Clues in the af­ter­math

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Tom Gilling

achel Lan­ders be­gins her grip­ping book on the 1978 Syd­ney Hil­ton hotel bomb­ing with a tan­ta­lis­ing anec­dote. “I’m sit­ting in the Tea Room in Syd­ney’s Queen Victoria Build­ing,” she writes, “across from a man whose name I can’t tell you. Let’s call him Fred.” Fred is a “for­mer se­nior de­tec­tive in his late six­ties who was li­onised for his skill in run­ning a se­ries of spec­tac­u­lar covert op­er­a­tions in the 1990s”.

Furtive, bor­der­ing on para­noid, Fred pur­ports to have the in­side in­for­ma­tion that, nearly four decades on, will fi­nally lay the case to rest. Only he doesn’t and, more sur­pris­ingly, Lan­ders tells us that he doesn’t. Fred’s an­swer is the same as that put forward by con­spir­acy the­o­rists al­most since the day the bomb ex­ploded, killing two coun­cil work­ers and a po­lice­man. Fred blames ASIO, or mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence, or the NSW Spe­cial Branch, all of which sup­pos­edly stood to benefit from a ter­ror­ist at­tack on Aus­tralian soil.

Far from be­ing the man to an­swer all of Lan­ders’s ques­tions, Fred turns out to be “just an­other per­son tug­ging at the edges of this tatty, frac­tured saga”. We are only on page three and the au­thor has al­ready in­tro­duced — and dis­missed — her own Deep Throat. Ei­ther Lan­ders has a lot more Freds up her sleeve, read­ers might think, or else her book’s ti­tle is a tease (it’s worth not­ing that the ti­tle is a ques­tion and there is no subti­tle promis­ing an an­swer).

The Hil­ton bomb­ing, which ap­peared to tar­get Com­mon­wealth lead­ers at­tend­ing a con­fer­ence in Syd­ney, con­tin­ues to be de­scribed as an “un­solved” ter­ror­ist at­tack. It would be more ac­cu­rate to say the case has been “solved” a num­ber of times, only for each so­lu­tion to be found want­ing.

A 1982 coro­nial in­quest into the Hil­ton bomb­ing found a prima fa­cie case of triple mur­der against two mem­bers of the Ananda Marga or­gan­i­sa­tion, Paul Alis­ter and Ross Dunn, based on the dubious tes­ti­mony of a po­lice informer, Richard Seary. The case was not pur­sued for lack of ev­i­dence.

In 1989 a for­mer mem­ber of Ananda Marga, Evan Ped­er­ick, con­fessed to plant­ing the bomb un­der or­ders from the group’s press of­fi­cer, Tim Anderson. Ped­er­ick’s ev­i­dence was rid­dled with er­rors but both men were con­victed. Anderson was re­leased and ac­quit­ted on ap­peal af­ter serv­ing less than a year of a 14-year sen­tence, with chief jus­tice Mur­ray Glee­son ex­co­ri­at­ing var­i­ous as­pects of the crown’s case. The hap­less Ped­er­ick ended up serv­ing eight years.

The chal­lenge for any new in­ves­ti­ga­tor is ei­ther to un­earth new ev­i­dence or to ex­tract new mean­ing from the co­pi­ous in­for­ma­tion in the archives. Lan­ders, an ac­com­plished film­maker who is head of doc­u­men­tary at the Aus­tralian Film, Tele­vi­sion and Ra­dio School, has opted pri­mar­ily for the lat­ter.

Her painstak­ing analysis of the ma­te­rial stored at State Records in west­ern Syd­ney and else­where is me­thod­i­cal and gen­er­ally con­vinc­ing. The scep­ti­cism she brings to her reading of the doc­u­ments helps ex­pose the im­plau­si­bil­ity of much that passed for ev­i­dence in the early phase of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Un­ham­pered by the po­lit­i­cal agen­das and pro­fes­sional ri­val­ries that com­pro­mised the work of the var­i­ous agen­cies — the Hil­ton bomb­ing task­force, ASIO, Spe­cial Branch — charged with in­ves­ti­gat­ing the ex­plo­sion, Land- ers at­tacks the archive boxes with a level-headed ob­jec­tiv­ity lamentably (but per­haps un­der­stand­ably) ab­sent in the af­ter­math of the bomb­ing. Amid the self-con­tra­dic­tions and im­prob­a­bil­i­ties that made up Seary’s ev­i­dence, she is care­ful to point out what was plau­si­ble and what did make sense.

That she is able to guide us through the tan­gled web of con­flict­ing (and con­flicted) ev­i­dence while main­tain­ing a com­pelling nar­ra­tive tes­ti­fies to her skills as a storyteller, de­spite what seems to me her mis­judged de­ci­sion to write this book en­tirely in the present tense. While this de­vice gives the text a cer­tain im­me­di­acy, it also has the ef­fect of col­laps­ing every­thing — the bomb­ing, the events that pre­ceded the bomb­ing, the po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tion, court pro­ceed­ings stretch­ing over decades, and the au­thor’s re­search nearly 40 years af­ter the event — into the same present-day time frame. Some read­ers may find this con­fus­ing.

What, then, of the ques­tion asked on the cover? If Ped­er­ick’s con­fes­sion to hav­ing planted the bomb was dis­cred­ited, and the courts re­leased Anderson, and noth­ing came of the 1982 coro­nial in­quest, who did bomb the Hil­ton? Lan­ders cites a news­pa­per story pub­lished in 2003 that “plainly states that ‘Ab­hiik Ku­mar was the mastermind of the Hil­ton hotel bomb­ing’ ” and com­ments that “this is pretty much what all the official agen­cies in­volved in the in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the bomb­ing be­lieve”.

Ku­mar, one of the many aliases of the Amer­i­can-born leader of the Ananda Marga in Aus­tralia, has long been a per­son of in­ter­est to de­tec­tives but has never been charged in re­la­tion to the bomb­ing. Af­ter one of the au­thor’s friends sug­gests she “jump on a plane and con­front Ku­mar”, Lan­ders says she “cannot see the point of this”. The rea­son she gives is that when she em­barked on her re­search she “made a vow not to trust the liv­ing”.

This may make foren­sic sense, but as the con­clu­sion to a thought-pro­vok­ing book about one of Aus­tralia’s en­dur­ing mod­ern mys­ter­ies, I’m not sure it’s good enough. It feels like a copout. On the other hand, you have to ad­mire the nerve of an au­thor who has laid out all the ev­i­dence and has ev­ery con­fi­dence her read­ers will draw the right con­clu­sion. is a writer and critic.

Wreck­age caused by the Syd­ney Hil­ton bomb­ing in 1978

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