Thursday, July 25, 2019

Ernie Abbott's death still cries out for justice

(First published in the Manawatu Standard, Stuff regional papers and, July 24.)

It’s 35 years since a bomb killed Ernie Abbott, the caretaker of Wellington’s Trades Hall. That’s literally a lifetime ago – a point brought home by a recent reconstruction of the crime on TVNZ’s Cold Case.

One of the detectives investigating new evidence in the case was four years old when the bomb went off. This meant he had to acquaint himself with the political mood of the period, which was essential to an understanding of the killer’s likely motivation.

That wouldn’t have been easy, because judged from today’s standpoint, New Zealand in the mid-1980s seems almost an alien society.

It was a country in the last throes of Muldoonism.  Society had been violently polarised by the 1981 Springbok rugby tour and the economy was on its knees after years of compulsive tinkering by a bullying, authoritarian prime minister. 

New Zealand’s parlous economic state at the time could largely be blamed on Robert Muldoon’s dogged belief in the virtues of regulation and state interventionism, but trade union militancy was a potent aggravating factor.

Vital industries – freezing works, the waterfront, road and rail transport, shipping, construction, car assembly plants – were subject to constant bloody-minded disruption.

Trade union leaders – Jim Knox, Ken Douglas, Bill Andersen, Pat Kelly, Blue Kennedy, Con Devitt – were household names, although rarely mentioned in complimentary terms, other than by their members (and even then, not all of them). Many were avowed Marxists.

Strikes were rarely out of the news and public tolerance of union disruption was stretched to breaking point. It was a malaise that Muldoon, notwithstanding all his tough talk, never seemed willing or able to confront. All this added up to an ugly, sullen national mood of which Ernie Abbott became the hapless victim. 

On March 27, 1984, someone walked into the Trades Hall building on Wellington’s Vivian Street and placed a small suitcase on the floor in the foyer. Several unions had their offices in the building, so it was a natural focal point for anyone with a grudge against the movement. 

When Abbott picked up the unattended suitcase at 5.19pm, apparently with the intention of locking it away until someone claimed it, the bomb inside exploded. He was killed almost instantly.

It was inconceivable that the device was intended for him personally. Ken Douglas, then secretary of the Federation of Labour, suspects the real targets were the participants in a high-level strategy meeting that the bomber possibly thought was being held in the Trades Hall, but which actually took place at the FOL head office some distance away.

Abbott was a socialist and a committed unionist, but he was a very minor cog in the union machine. He held no significant office and was liked by the many who came and went from the Trades Hall – me included, since I often visited the building as a reporter in the early 1970s. I remember him as perky, chatty and good-humoured, although he was apparently not averse to an argument.

We can only assume that whoever murdered him didn’t really care who the bomb killed. It was a crime of blind rage and resentment against trade unionism as an institution. Regardless of what anyone thought about the unions, it was a despicable act of terrorism.

The prime suspect remains alive and has been publicly named. He fits the profile of the likely killer: a grudge-bearing loner with experience of explosives.

Cold Case revealed significant facts that had not previously been disclosed, but the evidence is circumstantial and the police remain hopeful that someone will come forward with information that will close the case.

The drab old Trades Hall still stands in Vivian St and I assume it still houses union offices, but pretty much everything else has changed since 1984. Even the nearby Panama Hotel, where unionists did their drinking and plotting, has long gone.

Several months after Abbott died, the voters tossed Muldoon out of office and the oppressive national mood that had characterised the latter part of his nine years in power was lifted. In its place, New Zealand found itself caught up in the Labour-initiated economic upheaval that became known as Rogernomics, after Finance Minister Roger Douglas.

Ironically, despite the election of a supposedly union-friendly Labour government, trade unions went into sharp decline. Weakened by rising unemployment and economic turmoil, the movement was torn apart by a bitter internal battle between hard-core militants, who believed the key to survival lay in even greater militancy, and a more pragmatic faction led by Douglas.

In the end, neither side won. Jim Bolger’s National government had the last say in the 1990s, abolishing compulsory union membership and ending many of the rights and privileges previously enjoyed by unions. Today only 17 per cent of New Zealand workers belong to a union, the character of the movement has changed radically and strong-arm militancy is a distant memory.

