Not long after the Palm Island police station was burnt down by locals to express their grief at the death in custody of a well-loved member of their community, Peter Beattie, the Premier of Queensland, issued a statement saying the community council had shown poor leadership leading up to and during the community upsurge. Beattie quickly produced a five-point plan to soothe non-Indigenous outrage that Indigenous people were being “naughty people” - again. It happens all the time.
This approach was not unsurprising: it’s what premiers and politicians often do when confronted by distressing social issues. Politicians understand their government’s lack of commitment to addressing the root causes are often the reason why these unfortunate situations erupt.
When in doubt blame the issue, not the failure to address the cause. It works every time, especially in Indigenous affairs where blaming blackfellas for their lot is now a national pastime.
“It can’t be the government, must be welfare dependency”; “it can’t be the police, must be the grog” is now the standard rhetorical convention used by politicians, newspaper columnists and others in analysing all matters Indigenous - no matter how complex they really are.
So while Indigenous people in Queensland (and nationally) are now waiting patiently to see if the Queensland’s Director of Public Prosecutions will recommend prosecution of the policemen implicated in the death in custody, it’s a good time to reflect on the state of affairs in Queensland in regard to how government and Aboriginal communities are engaging with each other.
Why? Well if the DPP does not move towards prosecution there will be heightened anxiety in Aboriginal communities as this will confirm once and for all in their minds that police and policing Aboriginal people is driven by politics, not the impartial application of law and order. After all, politicians and politics have played a central role in the Palm Island issue from the outset.
If charges are not laid it will send a message to all Aboriginal people that the criminal justice system has not moved one iota towards addressing its past and present failings and has no regard for the 339 recommendations handed down by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody over 14 years in 1992.
It will also send a clear message to Queensland police personnel who harbour a deep hate for Aboriginal peoples and communities that the system will be there to protect them and their revulsion and loathing of Aboriginal people.
It is timely to point out that this culture of hate goes back two centuries in Queensland policing. It is very much ingrained in how they think, feel and understand normality and required attributes of policing Aboriginal people and communities in Queensland.
As long as I can remember, Queensland governments have provided a diagonal nod of support and complicity to this culture of policing. After all, keeping blackfellas in their place is deeply rooted to white fears of black uprisings going back to the 1800s. But it need not be like this at all.
In many ways governments since then have recognised that their support of this approach to policing will draw wide community support and will be perceived to be a natural, justified and politically measurable part of how they conduct their public duties in office.
The most glaring point of contention is not whether the Queensland Government intervened or is seen to play a mediating role in the outcome of this impending decision by the DPP, but how it can facilitate a purposeful relationship with Indigenous people in Queensland over a longer period of time.
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