The police officer found by a Coroner to be responsible for the death of a man on Palm Island has finally been suspended from duty on full pay. It is hard to understand why this decision wasn’t made straight away.
There will be a rally to protest this issue in Brisbane this coming Tuesday at the re-opening of Parliament following the state election. There will no doubt be a lot of focus on the police officer, Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley, and whether the Director of Public Prosecutions will charge him or not.
While that is understandable, I think it is very important not to lose sight of the wider issues which have been highlighted by this tragedy and the specific recommendations contained in the Coroner’s report. Creating an impression that this was a one-off incident or the just the action of a bad apple risks missing the bigger issues which must be addressed.
I’ve been to Palm Island a couple of times this year, and I have no doubt the local community has the potential and desire to overcome the major difficulties they face, a couple of the biggest of which are overcrowding and unemployment. It is a beautiful place, but it has had a truly horrific history over the last 90 years. For most of the last century it was part prison, part concentration camp, part refugee camp. The land title to the Island was passed to the local community in 1985, which is trying to build a future in the midst of the constant reminders of historical and continuing traumas.
Noel Pearson has an article in The Weekend Australian about Palm Island and the current situation which is worth reading. I don’t agree with his view that public drunkenness should remain an offence, but he still makes many good points. As he says “Palm Island today is the concentrated legacy of all of the sins of the historical treatment of indigenous people in Queensland.” Noting that fact won’t solve the problems of today, but they will continue to remain unsolved unless it is acknowledged by governments and the wider community.
You can read a bit about Palm Island in this piece on my website. Palm Island is probably the most notorious of Queensland’s Aboriginal communities, which makes for good headlines. Like most Aboriginal Community Councils, Palm Island has no independent rate base to fund its activities, yet has a wider range of responsibilities than most local government authorities. But despite the undeniable problems, the potential to overcome them is there. What I think is missing is genuine, consistent support and commitment from government.
Noel Pearson says in his article that “In eight years the Beattie Government has not done one credible thing to ensure a better life for the children of Palm Island.” The postcard I developed for the Democrats’ ‘Put our First Peoples First’ campaign has a photo of one of those children on the front – a young girl named Josephine. It is there not just to provide a positive image of Palm Island, but as reminder that such campaigns are not about abstract ideas, they are about people. It is also meant as a reminder that it is not just the responsibility of the Beattie government to do something credible to ensure a better life for today’s Indigenous children, but also that of the wider Queensland community whose prosperity is built in part on the dispossession, exploitation and horror inflicted on the Indigenous people in our state.