On 24th August 1995, a Labor MP Chris Haviland introduced a resolution into the Australian House of Representatives.
It was a bold initiative .
Haviland proposed that this House (emphasis added):
- notes the unanimous resolution of the NSW Parliament of 9 December 1991 calling upon the federal Government to establish a top level, open, joint NSW/federal Government inquiry into the bombing of the Sydney Hilton Hotel on 13 February 1978 and pledging the full cooperation of the NSW Government;
- notes the recent statements of the NSW Premier, Mr Bob Carr, confirming his Government’s support for such an inquiry;
- requests that the federal Government immediately establish a joint federal/NSW Government inquiry, with the powers of a Royal Commission, into all of the circumstances and consequences surrounding the Hilton Hotel bombing, including the events leading up to the incident, the bombing itself, the conduct of the subsequent investigation of the bombing and all relevant matters;
- requests that the terms of reference for the inquiry include a full investigation of the role played by all NSW and federal Government agencies, including military and security organisations, before, during and after the bombing; and
- requests that any provisions existing in any federal legislation which would otherwise prevent full disclosure to the inquiry by officers, employees, agents or sub-agents of federal Government agencies of any information under oath relevant to the terms of reference be set aside for the purposes of the inquiry.
It was the era of the Keating Labor Government. The Federal Attorney General Michael Duffy wasn’t keen at all. His dismissive response concluded:
“People are concerned about these matters. We understand that. There are allegations that arise which have always been examined very carefully and have been answered in the most extensive detail. If you go through the Hansard and look at the answers and the work that has gone into it, you will see that we are still of the view that there is no need, no requirement, to have a new inquiry.”
Independent MP for North Shore, Ted Mack, took the opposite view. Mack was effusive in his praise for Haviland’s resolution. He said (emphasis added):
The member for Macarthur (Mr Haviland) is to be congratulated for bringing this motion before the House. The motion is supported by the Premier of New South Wales and unanimously by the New South Wales parliament. It is a motion undoubtedly supported by the majority of the people of Australia. The Premier of New South Wales is to be particularly congratulated for following through on the unanimous decision of the New South Wales parliament in 1991 asking the federal government to agree to a joint federal-state inquiry.
The New South Wales Premier’s recent action of making state files available to the public on the Hilton bombing is a breath of fresh air after years of deliberate frustration of any attempt to find the truth, although anyone who has followed the 17-year saga of conspiracy of public officials to avoid accountability will not be surprised to see the Premier’s good intentions white-anted.
Some might superficially ask: what is the point of trying to reopen a 17-year-old affair which has already been worked over by a major inquiry, several court cases, many reports and thousands of media reports? The fact is that the Hilton bombing is the worst act of political terrorism in this country’s history. It was the largest security operation ever mounted in Australia, involving all key security agencies. It was also the most outrageous failure of security in Australian history, yet no-one responsible for the security operation has ever been held to account.
I have asked some 70 questions in this House about the Hilton bombing. The answers have been grudging, evasive, on occasions wrong and permeated with a `neither confirm nor deny’ mantra. Yet what information has been gleaned has only added more questions and more doubts. There were hundreds of people in the bureaucracies and security agencies involved to some degree in the Hilton, and many of those have played a part in blocking inquiries ever since.
Most interesting, in the current context, was the contribution by a newly-elected MP for the safe Liberal seat of Warringah. He spoke at some length in support of Haviland’s resolution, showing detailed knowledge of the complexities of the case – as well as a combative, partisan character. His speech began:
In supporting this motion I would like to quote Shakespeare’s dictum: `Foul deeds will rise, though all the earth o’erwhelm them to men’s eyes.’ If that does not move this House, the example of the Minister for Human Services and Health (Dr Lawrence) should be enough to show what happens to those who stand in the way of truth.
The Hilton bombing was Australia’s greatest act of terrorism and it marred what up till then had been Australia’s greatest international gathering. As a result, a man was charged and convicted but all the time protesting that he was the victim of a frame-up. Eventually, after several years in gaol, he was completely exonerated.
Years later, another man confessed and, on the basis of that confession, was charged and convicted. But any confidence in our knowing what really happened depends entirely on the slender thread of the confession of an unstable and delusional man….
