No Winners on Palm Island


In 1991, Commissioner Elliott Johnston delivered the findings of his Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

The Royal Commission looked at the causes of the deaths in custody of more than a hundred Indigenous Australians, and made a series of extraordinarily broad-ranging recommendations about reducing the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in custody, and therefore at risk of harm in watch-houses and prison cells.

Nine of the deaths investigated were in north Queensland Aboriginal communities in places like Yarrabah, Wujal Wujal, Cherbourg and Arakun. Commissioner Johnston examined these deaths in a special chapter of his report, Chapter 13.

Johnston found that ‘the nine deaths that occurred in lock-ups in Queensland Aboriginal communities warrant special consideration because they reflect, in an extreme form, some of the weaknesses already identified’ in Aboriginal policing. Conditions at police lock-ups in remote communities were sub-standard; ‘in the case of Wujal Wujal, appalling and dungeon-like.’

When Aboriginal deaths did occur in custody, little urgency was devoted to their investigation. ‘In very few cases prior to the establishment of the Commission was the investigation into the death other than perfunctory and from a narrow focus,’ Johnston wrote, ‘and the Coronial Inquest mirrored the faults in the investigations.’

The haphazard investigation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deaths in Queensland custody is nothing new.

Even so, the circumstances of the arrest, incarceration and eventual death of Mulrunji Doomadgee on Palm Island in 2004 are shockingly familiar to anyone who has read the 1991 Johnston Royal Commission report.

One of the most important findings of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody was the need to address the disproportionate level of arrests of Aboriginal people for minor offences. ‘As has been pointed out in a number of different places in this report,’ Johnston observed, ‘ the overwhelming number of offences for which Aboriginal people find themselves in police custody are not serious crimes, but alcohol-related street offences.’

But 16 years later, this is still happening all over Queensland.

On 19 November, 2004, Cameron Doomadgee, known by his tribal name of Mulrunji, was arrested by Senior Sargeant Hurley and charged with ‘Public Nuisance.’ His alleged crime was swearing at Aboriginal Police Liaison Officer Lloyd Bengaroo, who was in the process of arresting another man, Patrick Bramwell, at the scene of a domestic dispute.

Mulrunji was walking away at Bengaroo’s instruction when arrested. Hurley actually drove back to arrest him after Bengaroo returned to the police 4WD.

Mulrunji was packed off to the Palm Island watch-house. As he was taken out of the police Hilux, he punched Hurley and a scuffle ensued. It ended seconds later with Hurley falling on Mulrunji so heavily that the latter’s liver was nearly torn in half. Forty minutes later, Mulrunji was dead.

If Mulrunji’s death was tragic, the investigation that followed was a farce.

Aboriginal deaths in custody are required by Queensland State Coroner’s Guidelines to be investigated by the State Homicide Investigation Group. That didn’t happen.

Instead, the investigation was undertaken by an officer from Townsville CIB and one from Palm Island, who not only knew Hurley but were picked up from the airport by him, and shared a meal at his house later that night.

The integrity of the investigation was further compromised when Hurley talked to other important witnesses, including other officers who saw the struggle and fall. He even admitted this in a re-enactment interview with investigating police. (The Coronial Inquest relates previous examples of Hurley talking to potential witnesses in an incident where he allegedly ran over the foot of a Palm Island woman.) No information about a possible assault on Mulrunji was given to the police pathologist before the autopsy.

Despite the findings of the Coronial Inquest, Queensland’s Director of Public Prosecutions, Leanne Clare, decided not to charge Hurley over the death. The decision has since been overturned by Attorney-General Kerry Shine after a hastily arranged decision to get former NSW Chief Justice Sir Laurence Street to ‘review’ the case.

No one has come out of the Mulrunji case looking good. The Beattie Government has been reactive and defensive acting only when pressured by the gathering media storm. The long-term position of DPP Leanne Clare now looks untenable.

But even Clare’s problems pale into insignificance compared with the ugly picture being painted of Queensland’s criminal justice system by the Queensland Police Union, which appears to believe its members are above the law. With the 1989 Fitzgerald Inquiry into corruption in the Queensland Police Force still well within living memory of most Australians, one would have thought that Queensland cops still need all the positive press they can get.

The ink has been flowing all right, but little positive can be said about the remarks of the QPU’s Denis Fitzpatrick, who has pushed the boundaries of contempt laws with his outspoken and amazingly insensitive campaign. After attacking the Deputy Coroner Christine Clements for her earlier finding that Hurley should be charged, Fitzpatrick has said that officers are ‘incensed’ about the ‘political interference’ in Hurley’s case.

Fitzpatrick has even said that police should ‘cut ties,’ essentially withdrawing policing from the Aboriginal communities that need it most. ‘If they don’t want the police there, get them out,’ he told AAP over the Australia Day weekend. ‘Let tribal law take over, let them police their own communities.’

On 30 January, over 650 police met on the Gold Coast to discuss industrial action and a possible march on Queensland Parliament to protest Hurley’s charges.

The footage of the meeting on ABC News was disconcerting to anyone with a good memory of Queensland’s recent past. In response to the proposal of the march on Parliament, the affirmative ‘aye’ came in shouting, hand-raising unison. It seemed to me uncomfortably like a para-military salute. On the Queensland Police Union website, you can even send ‘messages of support’ to Chris Hurley .

Meanwhile, on Palm Island, no such groundswell of union support is available to help the family of Mulrunji, or of Patrick Bramwell, the key witness in the case who committed suicide last year.

Perhaps the only sensible thing the Queensland Police Union has said is that watch-houses in Aboriginal communities should be upgraded, in line with the recommendations of the Aboriginal Deaths in Custody Royal Commission all those years ago.

16 years and many subsequent inquiries later, it seems criminal justice in Queensland has failed the challenge of substantial reform.

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.