The ongoing soap opera of the Adler shotgun has revealed a more dangerous threat, namely how Australian policy is shaped.
Although it only hit the media in 2015, the Adler saga began a decade ago. Documents obtained under Freedom of Information show that as early as 2005, the Firearms and Weapons Policy Working Group – which is chaired by the federal Attorney-General’s Department and consists mainly of middle managers from state, territory, and federal police – drafted plans to make Australia’s already complex firearm categorisation system even more convoluted.
The Working Group wanted many firearms currently available to Category A or B licence holders (who make up about 95% of all licencees) shifted into more heavily restricted categories. This would effectively prohibit those guns. This agenda was quietly pursued over time, under the guise of “how to classify new technology”. There is very little new technology in firearms design, so most attention went to 3D printing.
This changed when the Adler came along. Suddenly, a type of firearm that had been legally available in Australia for decades, and under a Category A licence for the past 20 years, was portrayed as new, hyper-lethal technology. Anti-gun politicians and lobbyists went into meltdown, demanding the gun be banned.
And this is where things get interesting. Firearm classification must be agreed to by all state and territory Police Ministers. In October’s Law, Crime and Community Safety Council, New South Wales Police Minister Troy Grant asked his counterparts to agree to a Category B classification. Ministers “supported the further consideration of the categorisation of lever action shotguns.” In other words: they couldn’t agree.
Carefully timed leaks to the media revealed police bureaucrats wanted the Adler in Category D, meaning only police, military and a small number of professional vertebrate pest controllers can access it. Ministers in other jurisdictions obediently accepted this directive, despite some having previously rejected that position in emphatic terms.
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The next twist in the drama was a thundering Sunday opinion piece by NewsCorp’s Samantha Maiden, demanding that the “political disgrace of Troy Grant defying the advice of Andrew Scipione and law enforcement authorities must end.” Right on cue, NSW Premier Mike Baird threw his Police Minister under a bus.
Only the most deliberately naïve observer could fail to connect this series of events. A gambling type could take a safe bet that Troy Grant will no longer be Police Minister this time next year.
Opinions on the Adler shotgun will vary across the community, but the principles raised by the Adler debacle go far beyond firearms. They pose deeply uncomfortable questions about how “law and order” policy is made in Australia.
We must ask ourselves: since when is it a “disgrace” for Ministers to “defy” their bureaucrats? Do we really want unelected bureaucrats dictating policy to elected members of parliament? When bureaucrats give bad advice, or are opportunistically pursuing a long-running agenda of their own, why should Ministers be expected to blindly do as they are told? If that is what we truly want from our parliaments, then we might as well simply hand over all power to unelected officials and forget the pretence of democracy.
Is it acceptable for bureaucrats to wage hostile media campaigns against their Minister, when those bureaucrats do not get their own way? Is it healthy that sectors of our media willingly promote those campaigns? If we believe that, then we might as well drop the notion of the fourth estate providing a check against misuse of official power.
The Adler, a firearm that had been legally available for the past 20 years, was portrayed as new, hyper-lethal technology. Anti-gun politicians and lobbyists went into meltdown.
Let us be clear. This is not about the thousands of hard-working, decent police on the frontlines, doing an incredibly tough job for relatively little pay. This is about police bureaucrats – who may be sworn officers or civilians – having undue influence over policy and the political process. “Don’t question us, do as we say, we’re the police” is not an open, transparent, or accountable basis for effective policy development.
Advice from their own departments will always be among the sources of advice considered by Ministers. This is entirely proper. Ultimately, it falls to police to enforce laws, so it is entirely fair and reasonable that police departments have a say – it would be unthinkable if they did not. But enforcing laws well, and making good laws in the first place, are two very different things.
Best-practice policy-making requires careful consideration of a wide range of material from many sources. It is a Minister’s job to consult widely and effectively, and arrive at a balanced decision that takes into account all available information.
Troy Grant’s consistent position was that he would make a decision based on facts and evidence. He considered whether there was any credible evidence put forward to support putting the Adler into Category D, and concluded there was not. He was the only Minister in the country who had the guts to take responsibility and do what he is elected to do – and has been punished for it.
The real danger to our society lies not with a clunky old shotgun, but with a system where bureaucrats dictate policy to terrified politicians, aided and abetted by tactical leaks to media “presstitutes”. In such a dysfunctional environment, it is no wonder that Australians are turning away from major parties and traditional media outlets. What remains to be seen is whether that shift will eventually lead to a more robust policy development process, or whether we as a nation will continue to make laws based on nothing more than bureaucratic overreach and bullying.