The speaker concluded (emphasis added):
Our job is not, here in this parliament, to specifically probe into the dark and murky labyrinth of the security forces. Our job is to ensure that people who can do that job are allowed to do that job. Our job is to help establish an inquiry which can get to the bottom of this matter. It is so important that we do this because the people of this country are entitled to believe and to be confident that the forces of government, the security forces of this country, are working for them and not against them. The people of this country are entitled to have confidence that the various arms of government are working in accordance with the law and not, as it very well may be in this case, against the law.
Let me say most categorically that truth has nothing to fear from an inquiry. The government should have nothing to fear from an inquiry. ASIO should have nothing to fear from an inquiry. The police should have nothing to fear, the army should have nothing to fear from an inquiry, because truth has nothing to fear from an inquiry. This government should not be so concerned about the cost of an inquiry because truth is priceless; truth is precious. Any government which is prepared to spend $17 million investigating war crimes that happened in another country 50 years ago should certainly be prepared to help fund an inquiry of this nature.
Let all the documents be considered. Let all the witnesses be examined. Let all the options be considered and canvassed. Let the best conclusion possible be drawn, because the fact is we do not need to have this issue hanging over our heads in the way the JFK murder is hanging over the heads of people in the United States. I say to the Attorney-General: don’t do a Carmen Lawrence on us. Don’t say to the parliament, `Of course I want the truth to come out, but I just don’t seem to be able to find a suitable venue in which to tell it.’ Don’t do a Carmen Lawrence on us, Attorney-General, because you are better than that. The ghosts of three innocent men are hovering over us today. Let us get to the bottom of this so that their souls can finally rest in peace.
The speaker’s name? Tony Abbott, MP for Warringah – currently leader of the Liberal Party and the Federal Opposition.
At the conclusion of contributions by the four speakers, the Deputy Speaker declared an adjournment and concluded: “The debate will be made an order of the day for the next sitting Monday.”
A month later, Chris Haviland returned to the topic. Here’s the extract from Hansard:
Mr HAVILAND (Macarthur) (5.58 p.m.) —On 24 August I moved a motion in the House of Representatives calling for a joint federal-state inquiry into the Hilton Hotel bombing in 1978. This followed, in 1991, the unanimous decision of the New South Wales parliament calling also for a joint federal-state inquiry. Since that time another motion has been passed in the New South Wales parliament, again calling for a joint federal-state inquiry. I notice that a similar motion to mine is now on the Senate Notice Paper for debate over there.
It is high time we got to the bottom of who was responsible for the bombing of the Hilton Hotel. I believe there are no further excuses. We need this joint federal-state inquiry. To not have an inquiry will mean that we will never get to the bottom of who committed these crimes. It is the worst unsolved murder case in Australia’s history. It was an embarrassment to Australia. I believe there will be a suggestion of a cover-up if people are not going to support an inquiry into this.
Bob Carr, the Premier of New South Wales, has supposedly opened the files held by the New South Wales government on this matter. When Terry Griffiths, one of the victims of the bombing, went down to look at the files he was told that eight particular files were restricted: he could not look at them. When he phoned the Premier’s office to ask why, he was told that the New South Wales government had opened the files but the Commonwealth government had placed restrictions on eight of those files. I would like to know why that is. There may be a very good reason.
Indeed, it is a debating point as to whether it is a good idea to just throw open files to the public anyway, given the sensitive nature of this issue. But, whatever the merits of that, it is high time we got to the bottom of this sordid issue and had a joint federal-state inquiry.
Mr SPEAKER —Order! It being 6 p.m., the debate is interrupted. The House stands adjourned until Monday, 16 October 1995 at 12.30 p.m., in accordance with the provisions of standing order 40.
That appears to be the last reference in Australian Hansard, to this day, on the topic of the Sydney Hilton bombing.
In March 1996, a Federal election was held.
Chris Haviland was deselected by the Labor Party for his seat in the run up to the election – somewhat unusually for a sitting member.
Ted Mack retired.
John Howard and the Liberal Party, who swept to office, promptly seemed to forget the Hilton bombing. With so much national focus on the Port Arthur atrocity from April 1996 onwards, it was easy to do…
As a backbencher in the early years of Howard’s new Government, Tony Abbott may not have held much sway at the time. But in September 2010 that’s no longer the case.
Whether he’s Prime Minister or not by the end of this week, Abbott could now set in motion the demand he so strongly supported 15 years ago.
This time – with his personal support and given the new balance of power in the House of Representatives and the configuration of the Senate – a resolution to establish this long overdue inquiry would undoubtably be carried.