Marilyn and Michael Taylor, parents of Constable Angela Taylor who was killed in Russell Street bombing

Marilyn and Michael Taylor unveil a memorial to their daughter, Constable Angela Taylor, who was killed in the Russell Street bombing

Thirty years ago, I was in the basement of Allans Music on Collins Street, Melbourne, leafing through sheet music, looking for a Supertramp Best Of with banjo tabs, for my band Mental Hymn Inhaler. I hadn’t been there more than three hours when there was a slight … feeling. Some small disturbance. In the air? No. In self? No, it was a very slight shudder in the ground, in the whole ensemble. Coming above ground, about 20 minutes later, the city was in uproar, streets blocked off, cop cars and fire engines, ambulances racing northwards.

The shudder in being had been the Russell Street bomb, going off more than a kilometre away, and sending a pressure wave through the ground, a measure of its tremendous force. It was not a small bomb, a gelignite job in a Holden Commodore. The blast tunneled through the open windows of the Russell Street police station, creating a pressure wave within. Those who witnessed it above ground up close say it was terrifying, a rip in the air. The bomb killed one police officer — Angela Taylor — and injured 22 other people. It was a piece of great good fortune that the death toll was not in double figures. It occurred during a period of brutal violence between cops and criminal networks, which involved both the summary killing of cops, and some highly suspicious lethal shootings by the cops themselves.

Craig Minogue, a very minor figure in this milieu, was the man who set that bomb. Convicted in 1986, he has now spent 30 years in jail, and is eligible — eligible — for parole. In response to this, both the Andrews Labor government and the Guy Liberal opposition are trying to outdo each other in a race to deny Minogue not only the possibility of parole, but the chance of ever drawing free breath. They want him to die in prison, and there are few voices in dissent.

[Rundle: the horror of non-horror — killing time in the modern prison system]

That’s inevitable, I guess, in the current age, and given the nature of the crime. Before this era, we were not a country to subscribe to the lock-em-up-forever regime. The “age of terror” can’t explain it; in the ’70s, there were so many terror bombings and skyjackings, etc, around the world, that the act was of the status of writing an angry letter to the The Age. Put simply, the urge to heavy punitiveness comes from a collapse in a sense of security, born of a fraying of solidarity and undermined ground. This can be seen in the capital and carceral regimes of the US.

Given the horror of the crime, the assault on the public, the anger towards Minogue is understandable. But it’s something that both parties — or members of them — should resist in the coming days. Permanent incarceration has nothing to do with safety, justice or appropriate punishment. It is a denial not only of justice, but of the basic worth of any human being, such as underlies the social-liberal and liberal-conservative traditions of both parties, as well as the Christian and other religious values of many of their members.

Permanent incarceration, the denial of the possibility of release, is a form of psychic and existential torture applied to a criminal, to make us — or some of us — feel better about ourselves. It is vengeance extracted, without even the courage or nerve to physically torture. The aim of permanent incarceration is to keep the person existing as a bare life, stripped of all the full possibilities of being human — but preserving the ability to contemplate their passing existence and the approach of death. It is a technique that uses Being itself — the passing of time — as the instrument of torture. It is literally abysmal, a flinging into the abyss. Nothing the ancients derived by means of sadistic bodily outrages comes close to the annihilating intent of such a regime.

By now, the story of how this abhorrent process became possible is well known. The modern “penitentiary” system was invented by the Quakers in Pennsylvania in the 19th century as an alternative to the brutal pit-like prisons of old England. The penitentiary isolated the prisoner from all human contact, surveilled in a panopticon — a covered central observation post, which may or may not be occupied at any given time, thus giving a sense of permanent surveillance — with the hope that the prisoner would develop a relationship with God and come to penitence for their crimes.

Even at the time, the system was seen as, to use a sociological term, fucking nuts, a denial of the most basic human qualities — Charles Dickens writing one of the most eloquent denunciations of it. Nevertheless, it spread, for fair means and foul, even as the original motive — a coming to God — became forgotten. In God’s place came the punishment of time. Prison has many horrors, but its official intended one, the punishment, is time without freedom, the slow drip, drip, drip of it. The horror at remnant corporal punishment in various parts of the world obscures how horrifying and nihilistic this form of punishment is, especially when applied to non-violent offenders.

[Rundle: the intolerable, impersonal cruelty of Nauru]

Craig Minogue isn’t that. He was a young man, from violence, caught up in a world of violence. He is now a middle-aged man who, by all accounts, has gone through a long process of education, reflection and redemption, gaining a BA and PhD in the process, and publishing a slew of academic articles. That may be one cause of the government flying press against him, since his PhD and academic work have been about the wayward use of education and rehabilitation in prison as forms of power and persecution. There’s a lot of people who don’t want Minogue free to talk at length about the nature of the Victorian prison system.

That is not on my part, a positive call for him to be paroled. I don’t know the man, though he has written a couple of essays for Arena magazine over the years, when I was a co-editor, and after — intelligent and un-self-pitying informal accounts of the subtle forms of power at play in prison life. But it is a call to say that no human being should be definitively set down to die in prison, simply by virtue of the crime they’ve committed. Inevitably, some small number of people — violent, permanently disordered psychopaths — can never be released. But Minogue is not being targeted for permanent incarceration on those grounds. He is being targeted by politicians scared of a public mood for retribution — which they may well be imagining — who have turned the issue into a “law and order” competition.

A progressive social-democratic politics cannot co-exist with an indifference to the reason by which someone became violent, and their consequent efforts to cease to be so; a liberal sense of human possibility and freedom cannot co-exist with the de facto human sacrifice, throwing a few people into the pit now and then to assuage public feeling. That is the politics of European reaction, of De Maistre’s executioner, merciless and capricious. Nor can it co-exist with the Christian beliefs that appear to be held by an increasing number of the Liberal opposition.

The bourgeoisie are very good at compartmentalising government and God, leaving forgiveness to the latter, etc, and no government can be wholly Christian. But that only goes so far. If you believe in the possibility of redemption, then you believe that the freedom to be good can be regained. If that’s so then the incarceration-unto-death of such a person, without hope, becomes a crime, and a sin, in itself.

Doubtless this plea won’t succeed, but there’s no point in not making it. Doubtless the champions of such an approach will point to the sufferings of Taylor’s family, the survivors, as reason to make Minogue suffer further, no matter how reformed and changed he has become. The family of a victim is in their right to want the murderer to suffer, to be disembowled, etc. But we don’t enact justice and punishment on behalf of the victims, we do it on behalf of the society that has been attacked by a crime of violence. We do it in part so that the victim’s family members don’t have to surrender their own feelings to an official process. We do it so that some sort of proportionality can be included in sentencing, so it does not lose its power as a deterrent, and sentence inflation take over — as it has in the US. This is not always fair, given that we punish for the impact of the crime not the intent. Minogue killed one person, wanted to kill half-a-dozen or more. Julian Knight, the Hoddle Street killer, wanted to kill the same number, and did. It is more difficult to argue for the release of Knight.

But Craig Minogue should get his chance before the parole board, and the real possibility of eventual release. This is one example where politicians should talk back to their base, and refuse them easy satisfactions sought (and another reason why that recourse shouldn’t be squandered in routine, heavy-handed progressivism). I see no chance of it happening, but hopefully there’ll be a few dissenting votes, on either side of the chamber, to preserve our commitment to our deepest humanity. Sentencing Minogue to despair through Parliament will be nothing in the scheme of things, a tiny shudder in the world, but it’s an expression of bigger movements elsewhere, that we assent to at our peril.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey