Interview with Ellen Fanning, Radio National Breakfast, ABC

18 December 2014

Subjects: Martin Place siege and Review


Ellen Fanning: The Attorney-General, George Brandis, joins Breakfast from Brisbane. Good morning.

Attorney-General: Good morning Ellen.

Ellen Fanning: The New South Wales Police have run this check on their firearms registry, they say there’s no record of Monis ever holding a firearm licence. Does the federal government now accept this is the case, that he was unlicensed?

Attorney-General: I think one of the reasons we are having this inquiry, Ellen, is to get to the bottom of all of these matters. Now the licensing of firearms in this country is a matter for the states and territories, and the states and territories maintain registers. So no doubt one of the issues that the inquiry by the secretaries of the respective Prime Minister’s and Premier’s departments will be looking at is that issue.

Ellen Fanning: Can I say to you, as I’m sure you’ve said to people in your office, I don’t understand how there can be confusion about this point. Two days after the end of the siege we can’t answer the question, was he legally allowed to own a gun. That seems extraordinary.

Attorney-General: Well, there are really two issues bound up in that. First of all, was the man ever issued a gun licence by the New South Wales government, and if he was whether his name was currently on a register. Now, as I say that is a matter that the inquiry will look at. And there’s another matter too, by the way, when you stated your four questions, there’s another question in think that is very present in the minds of the public, it’s certainly present in my mind, why was the man out on bail and as appears from the reporting that I’ve seen in the newspapers it seems that not only was he on bail but bail wasn’t opposed at the time the bail application was made in the Court of New South Wales. So, again, that’s an issue that the inquiry will want to get to the bottom of.

Ellen Fanning: And we’ll come back to that point in a minute. But let’s just stay with the registering of guns. We spoke to Roland Brown earlier, he’s a lawyer and spokesman for Gun Control Australia. Here’s what he said:

BROWN: Seven jurisdictions with different registration systems, different licencing systems and different storage arrangements is not effective. What we need is for the power over firearms to be exercised by the Commonwealth government. After the Port Arthur massacre we hoped and wished that there’d be a national referendum to see the power over firearms to be dealt with at a federal level. This shows up the need for this issue to be dealt with federally.

Ellen Fanning: Attorney?

Attorney-General: Well I don’t agree with that and I don’t agree with it for two reasons. First of all, we are a federal system and it’s my view, it’s generally the view of Coalition governments, that power ought to be devolved and exercised by the states in all but the matters reserved for the Commonwealth by the Constitution. Now the registration and issuing of licences for firearms has always been a state matter and I don’t think that what we’ve seen happen this week demonstrates that it shouldn’t remain a state matter. Rather, the point is the maintenance and currency of the licencing system. Now states are just as competent as the Commonwealth would be to maintain a current licencing system properly and if there has been mistakes made here, it’s not as a result of which jurisdiction is maintaining that register….

Ellen Fanning: Would you agree then that there is a problem with the registration of weapons in Australia demonstrated by the point that we cannot answer this simple question – was he able to own a gun?

Attorney-General: I’m not going to comment on the way in which the New South Wales authorities maintained the registry in that state, that’s one of the issues, one of the reasons why the Prime Minister has decided to set up this secretaries’ inquiry. But I caution against assuming that merely because there may have been, there may have been a deficiency in the maintenance of the registry by one state government that the answer is for the Commonwealth to take over responsibility for it. The other point I’d make to you is there is a consolidated national register run by the Commonwealth, by a Commonwealth agency called CrimTrac, but CrimTrac is not responsible for the issuance of licences but the information from the state and territory registers is in effect pooled so that there is one common register. But as I say, the problem here is not which level of government was doing it, but that there seems to have been apparently some deficiency in the way in which it was done.

Ellen Fanning: The Prime Minister said yesterday we have very tough gun laws in Australia and it must be said that the changes brought in after Port Arthur, by the Howard Government of which you were a member, have had a deep impact. We’ve got fewer gun suicides, we’ve got fewer gun homicides, but how tough can they really be if somebody with Monis’s criminal track record and known extreme views, could apparently get his hands on a high powered weapon, and I say apparently because it’s been reported widely that he had a pump-action shot gun and that weapon has been banned since Port Arthur.

Attorney-General: Well that’s a law enforcement issue Ellen. I mean, if the weapon he had indeed was a banned weapon then there’s only one way he could have got that weapon and that is illegally. So as I say that’s a law enforcement issue and that’s one of the things that the inquiry will no doubt seek to get to the bottom of.

