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Edition 60

Contents
Essay

A century of activism and heartache

The troubled history of Palm Island

Where Aboriginal people are concerned, the twin strands of dysfunction
and idealisation weave a highly coloured thread through the fabric of
Australian culture. The strand that remains all but invisible is that of
ordinary Aboriginal lives, the preoccupations and pleasures that amidst
all the furore and sentiment remain robust and sustaining.

Kim Mahood, ‘Listening is harder than you think’,
Griffith Review 19: Re-imagining Australia

 

MENTION PALM ISLAND to many Australians and they will conjure images of tropical resorts in the Caribbean, the Grenadines or Dubai. Most non-Indigenous Australians know little of Palm’s history as a penal settlement for Aboriginal people, established by the Queensland Government a century ago. Some may vaguely recall television images from 2004 of smoke billowing from the roof of the police station on an island in North Queensland; others the shock headlines ‘Tropic of Despair’, ‘Paradise Lost’ or ‘Queensland hell hole’ that thrust Australia’s largest Aboriginal community, for a brief period, out from obscurity and into the consciousness of white Australians.

In coverage of the protest that followed the tragic death in custody of Mulrunji (Cameron Doomadgee) in that year, many of us witnessed then Queensland Minister of Police Judy Spence presenting Palm Island as ‘a dysfunctional community…where few people have any sense of social obligation’. Peter Beattie, then premier of Queensland, spoke of the island as maintaining a lazy and ‘dysfunctional’ council that should get ‘off their bums’ and perform. This year, Palm Islanders will present their own narrative of Palm Island history, celebrate their many functional and resilient leaders of social change, enjoy a three-day cultural festival, engage in visions regarding the community’s future and go about their ‘ordinary Aboriginal lives’.

Palm Islanders have a long history of confronting and challenging stereotypes about their own history, identities and island home. The construction of mythologies regarding Palm have predominantly been the work of Europeans passing through, pseudoscientists such as phrenologists, anthropologists, journalists and government officials. Rachael Cummins, former deputy chair of the Palm Island Aboriginal Shire Council, has written that ‘Bwgcolman people [have been] poked and prodded in the name of law, God and science’ and written about by others ‘many of them far removed from the consequences of their words’. She further notes, in the preface to my book Palm Island: Through a Long Lens (Aboriginal Studies Press, 2010), ‘In some of those writings, Palm would be portrayed as a God-forsaken hellhole – a penal colony where only the savage or brave live. It was certainly not a place for nice people and definitely not a place where their children should be. Other stories were of an idyllic paradise. Balmy, carefree nights where the fishing is good and the Aborigines received silver spoon service.’

The traditional home of the Manbarra and Buluguyban people, Palm and its surrounding smaller islands, as well as Magnetic Island, are linked to the mainland through the creation story of Gabbul – the carpet snake or big snake. Both Palm and the adjacent mainland were sites of intense resistance to colonial intrusion in the 1850s. Queensland perfected the frontier tactics of bloodshed, massacre, poisoning and removals. By the late 1800s, the frontier war was proving relentless. North Queensland’s terrain offered its First Nations peoples rainforests, rugged mountain ranges and escape routes via the sea. In the following decade, under the leadership of Sub-Inspector Robert Arthur Johnstone (previously in command of troopers during the Nebo killings in 1869), the Native Police conducted some of Queensland’s most violent frontier reprisals in Cardwell and surrounding regions, and the pressure to forcibly remove people mounted in North Queensland.

By 1914, a government reserve was established at Hull River, north of Cardwell at South Mission Beach. The poor location meant that during one of the worst cyclones in living memory, at least fifteen Murri residents and the superintendent and his daughter all died. It was in this context that Chief Protector JW Bleakley ordered the prompt establishment of a reserve on Palm Island to relocate Hull River’s residents (some of whom had been taken there from the island and who would now find themselves come full circle home).

