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TV interview – Seven the Latest

The Hon Mark Dreyfus KC MP


Subjects: Port Arthur massacre historic letters; National Firearms Register; Lidia Thorpe claims.

MICHAEL USHER: It was a moment of gun violence that forever scarred our nation, the Port Arthur massacre claimed 35 lives, including Walter Mikac's wife, as well as their two daughters. Facing unbelievable grief, nine days later Walter wrote a letter to then Prime Minister John Howard, just released for the first time tonight. In it he spoke of his support for gun control legislation being considered saying “with all my heart, I implore you to restore Australia to being the best place in the world.” In a letter two months later he described sitting “with tears streaming down my face still reading cards for Nanette, Alannah and Madeline” and again implored the Howard Government to “maintain the intestinal fortitude and foresight to stand firm” on the reforms. Correspondence between the two became a defining catalyst in the country's crackdown on firearms. Tomorrow, those letters will be handed over to the National Museum, a reminder of that decisive chapter in our history. Let's go to the Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus in Parliament House tonight. Attorney-General thanks for joining The Latest tonight.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL MARK DREYFUS: It's good to be with you Michael.

USHER: It goes without saying these letters are incredibly important. Why is it important that they're made public and preserved in this way?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: These are letters written in, what I think everybody watching would understand, was unimaginable grief following the deaths of Walter Mikac's entire family. But they were a very important part of what was an amazing reaction of our country to the deaths of 35 Australians at the hands of a single gunman at Port Arthur. And what followed was a uniting of the Parliament, John Howard and Kim Beazley uniting to make sure that Australia passed some of the strongest gun laws in the world. And the path that was played by these two letters - and I think that also being delivered to the museum tomorrow is John Howard's response - is a very important part of this. What we're left with is a legacy of some of the strongest gun laws in the world. USHER: It was a rare moment of bipartisanship. Why do you think that's remained so strong, and continue when it comes to gun control in Australia?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: I think there's an understanding right across Australia that this is something we can be proud of, that we have a much safer community than many other countries one could point to. And part of that has been the control of guns and reducing the number of guns in circulation, improving registration practices. This is what Walter Mikac in his touching letters hoped for, that we would never again see the tragic event that took his wife and two little daughters. And we haven't, since that time, since the tragic slaughter of 35 Australians at Port Arthur, we haven't seen anything of this scale again. I hope we never will, but it's something we have to keep working on and I do think that there's bipartisan agreement on this. USHER: I understand you've met with police ministers around the country a few days ago. The plan for a National Firearms Register got underway all those years ago, but certainly spurred along by the recent police shootings in Queensland in December. It's taken a long time to get the National Register implemented. Why has that been and how significant is that now?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: It's a demonstration that there's always room for improvement. I'm very pleased that at the Police Ministers meeting last Friday in Brisbane we reached an agreement on how to go forward with his National Firearms Register. That will now go to the First Ministers of Australia and I hope we can make progress on what is another very important step. USHER: Will that also save some of those absolutely appalling situations of domestic violence where guns are used and registers are either not in place in some parts of Australia or are not properly monitored? Will that change that situation as well?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: It's going to raise the level of recording and raise the level of information so that it will be available in real time everywhere in Australia. Police officers responding to any kind of call will be able to check on whether or not there are firearms present, or recorded as being present, in a house that they're about to enter. We want to know that when police officers are standing at the top of a driveway, about to go into a dangerous situation, that they have as much information as possible and, most importantly, whether or not there are firearms present. USHER: Finally, Attorney-General, a developing story tonight, those explosive claims made by Lydia Thorpe against Liberal Senator David Van today, quite extraordinary in the Senate. Your response to those?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: They are extraordinary claims and I'm going to leave that matter to be dealt with by the Senate.

USHER: It is also a legal matter I'd imagine though. What's sort of standing does David Van, the Liberal Senator have in this situation with those accusations levelled against him?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: It's a matter for the Senate, and as a courtesy to the Senate, I'm a Member of the House of Representatives. I'm going to leave it to the Senate to deal with that.

USHER: Your personal remarks on this happening in Parliament today?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: They are extraordinary claims and very concerning claims. USHER: Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus, thanks for joining us tonight.