The Port Arthur massacre and the subsequent policy decisions made by the Australian Government in 1996 are often used as an attainable example for the government of the United States of America when another mass shooting incident occurs. Those decisions made by the parliament of the day have meant Australia has had no mass shootings since. Therefore, it’s no wonder it has been brought up repeatedly during the United States “guns debate.” Australia put together a comprehensive crisis management plan to reduce the risk of a mass shooting ever happening again by delivering a safer Australian community. The Australian objective was clear. Objectives define results.
Some Americans perhaps don’t know where Port Arthur is. It’s in southern Tasmania. Tasmania is a small island at the bottom of the Australian mainland. Southern Tasmania is where my family is from, a naturally beautiful part of the world. My father, Bob Fielding, was the forward commander of the Seascape Siege (the siege that ended the Port Arthur massacre) when police captured the killer. Before the crisis command took over, the killer had already murdered people known to him, tourists and locals. Two police officers followed the killer to a house where the mass shootings started earlier in the day, unbeknown to them at the time. The police, after a long stand-off, captured the killer.
The debate rages on across the United States about guns and gun violence, even in the shocking aftermath of innocent children in Texas losing their lives, sadly and devastatingly again. I can’t help but reflect upon the insight my father gave in ending the siege and capturing the killer during the crisis, and, subsequently, discussing the importance of having the correct number one objective in crisis management.
Firstly, my Dad knew a lot about Crisis Management after serving a distinguished career in the military and police force throughout his life. He had been awarded the Australian Police Medal. We have always been so proud of him. For me, the dining room table was where I started my 25-year learning journey in the practice of crisis management. At dinner one evening, I remember him saying, “First rule in Crisis Management is making sure that you have the right objective.” He gave an example: In the command center on the afternoon of the Seascape siege, he had written one objective: “Objective number 1 no further lives lost”. He mentioned that someone, not within his command, had come into the room and said something to the effect of: “What? Aren’t you going to kill the bastard”.
Dad explained focusing on the right objective was key otherwise, you take the wrong action. Sure, shooting the murderer was on the table if he was an imminent threat to another person’s life, but at that time, the gunman was holed up in a house trying to goad police, and their first duty was to ensure no other lives were lost. He explained it was a galvanizing objective for his team because they were going to protect the lives first, and it meant his team was confident that their lives weren’t going to be put in unnecessary jeopardy by the mission. Albeit they were prepared to do so. One policewoman reinforced this view in a separate discussion of how important that objective was as command had put her in a strategic position that the killer was firing on. Still, she knew that “the boss,” as she called him, had their back, and she just needed to hold her position. His view on crisis management was that with the right objective defined from the start, after assessing the problem, the resolution plan becomes straightforward. You can read in the various investigations and transcripts of him agonizing and judging at the time whether those hostages in the house were already dead,. You can see his frustration when the psychologist changes their minds about whether hostages are dead or alive in his true blunt fashion, “Make your mind up!” or words to that effect. The reports highlighted that during the wavering position, he returned to his objective – no further loss of life. He knew if he sent the police officers in with the killer still firing, they would likely lose the life of several police officers. He weighed up based on the facts he had available that the hostages were dead. Indeed the Port Arthur massacre ended after the killer set the house on fire, with no further loss of life – two of the hostages were killed earlier in the afternoon on the day of the massacre, and the remaining hostage they determined was likely killed early in the siege at the house. In that case, the crisis objective was the right objective when he arrived, with the killer captured and then eventually sentenced.
If my father were still here with us, he would have nothing but extreme empathy for the families whose lives have been impacted by mass shootings. Like others, he saw too much that day and during the subsequent investigation.
The Australian Government had a similar crisis objective as my father at the national and policy level. They articulated they wanted to prevent mass violence incidents in Australia and make the community safer. The Government took several actions due to the crisis, as outlined in their Issues Brief. A previously set up National Committee on Violence had made recommendations regarding violence prevention strategies, with 17 relating to firearms and none implemented. At the time, there was no national firearms legislation in Australia. The Australian Government made it clear on several occasions since the massacre that broader anti-violence measures were needed in Australia, including gun control. Like today in the US, the gun control legislation was opposed by several influential groups in Australia, but the Governments of the day stood firm. Twelve days after Port Arthur, the National and State governments had agreed to make uniform gun laws enacted over the following years.