Bleakley envisaged the island as an ideal place of exile and punishment for those who resisted colonisation, or who absconded from other reserves – a Queensland version of Alcatraz. He had originally gazetted the reserve on Palm in 1914. Two years later he argued that a reserve was needed ‘suitable for use as a penitentiary’ for ‘troublesome cases’. ‘Being an island’, Palm ‘also provided the security from escape required with such characters.’ This marked the beginnings of Palm Island as the forced destination of thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from across Queensland.

 

THIS YEAR, THE Manbarra (traditional owners) and the Bwgcolman (pronounced Bwook-a-mun, the historical residents) of Palm Island will commemorate the centenary of the establishment of a government reserve on the island, sixty-five kilometres north of Townsville on the Great Barrier Reef, opposite Halifax Bay, and in a cluster of some of the most glamourous and expensive holiday locations in Australia. Palm Island today is home to around four thousand people. The chambers of the Aboriginal council sit in the place of the Old Ration Office. I have previously documented the use of Palm by government officials and police as a detention centre for those ‘causing trouble’, being ‘very dangerous’, or simply deemed ‘a larrikin’, ‘a wanderer’ or ‘a communist’. Throughout the 1920s people were shipped in truckloads to the island like cattle, some following sentencing by courts, after release from prison or because mainland reserves had become overcrowded. Others were simply whisked away in government round-ups. Palm became the first reserve to receive children as ‘state wards’ destined for ‘industrial school’, underpinned as this was by the rigidly controlled dormitory system that separated children from parents so that all adults were available for work. Men and women were confined to gender-segregated dormitories controlled by ‘dormitory bosses’ appointed by the superintendent. Women who tried to escape from the dormitories had their heads shaved and were forced to wear hessian sack dresses, men who did so were imprisoned.

The reserve had soon expanded to include groups of Kandju, Kuku Yalanji, Yidangi, Kongkandji, Birri Gubba, Kokoimudji and Kalkadoon peoples. (These groups would later be encouraged by the traditional owners of Palm to take the name Bwgcolman, meaning Palm Island, in an effort to resolve the inevitable conflicts that arose by forging a united identity.)

Controlled by curfews, constant patrols of Native Police, floggings and imprisonment at the slightest infringement of reserve rules, and surrounded by shark-infested waters, there was little chance of escape. Fears of being sent to the island played a crucial role is supressing political activity in Queensland well into the 1930s. Yet paradoxically, the island became home to generations of Indigenous activists of great courage and fortitude, whose actions have led to political reforms of benefit to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It is some of these struggles, waged with few resources and often in the face of brutal opposition, which will be commemorated throughout the year.

Today, a series of memorial plaques outside the council chambers pays tribute to the leaders of the first community-wide strike by Indigenous workers in Queensland – action taken in 1957 to protest working conditions akin to slavery, ration supplies ‘not fit to feed a dog’ and the brutal practices of then Superintendent Roy Henry Bartlam (the reigning ‘Red Emperor’ from 1953) and his use of police as his private paramilitary force. Most people worked a compulsory thirty hours a week for rations.

A former policeman, Bartlam arrested and imprisoned those who arrived late for work or who ‘spoke back’ to him, and it was the threat to remove the outspoken Albie Geia that triggered the stop-work action. By the evening of the strike’s first day, Bartlam had contacted Townsville, and twenty police were sent to the island by an RAAF boat. Two days later pre-dawn raids were conducted by police on the homes of the strike leaders, who were forcibly deported, chained at the feet and hands with a machine gun pointed towards them as they were marched on board a military patrol boat. A further fifty Palm Islanders were banished to other reserves in little more than a month.

Brisbane’s The Telegraph deemed the strike a ‘Palm Island riot’ and a ‘native revolt’. It quoted Director of Native Affairs Cornelius O’Leary’s references to ‘troublemakers’ and ‘agitators’, portrayed those imprisoned in Townsville Watch House as both criminal and violent, but made no reference to the strikers’ demands nor to the methods by which they had been removed. Each of the seven memorial plaques to the leaders of the strike, erected in 2007 by the Palm Island Aboriginal Shire Council, bears the inscription: ‘In memory of those who fought for our rights and equal opportunity. We remember them and stand proud to be part of their history.’

