Tonight I sat and watched, as I always do, the nightly edition of The Drum. The topic turned to gun violence in our own backyard, with the Gillard Government foreshadowing plans to tackle the recent spate of highly publicised gun-related crime, mostly gang related, across Sydney’s west. It was an interesting discussion, coming so soon after the Newtown massacre in the United States of America and in the same week as a report which found that the level of gun ownership in Australia has returned to pre-buyback levels.
Ostensibly, what was actually announced by the Prime Minister today was an examination of what could possibly be achieved by the government under the present legal arrangements. Prime Minister Gillard has given Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare that task and has asked him to bring a list of options to the cabinet table.
Crime is an emotive issue. Talk about cracking down on crime and criminals plays to something deep in our psychological make-up. We as humans love to feel safe. We love to feel as if we are being protected not just by ourselves, but by others, by a sizable and powerful police force there to watch over us.
Now, we all know it’s an election year and law and order is often an election issue. The trouble is, that law and order, under the Australian Constitution, is a concern for the states to wrestle with. And state political parties do make battling crime a big focus at election time and throughout the electoral cycle. The commonwealth government does however have the Australian Federal Police and Customs under its purview, so in that sense, it is not strictly true.
There is something that the discussion seemed to forget and that is what John Howard did in the first year of his time as Prime Minister, after the indescribable horror of the Port Arthur massacre which saw 35 people gunned down. He was not a state Premier, but through discussions with his state colleagues, was able to secure a national ban on automatic weapons and a uniform gun buyback scheme.
By virtue of the fact that law and order and policing is largely a state issue, there really is little that can be done by the federal government on its own. The Gillard Government can however try to negotiate a package of measures with the states for them to implement in their own jurisdictions.
There is however one thing that the government can do unilaterally. They’ve cut funding to Customs and they can, since they no longer wish to return the budget to surplus, restore funding to the crucial agency. Alternatively, or at the same time, extra funds could also be directed to the AFP.
The question of what the states and the federal government can do in terms of powers in a more broad sense is interesting. It would appear that traditional state/commonwealth roles are becoming increasingly blurred, with the commonwealth appearing to want more power and resources at the expense of the states.
And that shift clearly extends to law and order issues, with politicians at the federal level wanting to affect change, or at least be seen to be trying to reduce crime.
Law and order will be an issue during this federal election year and beyond. We just have to get used to it.