Below is a section of the transcript that the then Australian Prime Minister, The Honorable John Howard, gave at a gun rally in Victoria to explain the Government’s decision on gun control legislation. The transcript is worth a read in its entirety, but can be summed up by the following answer to a question asked by the then 1996 President of the Sporting Shooters Association of Australia:
PRIME MINISTER’s response:
You asked me what drove the decision that was taken by the Government. Can I tell you it wasn’t a Morgan Gallup poll. You asked whether I’d received the wrong advice. Can I say to you very directly sir and to everyone else here today that the basis of the decision I took was a strong view based on my own instincts as a leader of the political movement, based upon my understanding, my understanding of the feelings of the mainstream of the Australian community, that this decision would give the Australian people a greater sense of security and a greater belief that we have a safer Australian community in the wake of not just the events in Tasmania but in the wake of a series of events over a long period of time. You once again Sir, you foretell, you suggested this legislation is the basis of further encroachment into civil liberties. It is the beginning of a walk down a long track.
Sir, with great respect, that is not based on any reality. It is not based on fact. It is a completely irrational assertion which cannot be justified on any sort of basis of reason. This is a particular measure taken to achieve a greater sense of security, to achieve an actual and dramatic reduction in the number of firearms in the community which can be used, which can be used for dangerous and criminal purposes, and that is why we have taken the decision. It is a decision that I defend. It is a decision I believe does have the support of the Australian community. If I am wrong in that decision and you are right, if I am wrong and you are right then the democratic processes of the Australian community will vindicate you and condemn me.
The Hon John Howard served as Prime Minister for Australia from March 1996 till December 2007. To review their crisis management response: The Howard Government had defined the problem and had put together urgent plans to meet their crisis objective. One of the results of having that objective was passing new gun laws in Australia at the national and state level. Australia has not had a mass shooting incident since Port Arthur. The first objective was about saving innocent lives and creating a safer community. Referring to the current US gun debate in the US, it was not about protecting gun rights.
A mass shooting incident is an extreme crisis. Reflecting on my own experience in the corporate world, no one wants a crisis, but crises happen. They usually come from an unexpected incident that jeopardizes the company’s brand, and/or products, e.g., the recent Infant Formula crisis, or at worst, its survival. Regulators, media, and governments expect corporations to resolve their crises by prioritizing the health and safety of consumers and employees first, recognizing their fiduciary responsibilities, and then prioritizing company reputation. Furthermore, they expect that a specific incident resulting in a crisis will only happen once in a corporation, as you should have solved it after the first time it happened.
In business, proper governance requires a crisis management plan to be in place. Defining the problem, getting the number one objective right, and then ensuring everyone is clear that it is number one is vital. I was helping one company deal with a crisis, and I asked, “Therefore, what’s the number one objective” the CEO said, “health and safety of employees .” Another executive said, “We need to hit sales.” Given the nature of that crisis, the correct objective was the health and safety of employees, as, without that, there certainly would be no sales.
If a corporate organization had a weekly crisis for a year, then the Government would probably take it over if it was an official essential business, like it recently intervened on infant formula. Or the company itself wouldn’t exist anymore as consumers, or customers would be so appalled that they would stop buying their products or services. Likewise, this was the point the then Prime Minister John Howard responded to the Sporting Shooters Association of Australia regarding his term in office. In the case of business, consumers vote with their wallets rather than the ballot box. The United States community has had the same crisis repeatedly with incidents of mass gun violence, yet the solutions seem elusive.
So why does the United States endured mass shooting crises again and again? I humbly suggest it has been implementing the wrong crisis management objective at the policy level in the past. Has the objective focused on gun protection, not a safer community or saving innocent people’s lives?
What’s the number one objective at this time of crisis? I believe the USA student-led movement called “March for Our Lives” is prominently telling the world their number one objective. Are politicians ensuring a safer community and no lives lost in a mass shooting/violence in the USA? Or protecting guns?
This week, some progress may have been made in a framework that puts measures in place regarding mental health and gun background checks. Is it enough to deliver a safer community? In the future, we will find out whether the crisis objective and implementation plan this time was correct. And ultimately, we will all find out how Americans feel about the result next time at the ballot box.
 Bingham M. 1996. Suddenly One Sunday. Harper Collins.
 [PDF] Feature story – March 1997 [Volume 78, number 3] – Free Download PDF (nanopdf.com). Accessed June 6 2022.