"never to be released"
|Motive||Political gain |
Phuong Canh Ngo (Vietnamese: Ngô Cảnh Phương) (born 1958) was convicted of ordering the killing of Australian MP John Newman on 5 September 1994, a crime which has been described as Australia's first political assassination (though not its first murder of a parliamentarian: in 1921 another Labor MP in the NSW Legislative Assembly, Percy Brookfield, had been slain in Riverton, north of Adelaide, by a psychotic emigre).
Ngo was born in South Vietnam to wealthy parents and following university became a school teacher. Following the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War, his family had their assets confiscated. Ngo made several unsuccessful attempts to flee the country and was jailed several times. In January 1981 he made his 13th attempt, which was successful, and he arrived in Australia via Malaysia as a refugee in 1982.
He rose rapidly in local politics. On 8 October 1987, he was elected to the Fairfield Council making him the first Vietnamese born Australian to enter local government. The following year he partnered Rodney Adler to set up Asia Press Pty Ltd which published Dan Viet, a Vietnamese language newspaper. As a City Councillor, Ngo worked to help members of the Vietnamese community and after arranging for Adler to invest $1 million, led the redevelopment of the local community centre, the Mekong Club. He was subsequently asked to be the club's president. In 1990 Ngo was elected deputy Mayor of Fairfield. In 1991, Ngo stood as an independent for the seat of Cabramatta which he lost to Labor's John Newman.
After his friend and council ally, Nick Lalich approached Federal MP Ted Grace for Ngo to join the ALP, Grace arranged a meeting with Senator Graham Richardson and Leo McLeay, Federal MP for Watson and Speaker of the House of Representatives, who decided that if promoted to be a member of Legislative Council (MLC), Ngo could be a potential "counter" to the Liberal party's Asian MLC Helen Sham-Ho. He was invited to join the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and the dormant Canley Vale branch of the ALP was re-activated which, although Ngo agreed not to challenge Newman for preselection, put him in direct competition with Newman who ran the Canley Heights branch.
The City of Fairfield is considered one of the most ethnically diverse suburbs in the entire world. According to the 1991 census, 70 percent of Cabramatta's population were immigrants. Around 25 percent were of Vietnamese descent while another 10 percent were of other Asian origins, only two percent of the population was of Anglo-Saxon descent. John Newman had been elected to the Fairfield council in 1977 and was known for his campaigns against the Asian criminal gangs that were then a serious problem. At the time the media regularly portrayed Cabramatta as a "centre of criminality" and the heroin capital of Australia while Newman considered Ngo to have a part in that due to his involvement with the Mekong Club which many believed to be laundering money for the Cabramatta gangs. According to his priest, Ngo had very strong opinions regarding Europeans; that they were all "stupid" and racist.
In 1990, the Fairfield Champion local newspaper published an article regarding a proposal to add an inscription commemorating the communist take-over of China to the Pai Lau gate (Freedom Gate) in Cabramatta’s Freedom Square. As China is Australia’s biggest trading partner, ALP policy was pro-communist. Ngo, then deputy Mayor of Fairfield and an ardent anti-communist, blamed Newman for the proposal and sued the newspaper. The case was settled out of court. In 1991, Ngo stood as an independent for the seat of Cabramatta and Newman, who was the sitting member, issued a press release questioning Ngo’s refugee status. Ngo received only 11.7% of the vote, a result he blamed on his being Asian.
Following the election, Ngo joined the factionalised ALP with the help of the Labor Right led by Ted Grace with his new Canley Vale branch now directly competing with the Newman's (Labor Left) Canley Heights branch for members which led to considerable infighting over branch stacking. The ALP General Secretary, John Della Bosca arranged a meeting to resolve the dispute and Ngo agreed not to challenge Newman for pre-selection in exchange for Newman not challenging the credentials of members who joined Ngo’s branch. At this time Newman was being targeted, his car had been paint bombed three times and he was receiving death threats. Publicly he blamed the Vietnamese 5T gang but privately he confided in acquaintances that he believed it was Ngo "and that gang of hooligans" at the Mekong Club.
