Inmate - Phuong Ngo - by

Convicted murderer of Cabramatta MP John Newman celebrated his 55th birthday in custody this week. The Vietnamese-born former Fairfield councillor Phuong Canh Ngo is serving a life sentence for the shooting murder of Austrian-born Cabramatta MP John Newman.

Ngo has spent 15 years in gaol. If he lives to the age of 70 he will have spent 30 years behind bars with no prospect of release.

Last month Ngo lost the right to appeal against his life sentence. He had applied to the New South Wales Court of Criminal Appeals (NSWCCA) for an extension of time to lodge an application for the setting of a parole date. It was rejected.

Ngo has never admitted that he murdered Newman or that he had any involvement in Newman’s death. The Cabramatta MP was shot outside his home as he returned from an Australian Labor Party meeting on 5 September, 1994 by an unknown gunman.

Justice John Dunford sentenced Ngo to life imprisonment in 2001 for his role in organising the killing. To this day the identities of the getaway driver and the shooter remain a mystery.

Ngo was convicted of murder by joint enterprise, which allows for equal charges of murder to be made against all the participants, whether they carried out the actual murder or not: Ngo as mastermind, David Dinh as shooter and Quang Dao as driver. The jury accepted that Ngo was the mastermind, but did not accept the involvement of the other two, leaving the mystery of who killed Newman unsolved.

There were two full trials. In his summing up at the end of the first trial Justice James Wood told the jury to begin with the principal offender, the shooter. If they found him guilty, to proceed to the other two, and if they found him not guilty then on the basis of a joint enterprise, they should acquit all three.

Justice Dunford instead instructed the jury to begin with Ngo. One can only wonder at the outcome if Justice Wood had presided over the final trial.

Life imprisonment is imposed for serious crimes such as murder, child abuse, rape, high treason, drug or human trafficking, for which the convicted person is to remain in jail until they die or are paroled. In most countries it has replaced the death sentence. However the psychological impact of lifelong incarceration can be severe and in a dozen countries, among them Spain and Portugal, it has been abolished completely.

In a paper written in 2000 before he was appointed to the bench, Justice John Nicholson SC argued:

“the imposition of a life sentence focuses the punishment for the criminal act on one purpose only – retribution. Denunciation, deterrence (personal or general), protection of society, or rehabilitation are no better achieved by the imposition of a life sentence than of a substantial prison sentence of (say a non-parole period of 20 years).”

Assassinated MP
John Newman

Now Ngo’s only hope for release rests on the mercy of either the NSW Governor or the Governor General of Australia. Given the strength of public opinion running against Ngo, this seems extremely unlikely.

In the 1990s the meteoric rise of a cheeky Vietnamese politician in Cabramatta was an offence to many, the more so because Cabramatta had become a magnet for heroin addicts and the dealers who lived off them.

Ngo was in the thick of it, not as a dealer or a user, but because he was a big man, a leader in a marginalised community. He took on the drug lords, tried to rehabilitate the foot soldiers who peddled openly in the streets of Cabramatta. He set up the first Vietnamese Club in Australia and used it as a platform to build his political base.

He was ambitious; he wanted to get into parliament. In 1987 he became the first Vietnamese to be elected to local government in Australia so he thought he would make a bid for the state parliament, but was soundly thrashed by sitting MP John Newman.

Ngo learned the lesson and did not make another attempt to win a seat in the Legislative Assembly. Instead he lifted his gaze to the NSW upper house, or Legislative Council, where Liberal Hong Kong Australian Helen Sham Ho had taken a seat in 1988, becoming the first Chinese-born parliamentarian in Australia.

Later Ngo joined the ALP to further his ambition for a place in the NSW upper house which would make him the first Vietnamese-born parliamentarian in Australia.

In 1994 Newman was talking tough on drug crime and the Vietnamese street peddlers were the most visible targets. While Ngo was taking the soft approach setting up a youth drug rehabilitation centre, Newman was running a law and order campaign, calling for more police. But inside Labor Party HQ at 377 Sussex Street, Newman was perceived as a loose cannon and a decision was made to replace him.

The Newman murder in September shocked Australia and has been described as a loss of innocence. Newman was buried with full state honours and his murder unleashed a torrent of anti-Asian sentiment, especially towards the Vietnamese.

