The lessons of Port Arthur

The lessons of Port Arthur

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The following article appeared in The Militant newspaper (predecessor of The Socialist) in June 1996. We are republishing it now for the first time online against the backdrop of a spate of shooting massacres around the world. The article explains how socialists deal with issues like gun control, mental healthcare and social alienation under capitalism.

The horrific massacre at Port Arthur has shocked the nation

Hundreds of workers at a mass meeting of building industry unions in Melbourne on May Day stood silent for a minute in memory of those killed. So also did MPs at the opening of Federal Parliament the day before: but these MPs are the ones who allow the war industry in this country to sell weapons of mass destruction to the Indonesian generals.

The outrage has sparked much debate within the working class as to what can be done to ensure it is never repeated. Port Arthur has been the number one item of discussion in workplaces, homes, and everywhere people meet.

By Stephen Jolly

What particularly horrified people was the brutal, deliberate method the killer used to pick off his innocent victims. It did not seem like a wild act of anger or despair. It is hard to feel the slightest sympathy for the accused man, Martin Bryant, who has thousands of dollars and several homes to his name and upon entering the café where the first people were killed said: “There’s a lot of WASPs (White Anglo Saxon Protestants) around today, there’s not many Japs here, are there?” Was Bryant a racist as well as a cowardly murderer?

Mass murders are almost a common occurrence today throughout the ‘advanced’ capitalist world (in the under-developed world and in ex-Yugoslavia, armies massacre innocent people every day). This is the most obvious sign that the system we live under is sick, producing animals like the Tasmanian killer and the Dunblane murderer in Scotland who killed 19 primary school students and their teacher in March.

While there is not enough evidence yet on the mental state of the Port Arthur accused, most of the other mass murderers in recent years had been in and out of the mental health system during their lives. In all the western countries, right wing governments have been cutting back on health expenditure.

Under the guise of ‘putting mentally ill people back into the community’, institutions have been closed or starved of decent funding and their patients kicked out without adequate back up care. The tragic fire at Kew Cottages in Melbourne shows that even those institutions that have survived being closed are under-resourced with second-rate safety standards, are under-staffed, and have sub-standard food and health conditions.

The same politicians who wept crocodile tears over the Kew Cottages fire and the Port Arthur massacre are the ones who vote at every budget – state and federal – to cut back funds to the public hospital system.

Socialists fight for a decently-funded health service and against the cuts. If even a small portion of the $10 billion spent every year by the federal government on ‘defence’ was put into health, those Australians with mental health problems could be properly cared for in well-resourced institutions by well-paid staff or, alternatively, have constant back-up care in the community.

The question working class people keep coming back to again and again in relation to the Port Arthur massacre is ‘how did the accused get access to sub-machine guns?”

People have a right to feel protected from sick individuals having any access to weapons. This expectation is as just as the demand socialists raise for protection from out of control armed police. Let’s not forget that 33 people have been killed in Australia by police since 1988.

Militant does not support the type of gun control that leaves all weapons in the hands of the police and army and the gun clubs that are often run by right-wing elements who have little sympathy for the trade union movement. Normal gun enthusiasts are often surrounded in gun clubs by unbalanced people who feel a bit of power when they have a weapon in their hands.

The labour and union movement should demand an immediate review in every state into all those who currently hold gun licences, and of the way gun licences are allocated. There must be a national gun control law standard. Otherwise strict laws in one state can be bypassed by going to another state.

Gun clubs should be taken out of private hands and run by local councils under democratic control. Otherwise the temptation will always be to take the membership money without proper scrutiny of those applying.

Gun sportspeople should be able to enjoy their sport in a well-controlled environment. Democratically-elected local authorities would be able to check all those who want to be involved in shooting, whether as instructors or as participants. Regular and adequate checks could then be carried out with periodic reviews of all those involved, with the community having at least the possibility of a say through their elected representatives.

No-one should be able to buy sub-machine guns or heavy weaponry.

Farmers seeking access to guns should have to be registered at their local council or at State government level with regular reviews and checks.

All these demands should go hand-in-hand with bringing the police under democratic control. Local councils should have democratically-elected police committees controlling the activities of police in their area.

No racists or fascists should be allowed in the police force and police should be banned from involvement in industrial disputes. Specialised units like the Victorian Force Response Unit, that exist simply to be used against unions and community groups, should be scrapped.

However, while this measure of reforms would be useful, they are not complete solutions. If a person is so damaged, so unable to relate positively to society that they decide to go out to kill other people, then they will find the weapons legally or illegally.

The cult of power, of domination, is part of the culture of capitalist society. We live in a dog-eat-dog society, where ‘winners’ are looked up to and the unemployed, low-paid, and lonely are looked down on. The spirit of solidarity and caring that is seen on picket lines and amongst those involved in struggle is absent in everyday life under capitalism. The ruling class want an atomised, isolated population where people are left to look after themselves and only the government, the bosses and the rich have power.

The struggle against the agenda of right-wing governments and employers whose cuts and attacks breed the conditions that lead to such massacres must be stepped up. A system that tackles the very limited ways in which the vast majority of people can develop their self-esteem, relationships and involvement in society would do much to reduce the incidence of violence in the home, on the streets, and extreme violence like the killings at Port Arthur.

The fight for a more humane socialist society is what Militant is all about.

Militant is the predecessor organisation of the Socialist Party