In 1994 Fairfield wanted a sister city. Ngo advocated a city from Taiwan which was endorsed by councilors Nick Lalich and Anwar Khoshaba while Newman, in line with official party policy, pushed for China. A Taiwan relationship was against Australian Federal government policy as Taiwan was not diplomatically recognised as a nation. According to former Cabramatta detective Tim Priest, Ngo had received a $117,000 cheque from Jin-Gou Chang of the Taipei Cultural Office in 1994 and this information had been passed on to Newman. Newman accused Ngo, Lalich and Khoshaba of accepting funding from the Taiwanese community and Embassy and stated that they should not be re-elected to the council, a position for which he received considerable support. The Hsinchu City sister city relationship was accepted despite only 100 Cabramatta citizens having Taiwanese ancestry. On 1 June the ALP State Electoral Council condemned Ngo and Lalich, stating that if they continued to breach ALP policy regarding China, they would both be expelled. Ngo was furious and began openly approaching people who were not criminals for advice on acquiring guns and hiring a hitman.
Murder of John Newman
John Newman was murdered on 5 September 1994. Within days, the leader of the 5T gang, 21 year old Tri Minh Tran became the prime suspect. Ngo's conflict with Newman and his close ties to Tran led to widespread rumours in the community that he was involved and the media repeated the allegations. Tran, who had led the gang since the age of 14, was assassinated on 7 August 1995. On the afternoon of his funeral, Cabramatta shopkeepers closed their shops as a sign of respect, an honour they had also given to Newman. Ngo attended the funeral and he now became the focus of police attention after one of Tran's relatives made a statement to police that Tran had rejected an offer of $10,000 from Ngo to kill Newman. The case against Ngo was weak and after Ngo provided information to police that led to the arrest of the informant, the task force investigating the Newman murder was disbanded.
In June 2003, evidence was found that Ngo was a member of the W2K (Willing To Kill) gang, a group of prisoners willing to use any means to escape and he was transferred to the Goulburn Correctional Centre, a Supermax Prison. The High Court of Australia refused special leave to hear an appeal in May 2004. Two of Ngo's co-accused conspirators, David Dinh and Tu Quang Dao were acquitted by the same jury.
A number of Phuong Ngo's supporters have stated that he was convicted on flimsy evidence. He was a prominent leader in the Vietnamese Catholic community, which held prayer services for him in the hope that he would be acquitted of the murder. However, almost 300 leaders in the Vietnamese community signed a petition to the Supreme Court requesting that Ngo be denied bail.
In an enquiry after Newman's death, but prior to charges being laid, the inquiry heard evidence that the victim considered the Mekong Club, a Vietnamese social club that Ngo effectively ran in Cabramatta to be a "gambling den".
The prosecution in Ngo's case claimed that John Newman was a political rival of Ngo in that Ngo wanted his seat in Parliament. However, senior Australian Labor Party figures including former General Secretary John Della Bosca swore on oath that Ngo had in fact strong support for another seat, in the Legislative Council.
In April 2005, China sponsored five Fairfield Council members to visit China in order to improve the relationship that had deteriorated due to Ngo's support of Taiwan.
An inquiry was launched into the conviction of Phuong Ngo on 6 June 2008, by order of Chief Justice James Spigelman of the New South Wales Supreme Court. The inquiry was overseen by former and Acting District Court judge, David Patten, and addressed several concerns raised as to the validity of the original conviction. On 17 April 2009 Patten ruled that the original conviction was sound.
Following the inquiry, calls were made to have Ngo's name removed from monuments in Cabramatta. A former mayor and friend of Mr Newman, Ken Chapman, claimed that this was unlikely to happen as Ngo had supporters on the council who had visited him in jail. Calls for the council to name a landmark in honour of Newman have not proceeded so far, although a swimming pool in Prairiewood bears his name.
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