WHO BOMBED THE HILTON
NewSouth, 2016, 401 pages
Review by Phil Shannon
Even the New Tricks scriptwriters would have a tough time cracking the four-decades-old cold case of Australia’s first terrorist attack, implies Rachel Landers, an ABC and SBS documentary film-maker, in her book on the bombing of the Hilton Hotel in Sydney, which killed two garbage collectors and a police officer in February, 1978.
The hotel was the venue for a Commonwealth Heads of Government Regional Meeting (CHOGRM), hosting eleven political leaders from the Asia-Pacific region, including the Indian Prime Minister. Indian officials had recently been the targets of a global wave of knife attacks and bombings by followers of the Ananda Marga religious sect in response to the jailing of its leader in India for the murder of six defecting members.
When the Hilton was bombed (followed by four other related bomb incidents in Australia), the Australian branch of the Ananda Marga (and its mysterious and fanatical Universal Proutist Revolutionary Federation cell) seemed the obvious fit. But was it just a fit-up, asked the sceptics. Despite the massive security resources dedicated to CHOGRM, someone, nevertheless, “placed a bomb in a garbage bin which lay undisturbed and uninspected for 48 hours”, contrary to standard security protocol.
Perhaps the security services themselves (ASIO and the New South Wales Police’s Special Branch), under the theory of cui bono (‘who benefits’), planted the bomb, intending to ‘discover’ it and so justify their future necessity to ‘national security’ after the 1960s long-haired radicals in the street and the 1970s short-haired reformers in the Whitlam Labor government had outed the political police as anti-democratic bastions of political conservatism.
Despite a past documentary exposing “the endemic corruption, the blue walls of silence and the like” in a Special Branch famed for its “nepotism, ineptitude, ‘dirt’ files and good times”, Landers doesn’t believe the secret police bombed the Hilton. Such speculation, she believes, is the “fanciful” province of conspiracy nutters, and motivated by hatred of the reactionary federal Liberal government of Malcolm Fraser which had sacked its predecessor, the democratically-elected, ASIO-raiding Labor government.
Landers also gives short shrift to the public story that three Margiis (Tim Anderson, Paul Alister and Ross Dunn) were the perpetrators. This was bizarre nonsense, she says, concocted on the unverifiable say-so of a dodgy informer, a self-serving convicted armed robber, and an ex-Margii, supplemented by planted evidence and police verballing. The frame-up of the three Margiis was, says Landers, a terrible “miscarriage of justice”, as the courts later agreed when all were freed on appeal.
Landers leaves a lingering question mark over the three Margiis, however. She “stands by” what the official 1985 inquiry into the bombing concluded about the three local Margiis - ‘doubt remains as to their guilt’ but ‘strong suspicion’ lingers.
Their Svengali, she believes, was Abhiik Kumar, the Ananda Marga spiritual leader in Australasia, a globe-trotting, terror-seeding evil plenipotentiary whose “proximity to so many international acts of violence involving Margii or Proutist foot soldiers” fingers him as the Australian bombing mastermind. She claims, without elucidation however, that the Australian Government, ASIO and police later had no doubt that Kumar was the perpetrator but that he has not been prosecuted because they could not prove it in court.
The recurring accusations against Ananda Marga, resurrected by Landers, are, however, flimsy, based on only circumstantial evidence. Security service responsibility for the bombing-gone-wrong is at least as viable. Landers is too ready to dismiss this possibility. Her book is the result of forensic trawling through hundreds of boxes of records held at NSW State Records. This primary archival resource is rich but partial, possibly tampered with, and presents the Hilton bombing through police eyes only. If they had had any vested interest in staging the bombing, the establishment record could be expected to stay sthtum about it.
As a true-crime/murder-mystery, Who Bombed the Hilton is a ripping read but it gets us no further to a solution to the crime, possibly Australia’s most scandalous political crime of the last century.