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Mulrunji Doomadgee - we deserve to know the facts

By Selwyn Johnston - posted Wednesday, 20 December 2006

One of the bastions of our governmental system is the separation of powers. We have the judiciary, the executive (or administration), and the parliament. Each of these sections is distinct and has a unique set of functions. One section is not to interfere with another's functions and while there is a fair bit of blurring between the executive and the parliament, and this is understandable, the courts have always been, or so we would like to believe, beyond influencing.

This is also the case with certain authorities set up for quasi-legal functions. Among these would be the Information Commissioner, the Ombudsman, the Director of Public Prosecutions and the like. While each of these authorities makes decisions, those decisions are reviewable. It has been this system of checks and balances, built into our system that makes it, at least in theory, the best in the world.

That was of course until December 14, 2006 when Director of Public Prosecutions Leanne Clare travelled to Townsville to announce that, after protracted investigation, she had concluded there was not enough evidence to convict Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley of any offence regarding the death of an Aboriginal man, Mulrunji Doomadgee, who died in police custody on Palm Island on November 19, 2004.


Now the fact that a director of public prosecutions fails to find sufficient evidence to sustain a conviction should not raise the level of public interest to the extent that this case has. What distinguishes this case is that only a few months before the DPP's decision was handed down, an inquest was held into the death of Mulrunji Doomadgee which ran in open court for some weeks. The Deputy Coroner Christine Clements had said, referring to the scuffle in the police station, that "these actions of Senior Sergeant Hurley caused the fatal injuries".

Fairly obviously such diametrically opposed conclusions by two very senior administrators dealing with exactly the same evidence has to be a matter of some bewilderment to the community-at-large. To the Aboriginal community it is of course an outrage.

The details of the case are well known and have received extensive media coverage since the initial arrest of Mr Doomadgee for swearing on Palm Island, his demise while in police custody, the following riot and fires and the subsequent actions by authorities right through until Ms Clare delivered her decision on the December 14.

The one thing that Australians pride themselves on is their belief in a fair go and that applies to all concerned.

The Federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs Mal Brough considered that the matter should be at least subjected to the review process, but Premier Beattie derided that concept by saying words to the effect that the suggestion was juvenile or immature and  further suggested that Mr Brough was acting politically. A not unexpected type of reply given the circumstances.

Mr Brough is not the only one who has weighed in. Noel Pearson has had a few words to say not only about the process but also about the competence and track record of the director of public prosecutions.


One thing is certain and that is, if this unholy mess is not sorted out in very short order there will be a lot of disappointed, if not angry people about. It is in the interests of all members of the police force, as well as the community generally, to have a complete and transparent process out there for all to see.

The inquest was done in the public domain and some would say with warts and all and it is reasonable that Leanne Clare’s reasoning be there as well. This can be achieved only through a genuinely independent and open review.

As the saying goes, "… justice has not only to be done, but be seen to be done".

After all, our system of checks and balances provides for this type of situation and we should make use of the benefits it provides. If Ms Clare had good reasons for coming to the conclusion she did, and hopefully that is the case, then if she had put them out in the public domain all this angst could have been avoided.

It's still not too late, but both she and the premier have to facilitate the clarification process … not prevent it.

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About the Author

Selwyn Johnston is an independent candiate for the federal seat of Leichhardt in far North Queensland for 2007.

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