Palm Islanders Issue Urgent Call For ‘F**k Tony Abbott’ T-Shirts, On Eve Of ‘Special Envoy’ Visit


Tony Abbott, the former Prime Minister, the self-described ‘Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs, and now the ‘Special Envoy for Indigenous Affairs’ to Scott Morrison – whatever the hell that means – is scheduled to arrive on Queensland’s Palm Island tomorrow, off the coast of Townsville. And Palm Islanders aren’t taking the visit lying down. Chris Graham reports.

Local leader Lex Wotton – the man who served two years in prison for leading the 2004 uprising on Palm Island after an Aboriginal man, Mulrunji Doomadgee, was beaten to death on the floor of local police station – has put the callout for the creators of the popular ‘Fuck Tony Abbott’ t-shirt to send a bunch to Palm Island, as a matter of urgency.

Only problem is, it’s not entirely clear who makes the shirts.

Mr Wotton said he saw the shirts in Melbourne during a trip to speak at the annual Marxism Conference, but was unable to secure one. And he said he only found out over the weekend that Abbott was flying into Palm Island. He’s rumoured to be staying overnight, and Mr Wotton is hopeful someone, somewhere can get some t-shirts to the community in time to give Mr Abbott a proper Palm Islander send off.

“If I’d known a bit earlier… it’s not a lot of time, but if someone were to send them to us tomorrow, by fast express, it could get here maybe by Tuesday,” Mr Wotton said (you can contact Mr Wotton through New Matilda if you’re able to assist).

“The thing is, he’s the wrong person for his portfolio. I’m not even sure what the portfolio is actually.”

Mr Wotton is not alone on that front. Last year, incoming PM Scott Morrison gave Abbott the title of, ‘Special Envoy on Indigenous Affairs’, the political equivalent of a last placed ribbon at a primary school athletics carnival. Obviously, Abbott accepted the job.

The move was widely condemned by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people around the country, most of whom presumably haven’t forgotten when Abbott’s government slashed spending in the Indigenous Affairs portfolio by more than half a billion dollars, or when Abbott described Sydney as “nothing but bush” prior to the arrival of the British, then suggested Aboriginal people who live in dirt poor remote communities are making a “lifestyle choice”.

Mr Wotton said it was Abbott’s second visit to the community in a few months, and that locals would not make him feel welcome.

“He’s here for a roundtable business discussion, to do with small business in the community,” Mr Wotton said. “I think it’s a bit too late for him to be talking about that now – he’s just trying to find a way for him to keep his seat. I hope he goes down to that lady (Zali Stegall).

Lex Wotton, receiving a National Indigenous Human Right’s Courage Award in 2016, for his leadership during the death in custody of Mulrunji Doomadgee in 2004.

Stegall is running against Abbott in his once safe seat of Warringah, with a recent poll commissioned by GetUp! showing she was in front on a two-candidate preferred basis.

“I don’t think he’d be really all that welcome. The last trip he was here, he was more or less kept sheltered and taken to certain areas of the community, but I don’t think he’d be received all that well.

“You’ve only got to look at his previous history and his relationship with our communities. He should just move on, resign and get on with his life.”

On that front, Mr Wotton said Palm Islanders are getting on with life, and trying to build their own economy, but with one eye on developments around the country, in particular last week’s High Court case which awarded more than $2 million in compensation to Traditional Owners in the Northern Territory, after ruling their native title rights were infringed.

“That’s the big thing we’re interested in now – that decision the other day with land in the Northern Territory,” he said.

Former prime minister Tony Abbott.

“I think it’s about time the government started listening to grassroots people. The land councils are puppets for the federal government in some sense. They need to step aside and allow for young and upcoming fighters to take these thing to the government so we can get fair compensation for communities right across the country.

“It’d be good to hear from some of these law firms, the ones who got me through, like Maurice Blackburn. If you look at his history in the country on the humanitarian and social justice side of things, that’s a firm you could really rely on I think.”

Mr Wotton and Palm Islanders have already had some success in that department, with the Queensland Government agreeing to pay $30 million in compensation to more than 400 local residents, for the conduct of Queensland police in the days after the Palm Island uprising.

In November 2004, Mulrunji Doomadgee was arrested by the most senior cop on the island, Chris Hurley, for singing ‘who let the dogs out’ as he walked past Hurley arresting another man.

Less than an hour later, he lay dead in the Palm Island Police Station cells, with injuries consistent with the victim of a plane crash, including a ruptured spleen, and his liver torn almost in two.

Lex Wotton leads the Palm Island uprising in November 2004.

A week later, when officials released an interim finding into the death which suggested Mr Doomadgee had died after tripping up a single step into the police station and falling onto a flat floor, Mr Wotton led an uprising on the island, and drove police back to the mainland after burning the police station, court house and police barracks to the ground.

Police responded in force, arresting dozens of Palm Islanders and terrorising the community – including children – with heavily armed tactical response police.

An attempt by police to cover-up the death was ultimately exposed during the coronial process. Hurley was eventually acquitted of his crimes, but paid more than $100,000 in compensation from the Queensland Government.

He was later fired from the police force after assaulting a female colleague.

Chris Graham is the publisher and editor of New Matilda. He is the former founding managing editor of the National Indigenous Times and Tracker magazine. In more than three decades of journalism he's had his home and office raided by the Australian Federal Police; he's been arrested and briefly jailed in Israel; he's reported from a swag in Outback Australia on and off for years. Chris has worked across multiple mediums including print, radio and film. His proudest achievement is serving as an Associate producer on John Pilger's 2013 film Utopia. He's also won a few journalism awards along the way in both the US and Australia, including a Walkley Award, a Walkley High Commendation and two Human Rights Awards. Since late 2021, Chris has been battling various serious heart and lung conditions. He's begun the process of quietly planning a "gentle exit" after "tying up a few loose ends" in 2024 and 2025. So watch this space.