Ellen Fanning: Coming to the other question, how tough can our gun law regime be where we have 260,000 illegal firearms in Australia and we’re seeing across the country that bikie gangs are able to get hold of illegal weapons, that drug dealers are able to get hold of illegal weapons, and that young angry men are able to settle their differences on the streets of our capitals with illegal weapons. Is it time for another round of gun law reform in Australia?

Attorney-General: I think you’ve got to always distinguish between the two questions that are wrapped up in that. The first question is how tough should our laws be, and you acknowledge that our laws are tough….

Ellen Fanning: Are they tough enough do you think?

Attorney-General: ….and they were toughened by John Howard. But the other issue is law enforcement. Now it appears from what we know about this particular individual that the gun he held was a weapon that was banned as a result of the Howard Government’s changes in 1996. So the question is not whether the laws are tough enough, but the way in which the laws are enforced.

Ellen Fanning: And that’s the conclusion you’re coming to, with all the information you’re getting….

Attorney-General: Ellen, I want to stress this point because it’s important, I’m not coming to any conclusions because it’s too early to be coming to conclusions. It is very unwise to come to conclusions on the basis of incomplete information or press reports or assertions that are apparently true but when interrogated carefully may prove not to be true and that’s why I say that the Prime Minister has acted swiftly in setting up this inquiry which is to work through the summer, through the summer break and report by the end of January so we can have fully informed, and specific responses to the very sort of questions you’re asking.

Ellen Fanning: Alright. As we know, you were saying the gunman out on bail despite facing that raft of serious criminal charges, the New South Wales Police Commissioner, Andrew Scipione, says he might not have been granted bail if he was still on the ASIO watch list. Now you have responsibility for ASIO, why did ASIO stop monitoring Monis after 2009?

Attorney-General: I think we need to be careful with this word watchlist because it means different things to different people. The fact is that ASIO is an intelligence gathering organisation. It’s not a law enforcement agency like the police. It gathers intelligence which is then fed into the system and they may be mused for various purposes. Now there are various levels of investigation or scrutiny that ASIO conducts so at the highest level it may have individuals under surveillance, whether by telephone intercepts or computer access warrants or physical visual surveillance 24-7, it may have individuals under surveillance in a less comprehensive way depending on the facts of a particular case. It may have individuals under investigation but not currently under surveillance, or it may be aware of individuals who for reasons of past conduct have been in the past the subject of surveillance or investigation but no longer currently are…..

Ellen Fanning: Well the Treasurer sees it pretty clearly. He said this morning speaking on Channel Seven, that our security agencies appear to have dropped the ball on this one. Let’s listen to what he had to say.

TREASURER: How we missed him is a source of immense frustration to us, particularly given that we’ve given more resources to our security agencies and also because at a state level I know Mike Baird and Commissioner Scipione have done everything they can as well.

Ellen Fanning: So he’s saying it’s a source of frustration because the security agencies have been given more resources.

Attorney-General: Well the security agencies were given more resources in recent months in some measures adopted by the Cabinet on 5 August, in fact some $630 million over the next four years…..

Ellen Fanning: Which brings the point, have they dropped the ball?

Attorney-General: What is being claimed in the media is that what was appears to have been an ASIO investigation which was current in about 2008 and 2009 was discontinued in, so it is said, around 2009. Now I’ve asked ASIO to identify exactly what decision was made, when that decision was made, on what grounds and by whom that decision was made, and all that information once again will be the subject of the secretaries’ inquiry established by the Prime Minister. But I again counsel against use of loose terms like drop the ball. If there was an investigation that was current some years ago and that investigation was discontinued there would have been reasons why that decision was made at the time and we need to know what those reasons were.

Ellen Fanning: Very briefly, I do want to ask you about the reports from the Iranian Foreign Affairs Ministry yesterday that it warned Australia on several occasions about this man’s psychological condition and tried to have him extradited. What do you know of that?

Attorney-General: Well we don’t have an extradition treaty with Iran to start with. I’ve seen the reports. I haven’t read the documents from the Iranian Foreign Ministry or the documents that are alleged to exist by the Iranian Ambassador or Foreign Minister. But, once again, it’s something that we will look at. We know that this man had past associations with the Iranian government going back into the 1990s. Whether they bear upon or are relevant to security or policing judgements that have been made in more recent times is again something that no doubt the inquiry established by the Prime Minister will consider.

Ellen Fanning: Attorney-General, thank you very much for your time this morning.

Attorney-General: Thank you very much.