Yesterday’s rally on Palm Island was attended by a few hundred locals, a good number of supporters from the mainland, many police (including the state Commissioner of Police, Bob Atkinson) and at least 20 people from the mainstream media. The Premier of course was also there, along with Attorney-General, Kerry Shine.
I arrived on the island earlier on the day, talking with locals about their feelings and listening to some of the local Councillors and the Men’s Group (who organised the rally) talk about what approach they felt should be taken for the afternoon’s events. They were facing a very difficult balance – wanting to make clear how deep and strong their anger and dissatisfaction is, their determination for major change and their belief they have been repeatedly let down and lied to in the past, whilst also wanting to welcome the Premier as a visitor and to engage constructively with him.
However, as one of the visiting Aboriginal leaders said to me later “our mob are always so bloody gracious”. The Council met with the Premier for nearly two hours. At the rally both the Chair and the newly elected Mayor repeatedly urged the crowd to be calm and civil, and not to yell or swear.
The speakers and questioners at the rally were all civil, and mostly calm, but also quite determined. There was the occasional angry outburst from the crowd. I guess these things are subjective, but I thought the description in the Courier-Mail of “a torrent of abuse” was overstating things. Whilst there were a few extra four-letter words, it was nothing compared to what I often hear during Question Time in the federal Parliament. Given the harshness of the oppression and racism Indigenous Australians have been subjected to, I think it is astonishing that there are so few aggressive reactions in these sort of circumstances.
Palm Island’s Mayor, Delena Foster, opened the rally by welcoming everyone and by reinforcing that the day was focussed on justice. There are other important issues such as housing and employment, but basic justice was a fundamental.
The next speaker was Robert Blakely, a local man who said he had been an ALP member for nine years. He was fiercely critical of Labor’s record towards Indigenous people in Queensland, going back well into last century. He touched on the ‘protection’ regimes, the rounding up and exiling of striking Aboriginal workers in the 1950s, the Goss government’s record in removing access to land and the sending in of ‘storm troopers’ to Palm Island to quell unrest after Mulrunji’s death. He also pointed to the irony that the polling booth at Palm Island returned one of the highest percentage Labor votes in the state, and suggested this might need to change.
The next speaker was Cr Vince Mundraby, the Mayor of Yarrabah, an Aboriginal community just south of Cairns. Every Aboriginal community in Queensland has linkages to Palm because people were forcibly taken there from almost every part of the state. However, Yarrabah probably has the closest links. Vince reminded the local community that they had the support of Indigenous people across the state, and that the Councils of Queensland’s Aboriginal communities were determined to maintain an ongoing campaign for change.
Noel Pearson, probably the nation’s best known Indigenous leader, was next. He is from Cape York, which is a fair way to the north, but like most Aboriginal people has many direct family links to people on Palm. Its history as a place of punishment meant it had always ‘loomed large in the minds of Aboriginal people’ because of the many people who were taken from their families against their will and sent to Palm. He spoke of hearing about Palm Island as a child before he heard about places like Cairns.
He also reinforced the message that the day was about justice and equality under the law. He made the point – which was made to me repeatedly by many locals – that the only people who had been punished or locked up as a result of this death were those who had been protesting about it (and specifically about the totally discredited initial police investigation)
Peter Beattie came next. He started by thanking the community for the invitation to visit and said he wished it could have been under better circumstances. He had a few key points that he kept reinforcing. He stressed that you can’t achieve justice by letting politicians decide who is charged. He gave a strong hint that, while he couldn’t direct the DPP to seek another opinion, he would support her doing so, and he indicated he would ask the DPP to explain to Mulrunji’s family what the extra evidence was that she said in her statement she relied on in deciding not to press charges.
The Premier also said he wanted to focus on making sure this type of incident never happened again, and stated the government would fund a diversion centre for people to be taken to when they are arrested for drunkenness. I must say it is hard to see why this wasn’t provided after the Royal Commission into black deaths in custody, or at the very least after the death in 2004. (I am also not convinced that arresting people for drunkenness is a good or fair thing to do, although taking people to a diversion centre does not need to involve formally arresting people)
Warren Mundine, the ALP’s national President, and an Aboriginal man from northern NSW, followed the Premier. It is fair to say he was pretty scathing. He reinforced Noel Pearson’s personal story, saying ‘every Aboriginal person knows about Palm Island’, a place where people were sent to be punished. They know about the history in Queensland, they know this is not an isolated incident. He said the Premier was leaving the Palm Island community with nothing, and needed to show strong leadership for all citizens and not let this situation fester.
Local man Brad Foster, who was chairing the proceedings, then allowed a few questions from the crowd. One poignant question came from Lex Wotton, who asked the Premier if he had the power to lay charges, what decision he would have made. Not surprisingly, the Premier wouldn’t answer it, saying it wasn’t his job and he hadn’t examined all the evidence, but it was still a stark demonstration that, when the system fails, somehow the answer always seems to be ‘there’s nothing I can do.’
Another telling question came from Alf Lacey, a former Chairman of the Palm Island Council. He asked the Premier why the ‘five point plan’ offered by the government from the Premier’s visit in 2004 hadn’t been implemented and how could the community expect anything different this time. Mr Beattie responded by saying Alf was right, but he was committed to working with Council to make positive change.
Apart from the speakers, other Indigenous leaders who travelled to the Island to show support included the co-Chair of Reconciliation Australia, Jackie Huggins, Carpentaria Land Council leader Murandoo Yanner, and Townsville based leader Gracelyn Smallwood. Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough also sent along his senior advisor and had a brief message of support read out to the rally, which included an expression of admiration for the way Palm Islanders are handling this difficult situation, and an offer to “assist if there is anything reasonable he can do.”
Whilst it is reasonable to be cynical about the Premier’s visit to the Island and to wonder at the long-term value that will come from the media snapshots of such as event, it was still the right thing for him to make the visit and for all of us to be made aware of the anger and total bewilderment.
However, the only way to assuage the cynicism is to ensure that the Premier does not succeed in using his visit just to put a lid on the story and to enable the media and public attention to ‘move on’. He got away with that when he visited the Island after the eruption of outrage following the initial totally flawed investigation into Mulrunji’s death two years ago. All of us who are expressing shared outrage now must keep that pressure on for as long as it takes for justice to be seen to be done for Mulrunji, his family and the Palm Island community, and for real, sustainable and substantial change.
One thing which I think would be very good for the Premier to do is to return to Palm Island in a few months time, without all the TV cameras, and sit down and do some more listening – as well as demonstrating he is following up on the public commitments he made to the community and the extra ones he made in his meeting with the Council.
I stayed around after the rally to try to gather peoples’ impressions. I spoke with a few of the Councillors and the CEO, some of the rally organisers and speakers and a couple of Mulrunji’s sisters. I also spoke with some people at the pub that evening. I don’t wish to speak for the people of Palm Island, but I think it is fair to say that they are heartened by the support being shown to them by people all around the state, both black and white. This will give them some strength and encouragement for a while, but it really needs to be followed up and built on.
Yesterday was the day for the voices of the Palm Island community to be heard and for the lack of justice for Indigenous people to be recognised by the community in Queensland. Today and the months to come is for the wider community to continue to support them in the quest for justice and for major changes to a system – political, legal and economic – that continues to comprehensively fail them.
ELSEWHERE: The Let’s Take Over blog has a lot of links to reports and descriptions of the Palm Island rally and support rallies held in Townsville and Brisbane.