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Guns, dark money and the far Right

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Ties between pro-gun groups and Australian political parties are becoming more apparent (Images via Pixabay - edited)

Gun lobbying groups are influencing Australia's political parties with untraceable dark money donations, writes David Paull.

OCTOBER 2018 and the public disclosure of the gun lobby’s attempts to influence political decision-making and public dialogue on the issue of gun control in Australia was aired by Four Corners. It showed the web of influence and money from the U.S.-based National Rifle Association (NRA) and arms wholesalers to lobby groups in Australia, particularly the industry-funded Shooting Industry Foundation of Australia (SIFA) and other gun groups like the Sporting Shooters Association of Australia and the Shooters Union of Australia.

While this issue has fallen to the background (apart from One Nation’s furtive attempt to tap NRA dollars), recent disclosures on political donations have revealed further detail on the extent of gun money influence in Australian political parties. The Guardian’s Transparency Project is a good resource for those interested in political donations, with access to records in an easy format, as reported by the Australian Electoral Commission between July 1998 and June 2018.

For example, it reveals in NSW over the last eight years that the SFFP has received virtually all their political donations from gun “associated entities” and “activist/lobby groups”, amounting to some $660,000. The Katter Party in Queensland also received over $600,000 during the same period, partly from shooting lobby groups and partly from Nioa, Australia’s largest gun wholesaler.

Donors to the other minor parties from the arms industry include Magnum Sports Pty Ltd to the SFFP and the Liberal Democrats received $20,000 from Nioa in 2015-16. However, as The Guardian notes, not all has been disclosed to the public.

Firstly, in the database, some arms suppliers and traders are listed as ‘retail and service’ businesses and are not identified under the category of “firearms”. Cross-checking company names can reveal the business of most of these, though some are unlisted companies and the nature of the business is not immediately evident.

The database shows the Coalition parties have received little in terms of disclosed donations from the gun lobby or small arms sector (SIFA donated $46,834 in 2015-16 to the National Party), but Defence Industry manufacturers have given over $760,000 to the Liberal Party over the last 20 years and $450,000 to the Labor Party. This is relatively little when compared to other sectors such as banking and pharmaceuticals.

But, as The Guardian notes, the vast majority of money received by the Liberal and National parties is “dark money”, or ‘money from untraceable sources which the party is able to avoid reporting on’. Principally, this has been achieved through the use of foundations and trusts such as the Liberal-affiliated Cormack and Free Enterprise Foundation and a whole array of other “affiliated organisations”.

While the Free Enterprise Foundation has ceased donating since the ICAC scandal in NSW in 2016 (it has donated about $7 million since 2000 to the Liberal Party), the Cormack Foundation is still funnelling undisclosed donator funds to the tune of $44 million over the last 20 years, even giving a $25,000 donation to the Liberal Democrats in 2015-16. In fact, if “associated entities” (entities associated with the Liberal or National parties) are considered together, then the Coalition has received $105 million from these groups over the last 20 years.

Going by disclosed donations, 2015-16 was the peak year for donations from the arms sector with $335,700 donated to the Liberal and minor parties. How much of the undisclosed money through affiliated organisations comes from arms and gun lobby groups is unknown.

Since the Four Corners report, Robert Borsak, the well-known public face of the SFFP, has been quick to play down calls for a loosening of gun controls in the mainstream media, noting that guns were a “city issue”, but also perhaps acknowledging the changed mood in the regional voters due to more pressing issues such water supply, drought and worsening outlooks for farmers. Gun issues did not feature in the recent elections and particularly since the Christchurch massacre, talk of gun control issues has died in the public discourse.

But there is another unrepentant gun champion. While the Shooters and Fishers and the Katter Party have been the main beneficiaries of disclosed gun lobby money, the ideological home for increased gun ownership in Australia has been the Liberal Democratic Party, till recently headed by controversial libertarian, David Leyonhjelm.