This year, Palm Islanders will also celebrate the efforts of those who, in the 1980s, brought action against the Queensland Government in the Human Rights Commission, in the context of its own industrial laws and the Federal Racial Discrimination Act, for illegally paying below-award wages between 1975 and 1985. Palm Islanders living in poverty, who had worked for the government since childhood ‘for a pittance’, demanded the right to receive the same wage levels as their non-Indigenous counterparts. The seven claimants each documented lost wages of between $8,000 and more than $20,000.

The case was lodged in 1986, but it took ten years before an inquiry was conducted on the island. In the face of efforts to derail the process on the part of the short-lived Queensland National Party government under Rob Borbidge, Palm Islanders threatened Federal Court action. Eventually, the Human Rights Commission awarded $7,000 to each of the claimants.

The Palm Island wages case inspired further action for compensation by residents of other Queensland reserves. In 1999, the Beattie Labor government introduced the Underpayment of Award Wages process and made a single payment of $7,000 available to those who had worked on its reserves for the decade before award wages were paid to all workers in 1986. The government’s research showed that the average liability was around $20,000, but this was not made public.

Following this case, Palm Islanders focused on the return of stolen wages for those whose wages had been managed under a trust-fund system, with officials determining what they could withdraw and when. The fraud, underpayment and theft involved is central to the ongoing intergenerational poverty in Aboriginal communities. The Palm Island campaign eventually collected two thousand testimonies by the Queensland Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service. In 2002, the Beattie government offered $4,000 to those born on or before 31 December 1951, and $2,000 to those born between 1 January 1952 and 31 December 1956, in return for waiving their legal rights to further compensation.

Many potential claimants rejected the offer as an insult. About three hundred Aboriginal people joined a class action filed in the Federal Court in 2017 to recover wages. Last year, the Queensland government set up the Stolen Wages Reparations Taskforce, which recommended that the $21 million made available by the government be capped at $9,200 each. The Queensland government has, to date, paid out $5.8 million to more than three thousand claimants. In Trustees On Trial: Recovering the Stolen Wages (Aboriginal Studies Press, 2006), Dr Rosalind Kidd, who examined archival records and all of the internal government inquiries, estimated the actual amount owed to Aboriginal workers as closer to $500 million.

 

THE MOST INTREPID action taken by Palm Islanders was the civil disobedience that erupted in 2004 in response to the suspicious death in custody of 36-year-old Mulrunji, less than an hour after his arrest for swearing. Initial gatherings outside the police station called for arresting officer Senior Sergeant Christopher Hurley to be removed from the island, but the calls were ignored. Both the government and police refused to communicate with the Palm Island community, and Hurley was seen collecting investigating officers from the airport and driving them around the island. Detective Senior Sergeant Raymond Kitching from the Townsville Criminal Investiagation Branch (CIB) and Detective Sergeant Darren Robinson from Palm Island CIB were both friends of Hurley – the two men dined at Hurley’s house the night of his interview concerning the death in custody.

Hurley remained on active duty. On the morning of Friday, 26 November 2004, Hurley, Robinson, Bengaroo (a police liaison officer) and two other officers drove a police vehicle into the station with local resident Tony Palmer locked in a cage at the back of the van. Almost two hundred people surrounded the police station as Palmer began calling out that ‘he was going to be next’. It was in this context, and with rumours circulating of police brutality, that in the afternoon Palm Island Mayor Erykah Kyle read the official autopsy report to a gathering of several hundred people in the town square.

The findings that Mulrunji had died from a ruptured liver, had suffered broken ribs and a punctured lung and that the death was deemed the result of an accidental fall, sent shock waves throughout the community. Buildings representing the legal and justice system were targeted with stones and firestarters: the police station, police barracks and the courthouse. To escape the protestors, the police relocated to the hospital. In the media coverage that followed, Palm was characterised as a riotous hellhole of dysfunction and despair. The dominant visual image of the protests was that of Lex Wotton, carrying a shovel and marching towards a police precinct before being disarmed by another member of the community.