But one thing hasn't changed. Ernie Abbott's killer has never been charged, and his death still cries out for justice.


David said...

I found it interesting, Karl, that the still-alive prime suspect was named. Surely lawyers would have been involved in that? Though the evidence about certain pages of a 1977 Evening Post being in the bomb suitcase, and the other pages from the same edition being found in the suspect's house, seemed more than circumstantial to me.

Back in those extraordinary times, I was a junior-ish reporter at the NZ Herald. The union disputes, strikes etc were so dominant that all media had designated reporters just to cover them, usually called an "industrial reporter." Their job was to go to the union and to the employer for their "side" of the latest disruptive big strike (there could be dozens a week), then to the "Minister of Labour" (whose job was mainly to settle strikes) or even Muldoon, for comment on what the government would do to end the strike. Muldoon loved fomenting strikes, because he thought they brought him votes, the same way he believed Springbok tours and nuclear ship visits attracted votes.

Not long after the Bastille Day election in 1984 which ousted Muldoon after nine chaotic years and brought Lange to office (for even more chaos but of different kinds), the workers at Lion Breweries in Auckland were on strike because the new brewery owner, Douglas Myers, had issued orders that they could no longer drink on the job, which had been one of their perks.

Yes, you got that right. Brewery workers were allowed till then to consume as much of the product they were making as they liked during their working shifts. Talk about alcoholics running the brewery. The drunkenness caused awful on-the-job accidents, which Myers wanted to stop. He said they could still drink as much as they liked when they finished their shifts, but not while working.

The strike disrupted beer supplies and was quite newsworthy, of the kind where freezing workers went on strike because the fried chips served at lunch were burnt, and so on. "Pubs with no beer" went the headlines (the country's then-two duopoly breweries owned the pubs back then, and served only their beer; Lion or DB, and "real men" only drank "their" brand, so a Lion drought was big news).

I was working on a Sunday in the middle of the strike, and was assigned to go to the three parties (union, boss, minister), get their views, and write a story. I phoned the union rep, then went to Doug Myers' house and interviewed him (all these people were readily accessible to journos in those days, there were no armies of comms staff refusing comments as is the norm now); and then I rang the newly appointed Minister of Labour, Stan Rodger, at his home in Dunedin (yes even ministers, and prime ministers, answered their phones back then. You could just ring them up, day or night, and they happily talked to you about the subject you wanted comment on).

Me to Stan: "What are you going to do to end the brewery strike?"

Stan Rodger: "What's it got to do with me? I'm eating my Sunday lunch. They can sort it out themselves. Go away!"


From that day on, Rodger was known as Sideline Stan because he refused to get involved in industrial disputes. He was a revolutionary, because for decades (I presume), the task of the Minister of Labour had been to bang heads together and end strikes. Press gallery journalists spent many late nights outside the minister's office at Parliament while the minister, the head of the Federation of Labour and the head of the Employers' Federation sat inside sorting things out over whiskeys, often till midnight and in time for the 1am second edition deadline of the morning newspapers.

Stan just decided that Sunday to leave it to the unions and bosses to sort out, and after a while, they did. And without politicians meddling in strikes, the number and severity of strikes fell rapidly away, even before National brought in voluntary unionism in 1991.

Karl du Fresne said...

Like you, I was surprised that Stuff published the suspect's name, although they presumably took legal advice. And I agree that the matching Evening Post pages seemed to be pretty compelling evidence.
Your recollections of industrial relations in the 1980s are right on the mark. I was an industrial reporter myself in the early 70s, for The Dominion. The high point of that time (or low point, depending on your perspective) was the deregistration of the Seamen's Union after years of constant strike action. I was with the union president, the famous Bill "Pincher" Martin, on the afternoon Jack Marshall announced deregistration, which was the ultimate sanction against recalcitrant unions. Martin tried to prevent it but was up against a militant Marxist union faction nicknamed the Red Guard.
One other point about Sideline Stan: he was a former president of the public service union, the PSA.