1 September 2023

'We need to break these doors down': Old Parliament House fire grew while protesters blocked police access, trial told

| Albert McKnight
Bruce Shillingsworth Jr is fighting his charges at a Supreme Court trial. Photo: Albert McKnight.

Bruce Shillingsworth Jr, pictured on Thursday (31 August), is fighting the allegations against him at a Supreme Court trial. Photo: Albert McKnight.

A trial has begun against the two men accused of being involved with the fire that caused extensive damage to Canberra’s Old Parliament House, a fire that started in the midst of protests outside the historic building.

It is alleged that Nicholas Malcolm Reed, also known as Wareywaa Kirlwil Yarrawirri, is responsible for damaging the building on 30 December 2021 and that he was aided and abetted by Bruce Shillingsworth Jr, jurors heard when their trial began in the ACT Supreme Court on Thursday (31 August).

Mr Reed allegedly used a wooden shield to carry hot coals from a fire used in a smoking ceremony to the front doors of the building, making the journey numerous times.

Meanwhile, it is also alleged Mr Shillingsworth gestured at protesters to form a horseshoe at the portico outside the doors, which hid the fire from view and prevented police officers from approaching.

Body-worn camera footage screened to the 12 jurors showed police officers approaching the protesters who linked their arms to surround the portico outside Old Parliament House, standing between the officers and the doors.

Protesters were shoving, shouting and filming with their phones while one played a drum in front of the officers.

old parliament house fire

The fire at Old Parliament House on 30 December 2021. Photo: Supplied.

At one stage, it is alleged Mr Shillingsworth could be seen among the protesters while the flames burned the door in the background before the officers retreated inside the building.

The fire continued to grow and engulfed the portico area until firefighters extinguished it. It resulted in extensive damage to the front entry area of the building.

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Adrian Craft, a now-retired detective inspector, said the police inside the building had noticed smoke coming under the front door so they decided to take action as it was clear something had been lit.

But he said the protesters linked their arms and kicked at the officers when they approached the portico, even pulling one officer into their group.

Mr Craft said he saw the fire spread up the walls and to the roof of the portico. He decided the situation was too risky, withdrew the officers and called the fire brigade.

Several other videos were shown to jurors, including one that indicated the flames against the door appeared to come from a fire made out of sticks while protesters sang and stamped in the background.

In a video taken the day before the fire, a man can be seen pointing at the doors and saying to a crowd of protesters, “This is the door we are going to go walk through together”.

“We need to break these doors down together,” he said.

During the opening submissions, James Sabharwal, the barrister for Mr Reed, said the issue in the trial regarding his client was identification. He told jurors they had to be satisfied the man seen lighting the fire was Mr Reed.

Mr Shillingsworth represented himself and in his opening submissions said the protesters had formed a horseshoe around the doors and painted security cameras because they were going to hold a cultural ceremony. He claimed there had been interference by police at that ceremony.

He also claimed allegations in the case appeared to have been “painting a picture of an angry First Nations mob”.

“That is not who we are,” he said.

“We are fighting for the ability for us to walk together, to stop the massacres, the genocide, the dispossession.”

The Old Parliament House was a significant symbol, he said.

“What about our sacred sites that are out there being damaged day after day?” he said.

“What about our symbolism?”

He also remarked, “I’m not saying we did it”.

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The fire caused serious damage to a historic building which was important to a lot of people, prosecutor Soraya Saikal-Skea told jurors in her opening address.

She said the protests outside the building had been largely peaceful until that day and a smoking ceremony was part of a peaceful ceremony.

Ms Saikal-Skea said the protests had referred to the pain caused to First Nations people due to colonisation but told jurors that what they were being asked to consider was whether the elements of the charges against the accused had been proved beyond reasonable doubt.

Mr Reed, who is charged with arson, and Mr Shillingsworth, charged with aiding and abetting arson, have pleaded not guilty.

The trial continues before Justice David Mossop.

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