While Mr Leyonhjelm has left the Liberal Democrat Party with some acrimony and failed in his upper house bid in the recent NSW election, he subsequently declared that it was time to turn his attention to that most pressing issue facing this country today, gun control, with the intention to write a book. The issue of guns is obviously a key subject to him, despite the fact that gun ownership in Australia has never been higher.

To get an idea of what may be in his book, one only has to look at the policies of the Liberal Democrats on firearms:

‘Only armed, law-abiding citizens can be present in sufficient numbers to prevent or deter violent crime before it starts, or to reduce its spread. A criminal is more likely to be driven off from a particular crime by an armed victim than to be convicted and imprisoned for it. Thus, widespread gun ownership will make the community safer.’

This is straight from the NRA textbook and, more importantly, consistent with Mr Leyonhjelm’s stated views on the importance of personal “liberty”, the needed small role of Government and the elimination of regulation. A philosophy espoused by the other main Australian voice of this political movement, the Institute of Public Affairs, have advocated that gun control does not work.

But writing a new book isn’t the first foray into expressing views on gun control for Leyonhjelm, who has asked questions in Parliament on the issue and has a strong social media presence. Both on Facebook and Twitter, Leyonhjelm has been posting consistently about gun control and on another issue over recent years, the Port Arthur “conspiracy”.

The issue of Port Arthur has proved a key one for the gun lobbyists and advocates and has provided a focus over the years for those who were against the subsequent gun reforms brought in by the Howard Government in 1996. On the Facebook conspiracy sites, Mr Leyonhjelm is a hero, one of the few political voices to openly criticise the way the Port Arthur case was conducted and question the outcomes, calling for a public inquiry, echoed across social media.

But after 23 years since the tragedy, no case of “fresh and compelling evidence” has been presented to a court. Separating the claims of injustice and pro-gun views on these online sites is difficult; it is more likely that the recent growth in popularity is due to pro-gun advocates and political input from Mr Leyonhjelm with some white supremacist views thrown in. The author is a firm believer in public accountability, to call for a public inquiry is easy, but it looks more like political grandstanding for a pro-gun constituency.

Whatever Leyonhjelm may pen in his new book and the social media offensive currently being waged, I suspect that the pro-gun lobby will have some difficulty making headway in changing Australia’s sentiments on this issue. Declining membership and income for the NRA in the U.S. may actually be indicative of the same trend, a trend of opinion in the other direction, one for sensible gun control, both in the U.S. and here.

The statement made by SIFA after the recent election, though disingenuous, also reflects this understanding of the public mood, though continuing to flag the “voice of firearm experts”. Perhaps as long as those experts are representing the public interest and not that of the firearms industry.

SIFA spokeswoman Laura Patterson said:

“SIFA has never advocated for the watering down of firearms laws. We are committed to working within the existing regulatory environment. And we believe that environment should include the voices of firearms experts, because community safety depends upon it.”

While the push to water down gun laws has faltered, lax licencing regimes across the different states has seen gun ownership skyrocket and, despite relatively little in the way of declared political donations from the arms manufacturing sector, Australia’s spending on defence materials has also skyrocketed under the Coalition. With an increase in spending of $2.1 billion in the 2020/21 budget over the increase last year, military spending is reaching nearly 2 per cent of GDP for the first time. The big winners are still the arms manufacturers; they certainly are making a killing it seems.

The use of party-affiliated organisations to hide vested interests from the public does not meet the standards of transparency the public expects today. We have the situation now where the largest group of donors to the Liberal Party are from undisclosed sources and it must end. There is also another push for investment in uranium and nuclear processing in Australia from Queensland senators in recent times; one wonders if donations from the nuclear industry have been made in 2018-19. However, under current disclosure rules, the public won’t be any wiser, probably not until the signatures are on the paper.

David Paull is an Australian ecologist. You can follow David on Twitter @davesgas.

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