The Long Shadows Of Palm Island

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The nation as a whole has a fairly limited attention span for state-based politics. The weekend was consumed with the schadenfreude emerging from the Penrith by-election, where Kristina Keneally’s Labor government was delivered a hiding, and the Greens achieved multiples of previous polling. That limited the reverberations of the Queensland Crime and Misconduct Commission (CMC) report into the investigation of Cameron Doomadgee’s death in custody. That’s a shame — there are good reasons for seeing this as a crisis point in law, order and governance in Queensland, and for relations between Indigenous and white Australia. What’s in balance here is the question of whether any Indigenous community can have faith in the capacity of white justice to serve them in the same way it does majority white communities.

For those who blinked and missed the national coverage late last week, the CMC’s report was an indication that the poison from the festering wound of Doomadgee’s violent, untimely death has spread throughout Queensland’s body politic. It’s seeped into the Premier’s office, that of the police commissioner, Bob Atkinson, and has even managed to cast some fleeting doubts on the competence of the CMC itself. And needless to say, it’s stirred up the same questions that have hung around this case from the start: about the culture of the Queensland Police Service, about the way police conduct themselves in predominantly Indigenous communities like Palm Island, and, most importantly, about how a young man died a violent death without anyone being held responsible.

Last Friday, Crime and Misconduct Commissioner Martin Moynihan said bluntly that the initial investigation of police officer Chris Hurley’s role in Doomadgee’s death was flawed. The CMC has also said it will investigate the findings of an earlier coronial inquiry, which found that Hurley had changed his evidence to match a witness statement, and that he had colluded with a fellow officer in the lead-up to his trial. He said that the Queensland Police Service had a culture of self-protection, and this culture embraced "double standards" and "an unwillingness to publicly acknowledge failings on the part of the police". The police service, he said, "must change". And it was clear that, in effectively blaming the police commissioner for the failings, Moynihan thought that changes should begin at the top.

Queensland hasn’t seen the Police Service put under this kind of pressure since the days of the Fitzgerald Royal Commission. Moynihan all but acknowledged that race had been a factor in determining the direction of the investigation, and implied that in taking it up with the officer under investigation rather than the Island community, they had not only failed in their obligation to serve that community, they’d made the self-protection of the police service their priority. Effectively, the service showed itself to be incapable of carrying out an investigation when one of their own was under suspicion. If they hadn’t already made up their mind about this whole case long ago, Queenslanders would have been entitled to be depressed that the culture that Fitzgerald was supposed to have ended has apparently not changed.

It gets worse — the news on Friday was that the CMC was also considering whether or not Hurley had been allowed to over-claim for compensation arising from the damage to Palm Island police station and residence when an angry Island community torched it in the wake of Doomadgee’s death. While the CMC decided there wasn’t enough evidence to reopen the question of whether or not Doomadgee was killed by Hurley, what their findings suggest is that Hurley — far from suffering for what happened on the island — has prospered since the botched investigation into him, which led to his being immediately taken under the wing of the Police Union and, presumably, of fellow officers in key positions.

Ultimately, as Moynihan says, the police commissioner is responsible for all this. So it’s unfortunate for Premier Anna Bligh that she has not only reappointed Bob Atkinson for another term, but told the Parliament that the CMC boss had approved the appointment, as he is required to by law. Moynihan has insisted he didn’t approve the reappointment when it was first put to him that it would be going to the Parliament. He’s now insisting that he won’t sign off on the reappointment unless Atkinson responds satisfactorily to the issues the report lays out.

While there have often been tensions between the police and their overseers at the CMC, what has happened in the aftermath of the report constitutes open warfare. Atkinson — with astounding cheek — has laid the blame for the mess on Palm Island at the feet of the CMC, saying they disregarded their own guidelines by not coming earlier to the Police Service with their concerns.

All of this caused some problems for Bligh, who has been accused of misleading Parliament in her constant assertions that Moynihan agreed to Atkinson’s reappointment. She seems to have escaped immediate danger in parliamentary terms, but if it turns out that the Police Minister bodgied the reappointment, it will be another big blow to a government in trouble. Among all their recent and long-term failures, the reappointment of a police commissioner in whom the community lacks confidence would be the worst, for what good is government if it fails to engender respect for the way in which its laws are enforced?

Some have probably answered that question for themselves on Palm: government’s not much good at all. That view was no doubt held in the minds of many long before Cameron Doomadgee died in his cell, and it’s possible that Doomadgee himself held it. As a kid in Townsville, which is separated by just a few kilometres of calm blue water from Palm, I certainly came to understand why they might have thought that way. The city’s not quite the caricature of regional racism that you’ll find in Chloe Hooper’s book, but Palm stands for something in the minds of a significant minority of white locals.

In some of the places where powerful white people talk — from pubs to the paper — there is a sense that Palm is a burden, a problem, a bad joke, best left to itself. There’s been something of that attitude displayed statewide at every stage of the aftermath of Cameron Doomadgee’s death. If a police commissioner or a premier falls because of those events, it wouldn’t redress the injustice, but it might give some powerful people pause to think about the attitudes that have compounded it.

New Matilda

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