3 November 2023

Arsonist Nicholas Reed jailed for causing $5 million fire at Old Parliament House

| Albert McKnight
Start the conversation
men leaving court

Nicholas Malcolm Reed (right) shakes hands with a supporter before being sent to jail. Photo: Albert McKnight.

The arsonist who set fire to Old Parliament House, ultimately causing over $5 million worth of damage, in the midst of protests learned he must spend months in jail when he was sentenced.

Nicholas Malcolm Reed, 32, was found guilty of starting the fire on 30 December 2021 at the end of an ACT Supreme Court jury trial earlier this year while his co-offender, Bruce Shillingsworth Jr, was found guilty of helping him.

Reed, who arrived about 20 minutes late for his sentencing on Wednesday (1 November), did not visibly react when he was sentenced to one year and 11 months jail, which was to be suspended after he spent eight months behind bars.

Justice David Mossop said Shillingsworth had been a leader of the peaceful protests that had been taking place near the Aboriginal Tent Embassy over a number of days before the fire, in which he had been making speeches about sovereignty, genocide and the need for justice.

READ ALSO Top judge says victim dealt ‘extraordinary injustice’ after being cross-examined under ‘false premise’

In the lead-up to the incident, Reed and Shillingsworth had been in a group of protesters who approached the Old Parliament House portico and banged on the doors while chanting, “always was, always will be Aboriginal land”.

On 30 December, Reed parked a car near the building, pulled a wooden shield out of it and lit a fire near the steps while other protesters painted over security cameras at the entrance.

Reed then used the shield to carry hot coals from the fire to the portico. Shillingsworth chased police officers into the building while Reed collected bundles of sticks and took them to the portico where they were added to the fire at the doors.

old parliament house fire

A fire was started at the Old Parliament House in 2021. Photo: John Williams.

Police arrived again and tried to approach the portico, but protesters had linked their arms around it and wouldn’t allow them to break through to put out the fire.

During the chaos, Reed grabbed an officer’s radio and pushed them down the steps.

Justice Mossop said in order to avoid a more violent confrontation, the officers were told to stop trying to break through the line and retreat into the building.

He said the fire grew, engulfed the portico and caused a very significant amount of damage.

There was damage to the doors, canopy, windows and light fittings, while smoke had gone inside and contaminated the walls, ceiling, furniture and artefacts.

man leaving court

Bruce Shillingsworth Jr was also found guilty of his charge at the trial. Photo: Albert McKnight.

The damage resulted in over $5 million in repairs, technical costs and project management, which was borne by the Commonwealth.

Justice Mossop said Reed intended to start the fire to damage the doors as part of a public protest and while there was some risk to life, the greater potential was harm to property.

He said the costs were due to the historical status of the building, which was why it was targeted in the first place.

Reed had said his actions were “not honourable” and Justice Mossop thought he regretted his actions due to the adverse consequences for him and the cause he was supporting.

READ ALSO Jack Wighton and Latrell Mitchell have charges dismissed, police accused of acting ‘outside the law’

He said while Reed maintained his political beliefs, he thought it was unlikely that he was a significant risk of further significant offending.

But he also said the boundary between acceptable and unacceptable protests must be maintained.

Nicholas Malcolm Reed, 32, must serve eight months in jail. Photo: Albert McKnight.

Reed, who was found guilty and convicted of a charge of arson, will be allowed to be released from custody in June 2024 if he signs a two-year good behaviour order.

He had also pleaded guilty to a charge of obstructing a territory public official.

Shillingsworth has not yet been sentenced.

Start the conversation

Daily Digest

Want the best Canberra news delivered daily? Every day we package the most popular Riotact stories and send them straight to your inbox. Sign-up now for trusted local news that will never be behind a paywall.

By submitting your email address you are agreeing to Region Group's terms and conditions and privacy policy.