In the days following the murder the shock jocks reflected public revulsion and Newman was described as an anti-drug campaigner like Griffith’s Donald Mackay. A TV clip of Newman in Cabramatta declaring he would send the drug dealers back to the jungles where they belonged was played again and again.

From day one Ngo became the main suspect in the minds of the media and the public. In 1995 the Labor party opposition under Bob Carr was swept into power on a wave of sympathy for the slain politician.

Ngo was arrested in 1998 and endured three trials: the first was aborted, the second ended in a hung jury and the third in a guilty verdict. Central to the prosecution case was the claim that Ngo had killed Newman to gain his seat of Cabramatta in the NSW lower house.

Former Fairfield councillor Phuong Ngo

But former  ALP bosses John Della Bosca and Graham Richardson swore on oath that Ngo had no prospect of becoming the ALP candidate for Cabramatta.

And Bureau of Statistics figures for Cabramatta show that even if Ngo had won every Vietnamese vote he would still have lost the election. The electorate simply was not ready for an Asian MP and still may not be: in 2011 former Vietnamese-born ABC journalist Dai Le ran on a Liberal party ticket in Cabramatta, and was defeated.

In 2001 Justice Dunford sentenced Ngo under of the Crimes Sentencing Procedure Act 1999 section 61 which provides for a life sentence where “retribution, punishment, community protection and deterrence can only be met through the imposition of that sentence”.

Justice Dunford said Newman’s assassination was “a direct attack on our system of democratic representative government and struck at the very fabric of our public institutions”.

Therein lies the rub. Ngo had crossed the line. He is seen as the outsider, the intruder who attacked Australian values by ordering the killing of a white knight, a fearless fighter for justice.

It was dubbed the first political assassination in Australia. Never mind that Ngo had a snowflake’s chance in hell of becoming the elected Cabramatta MP and forget the fact that party boss John Della Bosca had offered the seat to Reba Meagher on the afternoon before the murder. In the minds of Australians, Ngo wanted Newman’s seat and was prepared to kill for it.

There is no evidence that Ngo would be a threat to society, that he would import heroin, or even that he would carry out another assassination. In his sentencing remarks Justice Dunford conceded that Ngo was a “model prisoner” who had “assisted young prisoners” and set up the Fairfield Drug Intervention Centre.

Ngo has concentrated his efforts on overturning the verdict, and has until now not appealed the severity of his sentence. On 3 April 2003 Ngo’s first appeal against his conviction was dismissed by the NSWCCA. He then applied for leave to appeal to the High Court. That too was dismissed.

In 2009 Mr David Patten conducted a judicial review that failed to find grounds for a retrial. Judges are reluctant to overturn convictions unless there is new or compelling evidence. Nonetheless doubts about the safety of the conviction remain.

Maverick MP Peter Breen, a solicitor and former Legislative Council member, wrote the book Murder Principles: Who Assassinated John Newman MP?.

There is also a small group of supporters who have vigorously defended Ngo who is now in solitary confinement at Goulburn Supermax with limited visits and minimum contact with the outside world. He can watch TV, receive letters but not books, and his efforts to complete a law degree have been blocked by prison authorities.

In the 21st century this treatment does not compare well with the rehabilitation of prisoners in comparable countries. Perhaps we have not moved away from our origins. After all NSW began as a police state: convicts were routinely flogged and humiliated until the mid 19th century. Unlike Scandinavian countries and many European jurisdictions where rehabilitation is the norm, prisoners in Australian gaols learn more from their fellow inmates than from education programs. If we look abroad, Yigal Amir, who assassinated Israeli peacemaker, Yishtak Rabin, in 1995 has married in custody and even conceived a child while serving a life sentence.

While Ngo has nothing to look forward to Paul Charles Denyer, who murdered three women, will be eligible for parole in 2023; Francesco Mangione who slayed his cousin with a home-made sword will be eligible for parole in 2026; and Bradley Murdoch, who murdered British tourist Peter Falconio, will be eligible for parole at 74.

In the interests of justice we can only hope that Ngo is guilty because if he is innocent, his continued incarceration will be an awful indictment of our society. Guilty or not, he does not pose a threat to society. He has already served 15 years so how will society benefit from his continued incarceration? Or must he remain in custody in the interests of retribution?

Someone once said the true test of a civilisation is how well it treats its prisoners.

John Newman murder: Downfall of a merciless crime lord saved soul of Cabramatta