Victorian bells toll for Federal Liberals

On this morning’s Insiders, Federal Trade Minister Andrew Robb explained why Victorian Liberal colleagues loss in yesterday’s state election had nothing to do with the Federal Government. Victoria’s problem was not a new one, he said, the Liberals were down in the polls by the same “flatline difference” for at least three years. Robb was correct in his assessment but left himself open for an obvious retort, which Barrie Cassidy pounced on. Wasn’t this what was happening in Canberra now, Cassidy asked. A flummoxed Robb asked what did he mean. Cassidy repeated Robb’s point the Abbott Government were also flatlining in the polls. Robb said that was different, they still had two years to improve their position.

Robb was granting his government the gift of the future, not granted to the Victorian Government. The Abbott Government is hopeless adrift and compromised by the raft of promises and resolutions it made in opposition it could not possibly fill in government, especially as its right-wing credentials started to be felt when it took office.

There are warnings for Abbott in Denis Napthine’s defeat overnight not least that Australians will dismiss a first time government. It was the first time it happened in Victoria for 60 years but federally the electorate is volatile. Newly elected governments held on in their first elections in 1984, 1998 and 2010 but all were extremely tight and in all cases the incumbents had the preferred Prime Minister. This time round the Government is in freefall with an increasingly unpopular and hapless Prime Minister. Their management of the Senate independents is execrable and their few policy victories had to be shared with Clive Palmer. Tony Abbott’s area of strength was a strong leader in the wake of MH17 but he squandered that goodwill with his idiotic Putin shirtfront comment and then looked like a bumbling, irrelevant provincial fool at the G20 meeting.

The silly games he played to keep climate change off the agenda rebounded badly and he is unlikely to garner much credit even if they succeed in 2.1% world growth. The slogan “it’s the economy, stupid” is itself stupid and does not take into account confidence levels and perceptions of a shambolic leadership. Victoria’s economy was in good shape before this election as was Australia’s economy before the 2013 federal election. But Victoria was undone by the wrangling over Geoff Shaw and federal Labor was fatally debilitated by the Rudd/Gillard wars.

Federal Labor leader Bill Shorten has been castigated by the left as a ‘do nothing’ politician but he remains popular and could assist in the Victorian election campaign to help a similarly anodyne but effective leader Daniel Andrews. The Abbott brand was too toxic to be seen anywhere south of the Murray this month.

Abbott once famously called himself a weather vane. He must be aware heavy storms are coming especially as he charts a course for a second budget while still negotiating the tricky reefs of his first one. Treasurer Hockey has been a poor performer but the people will blame Abbott not him. As Insiders pointed out this morning, Abbott’s Prime Minister’s Office is becoming as notorious as Kevin Rudd’s for its obsessiveness with the message and its failure to deliver. Whether that is a problem with the office or the man is a moot point, but it is looking like a doomed Prime Ministership.

Abbott will face his reckoning at the next election, if he is lucky, or more likely stabbed in back by his own colleagues next December as panicked parliamentarians look to someone else to save their skins. It will be, as Andrew Robb inadvertently pointed out today, already too late. The Liberal goose was cooked in early in 2014 and will stay uneaten and poisonous on the table until Labor feasts on its entrails in 2016.

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Ten year anniversary of Mulrunji’s death on Palm Island: a history of an Australian gulag

Palm Island administrative quarters c.1936
Palm Island administrative quarters c.1936

It’s 10 years since one of the most shameful episodes in modern Queensland history in a site that has long seen the worst excesses of institutional racism in Australia. The place is Palm Island in beautiful Halifax Bay. The event is the aftermath of the senseless death of Indigenous man Cameron Doomadgee, known as Mulrunji. Mulrunji’s death is an inevitable consequence of the failure to learn the terrible history of Palm Island, which became an Australian gulag in 1918.

