(First published in the Manawatu Standard, Stuff regional papers and Stuff.co.nz, 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.