Decision-making in the new millennium

You would all now be aware there are significant moves afoot to change firearms legislation, both State and Federal, relating to handguns.

The Premiers and the Australian Police Ministers met towards the end of last year and agreed to a raft of proposals that are supposed to bring all the States and Territories into line with new legislation that will prevent a recurrence of the Monash University shooting. Whether it will or not can be the subject of further analysis once the detail is known. If the British example is any indication of handgun legislation where a total ban is in force then all the posturing going on is simply politics.

What we should all be concerned about at present is not the detail of the proposals but the process that led to its formulation.

I am sure it has not escaped your attention that whenever major policy decisions are announced we are supposed to have been consulted and we are in full agreement. In fact, the first time we hear about it is when a press release featuring Warne-like spin is issued announcing our full and happy compliance.

How does this come about?

The technique is a new-age ploy called claytons consultation. What happens is the government selects a few individuals from the shooting fraternity, slaps a veil of secrecy on them and the proceedings, tells them that they are prohibited from making public comment, force-feeds them with issues and eventually, months later, promulgates new legislation.

I know that these individuals are wise men and women to be sure and they have the very best interests of shooting at heart but, in my humble opinion, they are not capable of properly attending to the issues when there is no time to consider an agenda, take appropriate advice, confer with their colleagues and committees, reach consensus within their own organisations and then take a fully considered view to the meeting. It is more difficult when the issue under consideration is outside their area of expertise.

Let me illustrate my point.

After the Monash incident the Federal Government entered into discussions with two individuals from the shooting fraternity with a view to changing Commonwealth law as it applied to the sport of pistol shooting and the availability of handguns in Australia. During a meeting of the Australian Shooting Association I asked one of the individuals to report on the state of negotiations and to give a general appraisal of where the negotiations were headed. The reply was that the negotiations were confidential and could not be discussed even in the forum of the Australian Shooting Association.

PAUSE - I know you are as flabbergasted as I was. Let me give you a minute to catch your breath.

How is it delegates of the Australian Shooting Association were prevented from discussing a matter as fundamental as the availability of handguns in Australia? What relevance does this peak body have if not to advise government on matters such as this and worse still if the government looks elsewhere for the advice it wishes to hear.

To this day I remain unaware of what advice was given to the government regarding the issue. Equally I am unsure of how the new rules will affect the sport.

What I am sure of is that the subject needed broad consultation. As it was, a very narrow view of the matter was taken which failed to consider the likely consequences of Commonwealth law as it applied to, for example, blackpowder, muzzle-loading and collecting; all of which had to be subsequently negotiated.

The NSW Muzzle-loading Association and Historical Arms Collectors Association subsequently addressed the issues with strong support from the NSW Shooting Association. I am sure other Associations similarly addressed the matter.

Additionally the NSW Shooting Association formed an expert working group from all disciplines and worked to produce a comprehensive submission that could support the individual submissions from Associations. This was not an easy process since a conclusion that suited one particular discipline could have been disastrous to another.

The point is the submissions now before government reflect the wishes of the Associations and their membership. The membership is informed and has had the opportunity to pass on their views to government. If the government chooses to reject the advice then so be it but, at least, the membership knows where it stands.

The attempt by governments, State and Commonwealth, to give the impression of consensus between stakeholders on the basis of a token effort will no longer wash. Spokespeople who wish to participate in this exercise need to understand that they have a fiduciary responsibility to act in the best interests of their membership and are not appointed by their committees to endorse government policy as a matter of course.

Shooters are entitled to a fair go. Their contribution to the National Firearms Agreement of 1996 has been commendable and, in many cases, costly. They are regulation-compliant and maintain enviable safety records. They are not, however, responsible for rising crime rates and should not be expected to carry the burden of policy failure in other areas.

The next time you see a new policy in action ask yourself whether you were consulted.

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