gun Safety Alliance, the premiers, chief ministers and police ministers, police, and the many other advocates who have worked tirelessly over the decades to get us to this point.

I chaired the Police Ministers Council which was responsible for developing and presenting an option for a Register to National Cabinet for its consideration and ultimate endorsement.  

When we finally struck that deal just before Christmas, Walter declared

“Although it has taken nearly 27 years, I am very pleased that the final part of the National Firearms Agreement has been agreed to. The bipartisan leadership on shown in 1996 is on display again in 2023.”
Too often in this country news reports focus on the things that divide us, rather than the many areas that unite us.

The work of course does not stop here. While we have almost four years until the Register is operational, in the interim there are steps that Australians are taking every day to contribute to community safety.

Conclusion

Last week I released the second annual report of the Permanent National Firearms Amnesty. Since the Amnesty commenced in June 2021, 30,000 weapons have been surrendered. I would again like to thank those who have participated in the Amnesty to date, including the many responsible gun owners who have given up their unwanted firearms.

And I encourage those still in possession of an unregistered or unwanted firearm to surrender it and take advantage of the ‘no questions’ asked Amnesty.

What Port Arthur taught us in 1996, what the landmark agreement on the National Firearms Register in 2023 has demonstrated, and what the ongoing commitment of gun safety advocates and responsible gun owners show, is that Australians are committed to doing everything we can to keep our communities and police safe from gun violence.

[ENDS]