SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia’s smallest state Tasmania began voting on Saturday in a local assembly election, with the incumbent conservative Liberal Party stirring controversy by promising softer regulations for gun ownership if it is returned to power.
The Liberals’ move to shore up support among gun owners and rural voters is a sensitive issue in Tasmania, as Australia’s worst mass murder took place on the island in 1996, when a gunman killed 35 people at Port Arthur.
The state Minister for Police, Fire and Emergency Management Rene Hidding, wrote to firearms owners in early February promising a re-elected Liberal Party would extend gun ownership license periods by up to 10 years, reduce penalties for storage offences and establish a council to represent gun owners.
Following the 1996 mass-shooting, Australia banned all semi-automatic rifles and all semi-automatic and pump-action shotguns, and introduced a restrictive system of licensing and ownership controls.
Australia has had no mass shootings since then and has held amnesties to encourage the handing in of unregistered firearms.
Anti-firearms advocates in the United States have pointed to Australia’s success in reducing gun crimes as an example that the United States could follow in response to a shocking series of school shootings.
The controversy over plans to relax gun laws in Tasmania erupted on the eve of the election, after the contents of Hidding’s letter to firearms owners became widely known.
“Only a re-elected majority Hodgman Liberal Government can continue to provide Tasmania’s lawful firearm owners with a supportive, responsible framework,” the letter said.
The Liberals have primarily campaigned on jobs and the economy, and on Friday party leaders sought to reassure voters that their stance on gun laws was nothing to be alarmed about.
“We are aware of the sensitivities around these issues and we are seeking to find the balance, one that supports our families that work in the rural sector but which is not inconsistent with national gun laws,” Tasmania’s premier Will Hodgman said in comments reported by the ABC on Friday.
The Liberals hold 15 seats in Tasmania’s 25-seat House of Assembly and need to win at least 13 in this election to retain their majority.
Tasmania’s population of 519,000 people have until 6 pm on Saturday to cast their vote, with results expected to begin trickling in later on Saturday night.
Reporting by Alison Bevege; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore