Palm Island & Justice

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.

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  1. Andrew Bartlett:
    You said …. 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. ….


    What is the use of having Land Rights without having an economic base on which to build up all the benefits of having Land Rights? Mortgaging everything to get suckered into some “development”(??) pipedream or another would be a disaster. Setting up more inquiries might make lawyers rich but it won’t do a damned thing for the people on Palm or any other Aboriginal community either.

    Having celebrities or members of the mainstream urban elite, such as Noel Pearson, pick up on the common-sense ideas that perceptive Aborigines have expressed unnoticed for decades now is a good start …. but it’s only a start.

    I’ve got two suggestions:
    [1]. Get as many people as possible in the community to take part in a series of two or three day courses – run by people of similar background – in very very basic money management and book-keeping; in negotiation, dispute-resolution, effective assertiveness; in the conduct of meetings and administering an organization. Such training would have to be tailored to a level that would be relevant and hold the attention of the participants. Really empower them. No, I am not being paternalistic, patronizing or racist; I’m trying to find solutions that would actually work in solving problems that are happening right now – and just how successful or otherwise have CPAs and the holders of MBAs been in solving these problems?
    [2]. Restore and expand CDEP. So what if millions of dollars are wasted – better going to Aborigines than to Alia Trucking Company in “Jordan”!!

  2. it was not Beattie, Bligh, Spence or Atkinson that wanted Hurley suspended. It was Hurley’s own lawyers that requested this – presumably to minimise the growing adverse public opinion about him staying on the job which will no doubt affect a jury when the matter comes to trial. The govt. is still in cover-up mode. It is not just Hurley who will be on trial here but also the failure of the Beattie/Bligh machine to deal with a whole range of issues, in particular the reccomendations of the Royal Commission Into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. Spence and Beattie have both said that the new coroners reccomendations are “Unworkable”.

    There is a new organisation “The Errol Wyles Justice Foundation”. The website is only new and will develop over time.

    They have spent most of this year getting set up and incorporated, now they are ready to go. They are central to the defence campaign of those still facing charges over burning the police station down. This organisation commissioned the Townsville survey that identified Palm Islanders cannot get a fair trial in Townsville.

    Please consider giving a tax deductable donation to this organisation to support their work.

    And I agree with Graham. Palm Island needs business advisors not social workers.

  3. John Tracey:
    I do not condone the destruction of public property and I think that failing to take firm action in response to the destruction of a police station would cause even more trouble. However, given the understandable feelings of the people at the time and the understandable fear the police there had for their own safety …. wouldn’t it make more sense to make such a firm response both compassionate and restorative? Why have a series of trials at all? Why not take an innovative leap of hope and trust by declaring a Conditional Amnesty on all concerned? Conditional on doing certain things: Like getting all the people involved (police, residents, whoever but no fly-in-fly-out experts) meeting face-to-face and working out themselves how to make this the last ever death in custody, to make that the last ever riot in an Aboriginal community …. and nobody goes home until they have come up with workable answers.

    Revenge and counter-revenge is not going to help one little bit; allowing things to just run along the way they have always done will probably put more blackfellas and a copper or two in jail ((Presumption Of Innocence is a great idea; pity we don’t have it anymore)). Nobody at all is going to benefit if that happens ….. there’ll just be more bashing, more burning, more deaths in custody, more exciting news footage from a TV helicopter …. we have to do better than that!

    I’ll get cheeky now and suggest that after the Conditional Amnesty process, some of the blackfellas charged with rioting be employed right inside Peter Beattie’s own office for six months, the others charged with rioting be employed right inside Police Commissioner Atkinson’s own office (it doesn’t matter if it’s crowded and they can’t type) and put Senior Sergeant Hurley through an intensive Aboriginal Studies course and post him back to Palm as a Police-Youth Liaison Officer …. at the Council, not the station. Why not?

  4. Interesting theory Graham. I encourage your lateral thinking.

    However there is another side to the fire charges though.

    Given the illegitimacy of Mulrunji’s arrest in the first place, the corrupt cover up in the first investigation and the racist and self serving brotherhood that the police have shown theselves to be, there is no reason to assume that those charged with the fire have done anything wrong or that the evidence against them is the truth.

    Obviously someone did it, but it does not necessarilly follow that those who the police have targeted are in fact the culprits.

    Many who were arrested have already pleaded guilty, including one I have spoken to who did nothing except addressing a public forum before the fire. he told me he had no faith of recieving justice in a white court – his word against the police – so he pleaded guilty to get it over with. – a perception confirmed by the survey about Townsville’s racism. He is in gaol now.

  5. There is no reason to assume, as you do, that those who have been charged and pled guilty are in fact innocent.

    Racist prejudice lies behind such assumptions.

  6. well actually E.P., having spoken to the person mentioned i do in fact have reason to assume their inocence.

    The way the police have conducted themselves on this matter confirms this assumption.

    I know you are ideologically opposed to Aboriginal or social justice perspectives, no matter what the issues is. However the shallowness of your whinging only shows your racism as emotional kneejerkism with no relevence to understanding how society works.

    Your meaningless interjections are getting tedious. Do you have two ideas to rub together or are your hateful interjections all you are capable of?

  7. EvilPundit and JohnTracey:
    And there’s no need to assume that those who are accused or merely suspected are guilty either ……

    Police solidarity right-or-wrong; defendants pleading guilty just to get it all over with; assuming that exasperation is racism and assuming that swearing and damaging property is criminal behavior ….. there’s nothing new at all in any of this; that’s the trouble; we all need to break this vicious circle.

    There’s a whole truck-load of blame, excuses, claims and abuse that could be tipped over everyone involved in this series of sad events if we want things to go that way. But why the hell should we? It won’t bring a dead man back to life. It won’t ease the hurt and the mistrust that is only getting worse on all sides. So let’s try something different this time. It mightn’t work but at least have a go.

    The kids on Palm and in Townsville deserve to grow up to inherit a world that is free of tragedies like this.

  8. John Tracey:
    Two after-thoughts.

    It’s worrying that a magistrate would accept a guilty plea without determining what really happened and then imprison the defendant. (Maybe we should ditch the present court system with all its inbuilt injustices and adopt the fairer European system instead).

    I’ve known Townsville since I was a little kid; it used to be more tolerant and easy-going than a lot of other places; has it really become racist or is it that racists have become noisier and more organized?

  9. Rally and March
    Justice for Mulrinji
    Stop black deaths in Custody
    Rally 10am, Tues Oct 10, Queens Park Brisbane
    (Cnr Elizabeth and George Sts)
    March to State Parliament.

  10. Wondered when thsi was going to get a run.

    The Coroners report is worth a read – its pretty terrible. If they do decide to go to trial, a large amount of it will be jettisoned gvien the standard of evidnce rules that do not bind the Coroner. While there are obviuosly systemic iassues the report is very focussed on the one individual – so it would appear easy fro the powers that be to take that route.

    “Justice for Mulrinji” – what is justice JT – white mans justice?. What would be the traditioanl justice?

    Easy to say from here but revenge and counter revenge doesn’t appear to be of much use – i think Grahms point is very worthy, albeit impossible.

  11. ken,

    traditional justice, according to Murundoo Yanner and others, is to kill a cop everytime there is another death in custody. Murrundoo does not advocate this but warns that it is a possibility if white mans justice white washes the situation, again.

    Traditional justice demanded the burning of the Palm police station. Ceremony was conducted at the police station before during and after the fire.

    People have to understand that Aboriginal Australia is very desperate. The Palm burning, the redfern riot and the Wadye warrior gangs are normal and natural reactions to such desperation being unheeded by white mans law. A synonym for Aboriginal justice is natural law .

    The problem is, in desperation, there will be no discipline or management by elders, just kneejerk reactions, explosions of anger.

    I have put this link before but it is relevent if anyone has not read it yet. “Preventing terrorism in Australia – or not”

    The Palm Island people and Yanner have said that white man’s justice will be satisfactory in this case (the watchhouse death). If white mans justice is not delivered then I do not think Aboriginal Australia will forgive and forget.

    Graham is correct of course, but it is a pie in the sky idea at present with no bearing on reality. When the government comes to the same conclusions as Graham there will be progress. While the govt. holds steady to its present course there is only regress until the obvious, inevitable and totally predictible explosion occurs again.

    In terms of natural law, justice is not a question of black and white but of relevent and appropriate responses to the real situation.
    e.g. diversinary centres, circle sentencing, jobs and education, drug and alcohol detox and rehab centres, etc. And of course not letting Hurley off just because he is a cop with cop mates.

    this is not black vs. white justice. It is common sense vs. brute power.

  12. John Tracey and Ken:
    My suggestion is not quite pie-in-the-sky …. difficult to implement but still practical.

    I was too polite to say, on post No.3, that a “firm response” to get compassionate and restorative solutions could very well be imposed with the real threat of legitimate force. It’s not the best way to do it but if that’s what it takes to break up the current tragic mess then do it. I would prefer to have everyone come together willingly, in a spirit of friendship and trust, to solve these problems and prevent any more deaths in custody. However, if they don’t want to come together willingly then don’t mess around, drag them together unwillingly or not, make them talk with each other. Not nice …. but more deaths and more desperation are not nice either.

    There are particular reasons I prefer not to bother with what stooges, celebrities, imitation spokesmen and other media artifacts have to say. “If they’re not part of the solution then they’re part of the problem” or something like that.

    Good luck with the demonstration; hope good things come out of it.

  13. graham,

    A long time ago when the good senator was just a lowly office worker for John Woodley, Woodley helped facilitate a meeting on Stradbroke Island between the traditional elders, the police, a couple of clergy men and Woodley was part of it to. The meeting was facilitated by Denis Walker, the ex-leader of the Brisbane chapter of the Black Panthers. This meeting reached a unanimity (not consensus) about all the authorities on the Island working together to deal with some of the young murries who were getting out of hand. The agreement was basically that when the police picked someone up they took them in the first instance to their family’s elder to discuss the appropriate action, most of the time that action was the elder taking over. Similarly elders had more power in the community because the young people knew they were working with the police and had them on side and wuld get involved if the elders were ignored and disrespected.

    the essence of it was white power and black power working together based on common sense. Denis Walker’s opinion at the time was if someon wants to break traditional law and resist the will of the elders, they would be thrown to the police to deal with rather than doing whatever was done in the old days. At the same time when a murrie was doing the right thing, the relationship between the police and the elders was enough to keep a person from being charged (on minor offences) if the elder thought appropriate. I am aware of one situation where a young police officer with a chip on his shoulder was punched to the ground by a young man. The senior officer and the relevent elder had an informal circle sentencing situation which saw the young hot head working with the police and elders after apologising.

    This stuff is indeed possible and relatively simple. The pie in the sky-ness is just that it remains as a good idea without being absorbed one iota into the mainstream systems

  14. John Tracey:
    1. Saw rally on SBS news; looked good; hope it was the LAST EVER that had to be held over a death in custody.

    2. Sen. Woodley’s action in facilitating co-operation on Straddie was the just sort of thing I had in mind; you can trust someone and work effectively with them without necessarily liking them too – though that can make things work better. With that sort of action, justice is done, the peace is kept and everyone knows where they stand and what is expected of them.

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