Like the 1957 strikers, Palm Islanders involved in the protest actions of 2004 (as well as some who weren’t) found themselves subjected to pre-dawn raids on their homes on 27 November, this time conducted by officers of the Special Emergency Response Team developed to combat terrorism in the wake of the September 11 attacks on the Twin Towers in New York. Clad in balaclavas and full riot combat gear, and carrying automatic weapons and taser guns, they trialled their equipment on the Palm Island community, including women and children. They did so under Premier Beattie’s declared state of emergency, waging the first of their Gestapo-style raids on the home of Lex Wotton at 4.30 am. Four car loads descended on the former Palm Island councillor. Wotton was expecting to be targeted and the previous evening had told his family he could possibly be going to jail for a long time, as he told Courier-Mail journalist Michael Madigan in June 2015. ‘The kids were crying but I was pretty calm, just telling them to learn at school, just saying, “If you don’t know something at school, put your hand up. Never be afraid to do that,” and I was telling them to look after their mother.’

He was seated at the kitchen table waiting for police when he was told to get on his knees and had taser lights pointed at his chest. Wotton was forced to the ground with a gun to his head. Police then delivered 50,000 volts to his legs with a taser gun. Wotton’s six children and partner were terrorised, and daughter Schanara had a rifle pointed at her head.

The terrorisation continued into the following week, with almost fifty homes raided and the arrest of twenty-eight Palm Islanders – including children and a 65-year-old grandmother – some charged with ‘going armed in public to cause fear’. Their armaments for the most part consisted of stones.

 

THROUGHOUT THE COURSE of the raids and arrests, the public moral panic about Palm Island was fuelled by inflammatory statements from Minister of Police Judy Spence, who suggested that those involved in the riot should be subject to charges of attempted murder. She described a missing police rifle – later found in the police station – as a cache ‘of weapons’. Amanda Porter’s 2015 analysis of the press reports, ‘Riotous or righteous behaviour?’,  notes the recurring words: Palm Island riots, unrest, danger, torched, warzone, violent, rampage, tropical rampage, rioting mobs, fiery attack and ‘they threatened to kill us’. The individuals under arrest were repeatedly described as: offenders, ringleaders, Aborigines, rioters, angry mob, violent, drunken, rioting mobs.

Criminologist Thalia Anthony has examined contemporary criminal sentencing of Aboriginal protestors in the context of deaths in custody. She notes that tropes regarding ‘dysfunctional communities’ have significant impacts on outcomes before the courts in relation to riot offences: ‘Indigenous resisters are increasingly characterised by sentencing judges as out of control rather than capable of legitimate political engagement.’ She further notes in ‘Sentencing Indigenous resisters as if the death in custody never occurred’:

The changing recognition of Indigenous factors in sentencing by higher courts is apparent since the 1990s in relation to so-called ‘riot’ offences after a death in custody... Because there is now a view that Indigenous people belong to dysfunctional and out-of-control communities, the riot is treated by sentencing judges as an irrational and unreasoned act, whereas previously greater attention was given to how the white system contributed to Indigenous peoples’ acts of violence.

In the context of adverse media publicity and negative judicial commentary on Wotton’s character and culpability throughout preliminary proceedings, Wotton faced a life sentence for inciting a riot, despite being the person police called to organise a bus and accompany them to the vehicle as the riot unfolded ‘in order to guarantee our safety’. And while in other riot cases community knowledge of a death in custody has been regarded by judges as a ‘mitigating’ or ‘relevant’ factor (for example, R v Murray 1991 and the Court of Criminal Appeal re Glen Boney), Justice J Shanahan of the Townsville District Court sentenced Lex Wotton to six years imprisonment, with a hundred and ten days served. He disavowed the context of the death in custody and the bungled investigation, focusing instead upon the seriousness of the offence and on police as victims. Wotton eventually served twenty months in jail, alone in his cell for twenty-two hours a day, for ‘inciting violence’. He was released on parole with a gag order on making public statements or attending meetings, which he completed in 2014.

