July 2019

The Nation Reviewed

The Russell Street Bomber in the High Court

By Mahmood Fazal
Illustration
The unlikely source of a critical case for the nation’s separation of powers

“There is nothing in my outside-world experience that I would ever want to go back to,” explains Craig Minogue through messages his partner records. “I don’t miss anything about the outside world because when I was free I was antisocial – a criminal outsider.”

By now Minogue has served 33 years on his 28-year-minimum prison sentence.

“It’s a harsh disrupted environment, the prison.” Inmates know that the worst shackles are not those locked to the wrists; rather they are the thought of no escape, of knowing you can’t go for a walk, or make a phone call or buy groceries. “One way out of this place,” says Minogue, “can be found along the printed page. Books have allowed me to live an imaginative life, to suspend my disbelief. I very much try to transcend my isolation. Where I can imagine myself in the actions of the characters in the story.” His favourite writer is the Japanese author Yukio Mishima. “He writes a love story called Spring Snow, which is like holding a butterfly in your hand, and each time the wings flap, different words appear.”

In June, the butterfly effect of Minogue’s crime reached the core of Australian democracy, forcing the High Court to assert its judicial power against the legislature. At issue was the power of the state over the courts – our shield against tyranny. The picture is muddied by how we regard the man responsible for holding the frontline: as Dr Craig Minogue, or as the Russell Street Bomber?

On March 27, 1986, a metallic brown ’79 Holden Commodore with fawn side panels was parked outside the Russell Street police headquarters, in Melbourne’s CBD, loaded with 60 sticks of gelignite and detonators. In the explosion that followed, 21-year-old Constable Angela Taylor suffered severe burns. When she was found, her shoelaces were still on fire and the white rim of her police cap was melting. She died 24 days later – the first female police officer to be killed in the line of duty. A further 22 people were seriously injured.

The following day, the headline of The Sydney Morning Herald read “Beirut Comes to Australia”. The orchestrator of the bombing was Stan “The Man” Taylor, a ruthless 51-year-old stick-up artist and part-time acting tragic. During a previous stint inside, Taylor had performed in the Pentridge Players theatre group and upon release even landed a cameo in the TV drama Prisoner, ironically as the attendant of a service station that is held up. Taylor’s recruits, nicknamed “the Animals”, were a gaggle of disciples groomed into clinical armed robbers. Craig Minogue, an illiterate and inspired 23-year-old, was charged over the bombing alongside him, and found guilty.

In sentencing, Judge Frank Vincent noted that Minogue was “a very young man” before adding, “I find it difficult to say that you are beyond any possible redemption or rehabilitation”. In 1988, he was sentenced to life imprisonment, with a non-parole period of 28 years.

Minogue speaks of his past with considered confidence. “For me, in the past, violence was a tool to be used as an exercise of personal will. It was, in the past, a will to power; a nihilistic device to get my own way and serve my own ends. But like any instrument of power, it corrupts the person who uses it.”

While inside Pentridge, in Melbourne’s inner north, Minogue ruined his prison record by killing the multiple murderer Alex Tsakmakis. According to Minogue it was a case of “getting Tsakmakis before Tsakmakis got me”. Tsakmakis had immolated his former cellmate Barry Quinn, and was described by prison officers as a “power-mad psychopath”. Minogue repeatedly belted Tsakmakis with a pillowcase full of gym plates.

“I have resisted institutionalisation from prison and I did that in the first part of my sentence with physical violence,” explains Minogue. “There can be no deliverance or rescue from my guilt no matter how repentant I am. So rather than seeking redemption, I think the only thing I can do is seek to reinvent myself.”

Minogue was imprisoned in the infamous high security unit Jika Jika, a jail within a jail inside Pentridge. Some prisoners nostalgically remember Pentridge, which closed in 1997, as “the College of Knowledge” and Minogue learnt more than street smarts behind its bluestone walls. A psychologist lent him a copy of Bertrand Russell’s A Brief History of Philosophy. Minogue was trying “to get some guidance on how the hell my life got to the point it did. Rather than look to religion or spirituality, what I looked to was the history of ideas.”

In 2012, Minogue received a doctorate in applied ethics from La Trobe University. Since then, he has published more than 50 peer-reviewed articles in the social sciences, including “Political Prisoners in Australia?”, “Inside My Skull: Personal Responsibility and the Moral Lessons Learnt”, “The Use of a Military Level of Force on Civilian Prisoners” and “Reading and Writing as Resistance and Reformation”.

His PhD thesis – “Seeing Who’s Who: Identifying a violently oppositional sense of self and other which is emerging from an immoral discourse of punishment and revenge” – detailed how labelling criminals as inherently evil subverts justice and implicates them in a never-ending cycle of revenge. Due to his criminal actions, Minogue believes himself to be judged by the public as infinitely evil by nature and trapped in perpetual condemnation.

