The Green Bans: Was Juanita Nielsen murdered on the orders of Abe Saffron?
On July the 4th, 1975, heritage activist Juanita Nielsen disappeared. Having campaigned against the rampant pace of development in Sydney’s King Cross, Nielsen had emerged as the spokesperson of a diverse coalition of interests which included the National Trust of Australia as well as local chapters of the Builders Labourers Federation. Together, they had disrupted the operations of powerful construction figures such as Frank Theeman, who was allegedly connected to organised crime through figures like Fred Krahe, a former police officer who left the service in 1972 after being linked to the death of informant Shirley Brifman. Afterwards, he became a gun for hire, with his contacts in the notoriously corrupt New South Wales police force highly valuable for clients like Theeman, who tasked Krahe with forcibly evicting his tenants ahead of the planned development.
Nielsen’s last known sighting was the Carousel Club in Kings Cross, having been lured there by an offer of advertising in her newspaper. At the time, the establishment was part of the empire of Abe Saffron, whose numerous hotels, bars and nighclubs were long rumoured to have been a front for his extensive interests in the Sydney underworld. Amongst the many allegations of criminality, Saffron is believed to have facilitated Theeman’s dealings with Sydney’s syndicates, including the hit on Nielsen. In the end however, three low-ranking employees of the Carousel Club were charged with conspiracy to murder in 1977. One was acquitted, while Edward Trigg received three years in prison and a third man was sentenced to just two. By that point, Theeman’s developments were well underway, a reported success for him and his business associates. As for Nielsen, her body was never found, going down as one of the more notorious mysteries of Australian organised crime in the 20th century.
Ten years before Nielsen went missing, the government of New South Wales had drastically rezoned vast swathes of Sydney, beginning the process of rapid development that Nielsen had campaigned against. The reforms were overseen by Premier Robert Askin of the Liberal Party, who had ended the decades of Labor dominance in the state. As it was later alleged, Askin had established a powerful system of entrenched corruption while in office, with Abe Saffron a major player. Another important figure was fellow Kings Cross bar owner Bernie Houghton, an American who had moved to Australia in 1967. At the time, the escalation of the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War had brought thousands of soldiers down under to spend their seven days of mandated rest and recreation.
Along with money, the influx of troops had also brought a strong demand for heroin with them, straight from the poppy fields of the ‘Golden Triangle’ area of Southeast Asia. Since 1967, opium production had been dominated by the Royal Laotian Army, with the alleged support of the Central Intelligence Agency through its front corporation, Air America. According to subsequent revelations, a significant amount of the immense profits generated by the heroin trade were laundered through the Nugan Hand bank, incorporated in 1973 by Australian financier Francis “Frank” Nugan and a former Green Beret named Michael Jon Hand. That same year, the United States had pulled out of Vietnam, forcing the CIA to find more creative ways of influencing the politics of Indochina, such as the trafficking of narcotics.
Along with its co-founders, a prominent figure in Nugan Hand was Bernie Houghton, with his contacts including Richard Secord, an Air Force veteran who had liaised with the CIA in Laos and was later linked to the Iran-Contra scandal. Another associate of Houghton’s was Earl P. Yates, an admiral in the US Navy who became President of the bank in the late 1970s. Further links to American intelligence were established through their legal counsel, former CIA Director William Colby, whose business card was discovered in the pocket of Frank Nugan after his apparent suicide in early 1980. The death took place while Nugan was on trial for defrauding investors in the family business, the Nugan Group, which had interests in various agricultural concerns. Joining him on trial was his brother, Ken, as well as Fred Krahe and another former officer named Keith Kelly.
After Fred Nugan’s apparent suicide, the Nugan Hand bank collapsed soon after, causing a scandal in Australia. As for Michael Hand, he quickly disappeared, only discovered decades later living in the United States as the owner of a tactical knife company, which included law enforcement and military as clients. Likely to have been less fortunate was Sydney lawyer Brian Alexander, who had been identified by the Stewart Royal Commission as a key conduit between corrupt police and the ‘Mr Asia’ drug syndicate, passing information which led to the deaths of attempted informants Doug and Isobel Wilson. The commission also heard allegations that Alexander had been allowed into the residence of Frank Nugan by police after the financier’s death, presumably to obtain or destroy incriminating documents. Like Juanita Nielsen, he has never been found, likely another victim of Australian organised crime and its support from local law enforcement and the CIA.
Around the same time that Nielsen went missing, the New South Wales branch of the Builders Labourers Federation was taken over by the union’s General Secretary Norm Gallagher. The history of this period in the history of the BLF is sharply divided between supporters of the NSW leadership, which was generally affiliated with the Communist Party of Australia, and Gallagher, a leading member of the rival Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist). In 1964, the latter had split from the Moscow-aligned CPA, to follow the standard of Maoist China during the Sino-Soviet split. As an ‘anti-revisionist’ party, the CPA (ML) denounced their former comrades for their increasing integration into the liberal status quo of the time, through avenues such as academia or middle-class organisations like the National Trust.
In contrast, the Maoist position of figures like Gallagher brought them into a global alliance of PRC supporters and the American empire, which had seen Red China declare the USA to be less harmful than Soviet Russia. In Angola, this caused a complicated civil war between the pro-USSR MPLA and UNITA, whose backers included apartheid South Africa and the PRC. Over in Australia, the division would add a sectarian component to the battle over the BLF, with NSW leader Jack Mundey warmly commemorated by CPA successor organisation the Search Foundation for battling Gallagher and enacting the green bans at a crucial time in Sydney’s architectural history. This narrative was supported by outlets such as the privately-owned Sydney Morning Herald, as well as academic-based website The Conversation.
In contrast, the website of the CPA (ML) presents a more sympathetic account of Gallagher’s takeover of the NSW branches, taking issue with the allegation that the longtime BLF leader was corrupt. Acknowledging that violence did occur in the struggle for the union, the Vanguard argues it was a natural result of the rough and tumble nature of the construction industry, as well as the Communist party politics of the time, downplaying the potential role of organised crime. What is known is that Gallagher was successful, overturning the green bans despite of the objections of the “residents, sheilas and poofters” who he denounced as bad for the BLF. Having been deregistered during the Green Ban era, the union was taken off the blacklist in 1976, operating fairly smoothly for a decade.
Then, in 1986, a Royal Commission led to Gallagher’s conviction for accepting building materials from construction companies, and the BLF was struck off for the final time, amalgamating into a new super-union, the CFMEU, during the 1990s. It was during this period that former Mundey ally Bob Pringle died in what was reported as a boating accident, killing off a veteran of the BLF’s battles with the developers and their goon squads. Others were more lucky. A Victorian-based organiser named John Setka transitioned into the CFMEU, becoming State Secretary in 2012. The former Gallagher loyalist would later cause a scandal in 2019 after being convicted of harassing his wife and arguing with an anti-domestic violence campaigner, which saw him expelled from the Labor Party amid much controversy.