 

NEGATIVE STEREOTYPES OF Palm Islanders were also presented in the first prosecution of a Queensland police officer in relation to a death in custody. In 2007, Judge Robert Mullholland of the Townsville Supreme Court made much of the fact that Mulrunji’s arresting officer, Senior Sergeant Christopher Hurley, dealt regularly with ‘drunk and disorderly residents…who made a nuisance of themselves’, telling the jury that Hurley was ‘precisely the sort of officer you’d like to have as your local copper’. With less than two hours discussion, Hurley was acquitted unanimously by an all-white jury.

On 3 November 2008, at the largest award ceremony in Queensland police history, ‘bravery’ and ‘valour’ awards were presented to police ‘caught up in the riot’. Two years later a Queensland Crime and Misconduct Commission report described the police investigation as ‘seriously flawed’ and recommended disciplinary action. This did not happen. In 2011, the family of Mulrunji were awarded compensation in a confidential settlement from the Queensland Police Service for the death in custody.

The following year, the Townsville District Court heard and dismissed a claim for wrongful arrest and imprisonment lodged by Palm Islander David Bulsey. Video footage of the riot had shown Bulsey attempting to stop the riot proceeding. His partner, Yvette Lenoy, had gone into premature labour when police in balaclavas, wielding automatic weapons, had smashed in the door of their home. In 2015, an appeal by Bulsey and Lenoy was heard in the Queensland Court of Appeal. Throughout the many official enquiries, inquests and court proceedings, Palm Island people were regularly referred to as ‘unreliable witnesses’. The appeal judges rejected the trial judge’s finding that Lenoy’s evidence was ‘unreliable’, noting it to be entirely consistent with police reports and not contradicted or challenged under cross-examination. They further noted: ‘Her treatment was indeed precisely what police evidence revealed the surprise operation was intended to achieve; i.e., “to shock and awe”.’

The judges argued that Bulsey’s arrest without warrant was unlawful, police had no ‘reasonable suspicions’ to justify their actions, and that it was illegal for the detective in charge of the operation to delegate his arrest-without-warrant to the SWAT team and, as a result, all police action against him constituted assault, battery and false imprisonment, for which the state bore responsibility. Both Bulsey and Lenoy were awarded damages.

 

THE NARRATIVE OF Palm Islanders as angry, irrational rioters who deserved to be brought into line for threatening the lives of upstanding members of the police service was soon to face its most serious challenge. In 2013, Lex Wotton, his partner Cecilia Wotton and mother Agnes Wotton commenced the first class action against the Queensland Government for racial discrimination under the Racial Discrimination Act. They sought compensation and aggravated exemplary damages for police conduct in relation to the death in custody, the raids and arrests. Their claims were vindicated. Solicitor Stewart Levitt, acting for the community, said he believed the action was unprecedented in Australian history and possibly the world, noting that three hundred and twenty Palm Islanders had already registered to join.

On 5 December 2015, Justice Debbie Mortimer found that police in charge of the investigation had ‘committed unlawful discrimination, in contravention of section 9(1) of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth), by failing to treat Senior Sergeant Christopher Hurley as a suspect in the death of Cameron Doomadgee and by allowing Senior Sergeant Hurley to continue to perform policing duties on Palm Island between 19 and 22 November 2004’.

She noted the failure to suspend Hurley or even to insist that he leave the island or, at the very least, remain at home defied the evidence that would require suspicion of a criminal offence. Hurley himself, in remaining on active duty and fraternising with investigative officers, had behaved in a way that was ‘inappropriate in the extreme’. Mortimer was ‘satisfied’ that ‘SS Hurley would not have behaved as he did if these events had occurred in a small town in rural Queensland with a predominantly non-Aboriginal population’.

