African American writer James Baldwin (1924-1987) once said “If one really wants to see how justice is administered in a country, one does not question the policeman, the judges, or the protected members of the middle class. One goes to the unprotected - those, precisely, who need the law’s protection most - and listens to their testimony.”
Watching the recent Palm Island death-in-custody saga unfold in the comfort of national lounge chairs it has become patently obvious to all and sundry that Queensland Premier Peter Beattie has failed dismally in his handling of the Mulrunji controversy that simply won’t go away.
Disappointingly for Indigenous Australians, especially grieving relatives and friends of Mulrunji Doomadgee, Peter Beattie’s political incompetence on this matter has been nothing short of breathtaking
Now there are more expressive words than breathtaking that one could use but to me, sitting in solitude behind my computer, it is the one word that comes to mind for a myriad of reasons: judicial thuggery, police brutality, bureaucratic cover up and intimidation, media bias, political deceit, family anguish, personal despair and plain old historically rooted bigotry.
Writing in The Courier-Mail, January 8, 2007, Emeritus Professor Helen Hughes, a Senior Fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney, speaks bluntly on the specifics of the national controversy:
So after a spot of fishing in the morning of Friday, November 12, 2004, Mulrunji, together with most other Palm Island men, cashed his welfare cheque at the Post Office so that he could start drinking. A little later, already inebriated, he made a rude comment to a policeman arresting blokes mixed up in a "domestic", was arrested and on arrival at the police station, according to the coronial inquiry, took a swipe at a policeman and later died.
The eminent Emeritus Professor goes on to paint a bleak picture of Palm Island by describing it as “… a typical victim of the apartheid-like policies that have denied Aborigines mainstream Australian lives since the 1970s. Any group subjected to the same policies would become dysfunctional.”
Contributing an analysis from a different outlook to Hughes on the absorbing debate Cape York Institute for Policy and Leadership director, Noel Pearson, in The Weekend Australian, January 6-7, 2007, speaks in more positive terms by identifying young Palm Island leaders; Brad Foster, Alfred Lacey, Lex Wotten, Robert Blackley and Mayor Delena Foster and then challenging them collectively to “… find the means to rise above the fractiousness of a distressed community, and have the courage to lead their people out of victimhood with a preparedness to embrace new policies and to develop new thinking”.
This is how the case has panned out so far:
- an unprofessional and inept investigation for a police report;
- Acting Chief Coroner’s (Christine Clement) report recommends charges be laid against the offending officer (Sergeant Chris Hurley);
- Director of Public Prosecution (Leanne Clare) states there is insufficient evidence to bring about a successful prosecution;
- Queensland Premier (Peter Beattie) tells everyone to accept the umpire’s decision
- State Attorney General (Kerry Shine) announces a review into the decision of the DPP, but not of the DPP performance
- The Australian (Chief Reporter Tony Koch) provides an exclusive front page story on the conflict of interest of the retired judge (Pat Shanahan) on his appointment to undertake the review because he was on the selection committee that gave the DPP her current job;
- retired judge (Pat Shanahan) stands down;
- Prime Minister (John Howard) recommends an interstate judicial appointment;
- Indigenous leaders call for an interstate judicial appointment;
- Premier (Beattie) announces he has confidence of an imminent appointment from within Queensland;
- acting State Premier (Anna Bligh) announces retired NSW judge (Sir Laurence Street) to head up the $5,000-a-day review
It would appear that everyone has formed an opinion one way or the other on the community of Palm Island.
I have only fond memories of the paradise island from when I completed my primary school teaching practice there in the early 1980s and from visits made since then. Most Indigenous people in Queensland have a family connection to Palm Island, established as a penal settlement in 1918 for Queensland’s “troublesome blacks” or any black who had “leprosy”; the lepers were summarily rounded up and sent to nearby Fantome Island.
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