“Nothing can significantly alter the effects of the moral condemnation of the legal system, which is being directed at me for the wrongs that I have done,” he says.

By 2016, Minogue had served his minimum non-­parole period and was eligible to apply to face the parole board, but the government intervened with an amendment to the Corrections Act. The same year, the Victorian parliament passed the Justice Legislation Amendment (Parole Reform and Other Matters) Act. It specifically denied parole for prisoners who had been charged with murdering a police officer. The Act was to be applied regardless of whether the prisoner had been sentenced prior to the commencement of the clause. Minogue was clearly the key target of the legislative “reform”.

After a challenge in the High Court, Minogue was excused from the parole reform act because it was determined that the “offence committed [the Russell Street bombing] was indiscriminate and no particular person or class of persons was targeted”.

Then in June 2018, Premier Daniel Andrews’ government introduced another bill that ensured Minogue would “be the guest of Her Majesty until they carry [him] out in a box”. The Corrections Amendment (Parole) Act introduced laws stating explicitly the very specific “conditions for making a parole order for Craig Minogue”, which included that the parole board is “satisfied” (on the basis of a report prepared by the secretary to the corrections department) “that the prisoner … is in imminent danger of dying or is seriously incapacitated”. Minogue’s defence team launched a new legal challenge.

“I am a political prisoner because I was re-sentenced by an act of parliament after I had completed the minimum sentence that the court imposed on me in 1988,” claims Minogue. “My imprisonment is symbolic of how shallow the populist political thinking and discourse has become … Is the operation of the law really like a rigged game of roulette, with the parliament throwing a switch after the ball has landed if it does not like the outcome for the house? Do we have casino constitutionalism?”

When asked about the prospect of never setting foot on a gravelly strip of freedom again, Minogue talks about what keeps him going. “Part of my daydreams and fantasy is to make films. I like some of the romantic stuff, you know, Bridget Jones comedies … but Hugh Grant I can’t stand. God, he’s a boring man.” Now held in Barwon Prison, 60 kilometres south-west of Melbourne, Minogue would curate films by Stanley Kubrick, Sergio Leone, Clint Eastwood and the Coen brothers for pizza night on Wednesdays.

“It’s a way of escaping my environment here. Without books, without learning, without the life of the mind – to quote Barton Fink from the Coen brothers movie – without the life of the mind, I would be…” Minogue clears his throat, “I probably wouldn’t have made it.”

Minogue’s appeal, testing the balance of Australia’s separation of powers, was scheduled to be heard by the High Court in June. In the lead up to the hearing, however, came yet another disorienting twist to his tale.

In Barwon Prison, tensions had been rising ever since Minogue leaked news on Twitter through an intermediary about drug boss Tony Mokbel’s stabbing in February. On April 28, the government updated the state’s Corrections Regulations by introducing new offences for any communication that disrupts “the good order of the prison”. Minogue’s Twitter account has been silent ever since.

Minogue says that around this time the word from inside was that Victoria Police were gearing up to “pull the trigger”, though no one could decipher what such a veiled threat might mean for him. A week later he was moved to solitary confinement in Barwon Prison’s Banksia protection unit.

On May 24, police charged Minogue and Peter Komiazyk (formerly Peter Reed) with 38 counts of abduction by force and aggravated rape relating to two separate attacks in the 1980s.

Sex offenders, paedophiles, kidnappers and informants are colloquially known as “dogs” in prison, and are banished to the “boneyard”, protection units for close supervision. Prison culture celebrates inmate attacks on sex offenders, so when Minogue’s charges landed on the front page of every major newspaper, it was the equivalent of being issued a cold-steel death sentence.

For his own safety, Minogue was then transferred to Barwon’s Melaleuca unit, a high-security facility for high-risk prisoners, which in an essay he compared to Guantanamo Bay. The uniform for high-risk inmates is blood-red. They are locked down 23 hours a day and offered a restricted area to exercise for an hour, usually with another prisoner. Minogue is on his own.

“It’s been raining outside for a couple of days. On the [mainstream] yard there’d be life and grass,” Minogue tells his partner over the phone, “but I don’t know if I’ll even be able to see that again.”

In solitary confinement, Minogue finds another way to “suspend his disbelief”. Alone in his cell, he plays Pink’s “Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken” on his computer and mimes along to his favourite lyrics: “There’s not enough rope to tie me down / There’s not enough tape to shut this mouth.”

Mahmood Fazal

Mahmood Fazal is a writer, journalist and filmmaker.

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