Justice Mortimer described the failure to communicate with the Palm Island community in an effort to appease tensions along with the ‘them’ and ‘us’ attitude displayed by police as a ‘neglect of duty’. None of the officers ‘saw themselves as performing their investigative tasks, even in part, for the Palm Island community itself’, it was simply, to them, ‘a location’. The language used by police in their reports and testimonies referred to non-Indigenous residents of the island as ‘citizens’, while Aboriginal residents were deemed ‘blackie blackie’ and ‘half caste’. She noted that Inspector Whyte would not have referred to an Anglo-Australian suspect as ‘whitey whitey’, and questioned his failure to just use the term ‘locals’.

Under the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, police were, in these circumstances, to ensure investigations were conducted by police employed outside of the precinct in which the death occurred. This process had not been followed on Palm and the police involved in investigations seemed completely unaware of such recommendations, and also showed little interest in the history of Palm Island. Police, she found, had ‘acted with a sense of impunity’, most clearly evidenced in their consideration that it was appropriate for Hurley to be involved in arresting another man after what had happened on the previous Friday and in their failure to supply crucial information to the coroner, omitting witness accounts which had adverse implications regarding Hurley’s role in the death. On the report to the coroner, DSS Raymond Kitching of the Townsville CIB had included stereotypical and negative comments about Mulrunji for which ‘there was no foundation in the evidence’. The comments included that he might have been ‘drinking bleach and sniffing petrol’. Mortimer found that DSS Kitching had chosen ‘to provide information, stereotypical of Aboriginal people (a drunk sleeping his inebriation off, an Aboriginal person consuming bleach and sniffing petrol) that suggested Mulrunji was responsible for his own death’.

Justice Mortimer criticised the ‘glaring omission to interview eyewitness Constable Steadman’ and that the original investigators had failed to advise the pathologist of the allegations of assault during the autopsy. The situation that escalated into the protests had been ‘exaggerated’, Justice Mortimer said. Video evidence suggested approximately fifty local people were present outside the police barracks with ten to twelve officers present in the yard, when one police officer, Constable Robertson, is heard to complain that he’s ‘only got thirty rounds’.

The footage then moves to the back of the barracks where a small group of residents seems to be throwing rocks through the seven-foot gate. At this point Robertson calls out ‘The only option we have now is to run to the hospital which is about hundred metres away…we will not make that hospital. The only option we have now is to open fire…that is all we have now, we’re in dead-set trouble. There is three to four hundred people out there.’

Justice Mortimer noted that the footage ‘shows nowhere near three to four hundred people. It may show about ten to twenty people… They mostly appear to be young or teenagers.’ As another officer, SS Whyte, goes to speak to locals on the other side of the fence, Constable Robertson ‘appears to become quite unhinged. He states, “We’ve got no option, we gunna have, we gunna have to open fire.” He seems quite serious when he says that he considers police officers may have to open fire on a group of at most twenty people who are unarmed.’ SS Whyte speaks to assembled officers as they prepare to move:

It may be the case that you will have to discharge a few fuckin’ rounds in the air, to scare the shit out of these cunts… There’s not one fuckin’ court in the land or one cunt anywhere in Australia’s gunna fuckin’ put up with it when they see this shit.

At the time of the ‘inflammatory, almost hysterical’ language used by SS Whyte in addressing his colleagues, the footage reveals police then moving down to the hospital without any local people around at all. It then shows about fifty to one-hundred local people outside the hospital, none of whom ‘are holding spears or sticks or anything at all. Most of the officers, in contrast, are armed.’ Justice Mortimer found the exaggeration of the situation as dire, and official and media reports of police as victims with their lives at risk from Palm Islanders stereotyped as ‘disaffected, disconnected, transient, uneducated, drunken, violent, unworthy and unimportant’, played a crucial role in the eventual imposition of ‘a heavy handed response’.

