Australia's One Nation party accused of seeking NRA money to weaken gun laws

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia’s nationalist One Nation party allegedly sought millions of dollars from the U.S. gun lobby and discussed weakening the country’s strict gun control laws with the U.S. National Rifle Association, Al Jazeera reported.

Australian senator Pauline Hanson talks with members of the media at a driving safety event in the northern Australian town of Townsville in Queensland, Australia, November 10, 2017. Picture taken November 10, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Barrett

Posing as the head of a fake Australian pro-gun lobby, Al Jazeera secretly filmed top officials from Pauline Hanson’s One Nation allegedly meeting NRA executives in Washington in 2018.

The One Nation officials also discussed the possibility of raising A$20 million ($14.22 million) prior to a meeting with a U.S. gun lobby supporter, the report said.

Concerned about foreign influence in Australian politics, particularly from China, the government introduced laws banning foreign political donations in November last year. The One Nation meetings took place in September.

“Reports that senior One Nation officials courted foreign political donations from the U.S. gun lobby to influence our elections and undermine our gun laws that keep us safe are deeply concerning,” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in a post on Twitter on Tuesday.

The two party representatives recorded in the Al Jazeera report, chief of staff James Ashby and Queensland state leader Steve Dickson, confirmed they attended the meetings but denied accepting a donation from the NRA.

“These conversations with the NRA were to look at nothing more than their (campaign) techniques,” Ashby told reporters in Brisbane. “This was not about sourcing money from the NRA.”

NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam referred questions about Al Jazeera’s report to the group’s lobbying arm, the NRA Institute for Legislative Action. NRA-ILA spokeswoman Jennifer Baker said the group had no comment on the report.

Australia has some of the world’s strictest firearm laws, implemented after a lone gunman killed 35 people at Port Arthur on the island state of Tasmania in 1996.

Australia banned semi-automatic weapons, launched a firearm buy-back scheme after the massacre, and imposed strict licensing rules which require weapons to be locked up when not in use.

The role of One Nation in promoting right-wing nationalism in Australia has come under the spotlight in recent days following the killing of 50 Muslims in New Zealand earlier in March, allegedly by an Australian white supremacist.

Al Jazeera said on its website the report was three years in the making.

In the report, Ashby and Dickson can be heard allegedly telling NRA officials that with their help, the party could win enough seats to gain the balance of power in Australia’s upper house of parliament.

“We get the balance of power, very simply that means that we have the testicles of the government in our hand at every given stage,” says Dickson. “Guns, in the scheme of things, are still going to be the be-all and end-all.”

In another meeting with a U.S. gun lobby supporter, Dickson says: “It’s going to get down to money at the end of the day. We can change the voting system in our country, the way people operate, if we’ve got the money to do it.”

The footage allegedly records an NRA lobbyist telling both Dickson and Ashby that it would benefit the U.S. pro-gun movement if Australia’s gun laws were relaxed.

“That helps us because the biggest argument we get from folks is, ‘Well, look at Australia,’” he says.

In an emailed statement to Reuters, Ashby described the recordings as “skullduggery” and said he had referred the matter to the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation and the Australian Federal Police over concerns of foreign political interference in the lead-up to a federal election in May.

Al Jazeera is Qatar’s state-owned broadcaster. The head of its investigative unit who reported the segment, Peter Charley, said the allegation he was acting on behalf of a foreign government were “risible.”

“We’re journalists doing a job,” Charley told Reuters by telephone. “The original intention was to infiltrate the NRA. It was only quite late in the game that One Nation came into the frame.”

Nationalists have struggled to gain a significant voting bloc in Australia’s parliament, although One Nation did wield considerable influence in the upper house between 2016 and 2018.

The party fractured last year with several resignations, but it is hoping to regroup at the coming national election, with its support base being largely rural voters disillusioned with the major parties which they accuse of being city-focused.

($1 = 1.4063 Australian dollars)

Reporting by Colin Packham and Byron Kaye; Additional reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York; Editing by Michael Perry, Sam Holmes and Bernadette Baum