Killing the Caretaker: Who murdered Ernie Abbott?

In 1984, an explosion ripped through the Wellington Trades Hall building, killing Ernie Abbott. Along with his role as an official of the Caretakers and Cleaners Union, Abbott was also tasked with maintaining the hall, and is believed to have picked up a suitcase containing a pressure-activated bomb shortly after 5pm. Beyond that however, little more is publicly known about the case, which remains officially unsolved, even after DNA tests were conducted on the suitcase in 2019 as part of TVNZ series Cold Case.

So far, two police suspects have been identified. The first was Peter Dijkstra​, a former public servant familiar with explosives who provided DNA to police as part of the renewed investigation. Allegedly, Dijkstra had a grudge against organised labour due to a dispute with the Carpenters Union, as did Edgar Kilman, a marine also believed to have the know-how to construct a bomb. Despite the time which has passed since the broadcast of the Cold Case episode, there has been no further word about the test, even whether or not any DNA was identified, while the murder of Ernie Abbott continues to go unsolved.

Over time, other parties have been put forward as the culprit. According to Ken Douglas, former head of the Federation of Labour, the bomber may have been a former MI5 agent, who had relocated to New Zealand after suffering a mental breakdown while working undercover in the Irish Republican Army. The theory failed to gain traction, and largely faded away on the left, which now generally accepts the disgruntled loner theory.

Meanwhile on the right, conservative blogger Trevor Loudon has suggested an equally convoluted theory, that Abbott was killed as part of a Soviet plot to tarnish anti-union Prime Minister Robert Muldoon on the eve of the 1984 election. By that point however, the USSR had far bigger concerns than New Zealand. Moreover, Loudon’s theory is contradicted by the theory put forward by Douglas, a member of the pro-Soviet Socialist Unity Party, which pushed responsibility for the death of Abbott away from the Muldoon government.

Reconstructing the identity of Ernie Abbott, it appears that the only victim of the Wellington Trades Hall bombing was a classic example of the older school of working-class unionist, which would soon fade in favour of a new generation recruited from academia and other aspects of the state. In the coverage of his death, there is no sign that he was particularly affiliated with any political organisation, from the mainstream Labour Party to more fringe contenders such as Douglas’ Socialist Unity Party or the Maoist Workers Communist League, which was closely associated with Wellington Trades Council head Pat Kelly.

Along with his role as secretary of the Cleaners and Caretakers, Kelly was also Abbott’s boss at the time of the bombing due to the council’s ownership of the Wellington Trades Hall. According to industrial reporter Tim Donaghue, one of the first to the scene of the bombing, “he and Ernie had had their moments over the years” that they spent in the union movement. Exactly what these disagreements were is unclear, although it appears that Abbott had also had difficulties with Graeme Clarke, another associate of the student-based WCL group, shortly before his death:

Finally, although he was quick to portray his working relationship with Abbott as smooth, his apparent replacement as Vice-President, lawyer Peter Cranney, acknowledged that others did not get on so well with the deceased:

Along with the picture of Abbott as something of an outsider in a union movement increasingly detached from its rank and file, there is also a confusion over exactly what Abbott’s role was with the Caretakers and Cleaners Union. For one, some reports simply describe him as the caretaker of the Wellington Trades Hall, downplaying his senior role within the wider union. For another, while his position at the time is generally said to have been vice-president, a 2014 memorial of Abbott, written by Pat Kelly’s daughter, Helen, refers to him as the president. While this could be a simple mistake, it could also be that, at one time, Abbott was the president of the union, until he was reduced to the deputy role due to his disagreements with secretary Kelly.

Another mystery is the presence of an unidentified gang work trust in the Wellington Trades Hall, which was mentioned in a news report from the time then forgotten. Assessing the evidence, the most likely candidate is the Aroha Trust, which was made up of female associates of the Black Power gang. According to Pip Desmond, a social worker who organised the Aroha Trust, the entity was incorporated at the Trades Hall with the help of unionist Sonja Davies. What is remarkable about this is that the trust was part of a wider alliance between Black Power and the same Muldoon government which was so bitterly battling against the labour movement.

Documentary about Muldoon’s support for Black Power

In 1986, the State-Owned Enterprises Act was passed by the Labour government, commercialising vast swathes of the country’s economy. Previously, they had been run as a public service. Now, they were only out to make a profit, with thousands of workers being made redundant within the first week of the act coming into force. Despite the rumblings from the union rank and file, senior figures such as Ken Douglas supported the changes, maintaining order during the crucial early days of the new order.

As for Pat Kelly, there is some uncertainty over his relationship to the government, with a 2009 profile of his daughter describing him as “staunch critic” of the Lange administration. In contrast, his 2004 obituary in the NZ Herald labels him a “strong supporter” of the Prime Minister. What is undisputed is that Kelly was part of a team of unionists formed by the Lange administration in 1988 to reach a “compact” with the state to limit demands for higher wages, based on a similar agreement in Australia. However, the compact would never be reached, after the Lange government was brought down by internal conflict later that year.

Having been the driving force behind legislation such as the State-Owned Enterprises Act, Finance Minister Roger Douglas had proposed further changes, including a flat tax, which were finally rejected by Lange. Douglas resigned his role and made a bit for the party leadership. Although Lange held onto his position, Douglas was still re-elected back to caucus by the Labour Party, with the Prime Minister resigning soon after. By the time the next election rolled around in 1990, Labour lost power to National’s Jim Bolger, who was elected on a platform which hinted at some restoration of the old paternalistic system.

Instead, the new government hacked back much of what was left, passing the Employment Contracts Act, which saw union membership drop sharply afterwards. With calls mounting from the grassroots for a general strike in opposition to the ECA, Ken Douglas would be accused of stifling these demands, particularly through his contacts in the powerful National Distribution Union. As for Pat Kelly, who had apparently given up on Labour shortly before the election, he made a few statements in vague support of a more militant challenge to the ECA, but little more, before leaving the union movement in 1993. Douglas would stay on for a bit , stepping down in 1999 to find employment on the executive boards of several large corporations.

While the public may never know who was behind the bombing of the Wellington Trades Hall, it is clear that there was far more to Ernie Abbott than simply being a caretaker who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. As a senior figure in the union movement, he lived, and died, in a murky world, where some of his comrade’s apparent radicalism appears to have been a front that hid their support for the rise of neoliberalism. As a result, challenging the one dimensional image of Abbott as a martyr is likely vital to uncovering the truth behind his murder.

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