There was no significant evidence of any riotous situation after 26 November, police logs ‘showing nothing but all being quiet’. Detective Inspector Webber, in his declaration of an emergency situation from 1.45 pm on 26 November 2004, under section 5 of the Public Safety Preservation Act, 1986 (Qld), was found to have breached of section 9(1) of the Racial Discrimination Act. The one purpose of the declaration of an emergency had been to facilitate the arrests. The raids and arrests that followed were ‘disproportionate’ and created ‘palpable’ lasting trauma for Palm Island residents, many of whom were children. Apart from one occasion, none of the arrests in the wake of the protest had been made with a warrant.

In failing to communicate with the Palm Island community in order to defuse tensions and in using officers of the Special Emergency Response Team to carry out raids on the homes of the applicants, those officers of the Queensland Police Service with command responsibilities were found to have breached the Racial Discrimination Act. Damages were awarded to each of the respondents. Further damage payments are expected to unfurl throughout 2018.

Stewart Levitt said to Melanie Petrinec of The Courier-Mail on 6 December 2016: ‘It’s a pity that the Crown didn’t spend the money on fixing up Palm Island instead of fixing up the lawyers.’ Justice Debbie Mortimer, recognising that Palm remains ‘one of the most disadvantaged communities in Queensland’, noted: ‘The amount of public legal, financial and human resources which have been spent on the investigations and inquiries…if applied instead to Palm itself – could have fundamentally and permanently transformed the lives of the entire community.’

 

JUSTICE MORTIMER’S FINDINGS challenge the dominant media assertions prevalent in 2004, that police lives were at serious risk in the course of the protest. (In the end there were no injuries at all.) Part of this narrative presented the police taking up arms as evidence of their fear. The police as victims. This second look at the scenario leans more towards police both taking up those arms and discussing the possible uses of same, as evidence of their strong sense of agency. It also reflected a level of hysteria regarding the actions of a community that they neither knew nor even cared to understand. It captures the ways in which racism and stereotyping of Aboriginal people underpins institutional racism and is expressed in institutional violence.

The police-as-victim trope was long applied to Christopher Hurley, both in the days following Mulrunji’s death in custody and up until recent times. Hurley’s behaviour post Palm Island – following his promotion to inspector on the Gold Coast – has forced a revision of this narrative also. In the days after the death in custody, Hurley was presented as ‘the gentle giant’ and an exceptionally good Queensland cop. Following his convictions for assaulting Luke Cole at Robina in 2013, for dangerous operation of a motor vehicle in a police pursuit at Pacific Pines in 2015, and for assaulting an on-duty female police officer at a Gold Coast shopping centre in 2016, Hurley became ‘the disgraced ex-cop’, the ‘controversial Gold Coast cop’ with ‘the scandal-plagued career’ and ‘a criminal with a badge’.

This year, the dominant narrative tropes concerning Palm Island history will be further revised, with community plans to counter the claim in The Guinness Book of Records in 1998 that Palm Island was ‘the most violent place outside a war zone’. Under the theme ‘The Present’, a three-day musical festival in 2018 aims to rewrite that narrative, establishing Palm as the record-holder for the largest ensemble of didgeridoo players in the world – usurping the current record-holder of Devon in the United Kingdom, where there are reportedly two hundred and thirty-eight didg players. Under the theme ‘The Future’ and in alignment with the original gazettal of the reserve, the Palm Island community will, in June 2018, oversee the gazetting of the island’s town centre and its official naming as ‘Bwgcolman’.

In the aftermath of the riots on Palm Island, then Mayor Erykah Kyle told the media that the people ‘had been crying out for help, but nobody was listening’. Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned in both the human costs of this scenario – three suicides connected to Mulrunji’s death in custody – and the lingering trauma and the many costly inquiries and court cases that speak to this refusal to listen. The federal government’s negative response to the Makarrata’s call for an Indigenous Voice to Parliament suggests that this lesson is yet to be learned.


From Griffith Review Edition 60: First Things First © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

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