In 2004, Mulrunji was a 36-year-old Murri man, a loving husband, a father and a carer for a disabled nephew. He worked part-time for the local council and was a popular man on the island. On Friday, November 19,  Mulrunji was walking on Bay St around 10am when he observed an incident. Palm Island’s most senior policeman, Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley and Indigenous Police Liaison Office Lloyd Bengaroo were arresting Aboriginal man Roy Bramwell. Bramwell was intoxicated and swearing. As Mulrunji passed, he chided Bengaroo for locking up his own people. Bengaroo told Mulrunji to keep walking. But Mulrunji instead taunted Bengaroo, and started singing “Who Let The Dogs Out?”

What happened in the following 20 minutes is disputed. Hurley claims Mulrunji swore at him and the sergeant made an arrest, pushing him into the police van with force. Hurley was 33, a tall man weighing 115kgs. Posted to Palms in 2002, he was the ultimate figure of power and authority on the island. He had a reputation from a posting in Burketown as a womaniser, a heavy drinker and being good with his fists. After arresting Mulrunji and Bramwell, Hurley drove the van back to the station, arriving around 10.20am. As he unloaded the van, Mulrunji punched Hurley in the jaw and Hurley responded with a dig to the ribs. Hurley claimed Mulrunji fell over the step. According to Bramwell’s evidence, Hurley shouted “Do you want more, Mr Doomadgee? Do you want more? Have you had enough?” Bengaroo stayed quiet fearing retribution if he spoke out.

Mulrunji was out cold on the pavement but Hurley would not believe it. He and another white officer thought he was ‘foxing’ and dragged him by his hands to the cells. He lay there barely conscious with four fractured ribs, and a ruptured portal vein and liver. A doctor would later say his liver was ‘cleaved in two’. He was bleeding to death and feebly calling for help which never arrived. Instead, at 10.26am, Hurley updated the books to formally charge Mulrunji with public nuisance.

Around 11am Hurley returned to the cell and kicked Mulrunji on the shoulder. There was no response. After a couple of minutes they called for a paramedic who arrived 15 minutes later. The paramedic pronounced Mulrunji dead. Bengaroo said they should notify the family but Hurley told him to shut up. Mulrunji’s wife and sister came to the station with food but were told to go away. Other relatives arrived and were alarmed by the departing paramedic. Hurley told them Mulrunji was sleeping before ordering them to leave.

It wasn’t until 3pm – four hours later – a Townsville policeman told the family their father was dead. The Palms coppers gave Bramwell $50 and told him to beat it and stay quiet. Normal investigative routines following a death in custody were not followed and the State Homicide Investigation Group did not get involved. Instead, two friends of Hurley from Townsville CIB “investigated”. The pair chatted comfortably with Hurley, the death site was not secured and their report to the coroner three days later made no reference to Hurley’s assault on Mulrunji. The word got out around town Hurley had killed Mulrunji but had not been charged. Community anger was at boiling point and Mulrunji’s death was the last straw. Some 200 people marched to the station demanding answers.

The autopsy report was released after a week. It said there was no evidence of force and Mulrunji died of an “intra-abdominal haemorrhage caused by a ruptured liver and portal vein” from an accidental fall on a hard surface. Again 200 people marched in protest knowing full well it was no accident. They said it was murder and they set fire to the courthouse and police station.

But instead of offering support to the bereaved family, the state brought in 18 additional police. Labor Premier Peter Beattie invoked the Joh-era 1986 Public Safety Preservation Act as white teachers, nurses, public servants and contractors fled the island. Police negotiated with former councillor Lex Wotton but eventually used helicopters and planes to re-secure the island. Wotton’s home was raided at 4.30am and he was Tasered and arrested along with many others. Police broke down doors in 50 homes in dawn raids. Older people remembered 1957, the last time Palm Island erupted in race riots.

The 2004 riots brought Palms to national attention in a way Mulrunji’s death had not. The Beattie government ran for cover, exaggerating the threat (police confiscated just one gun) and talked tough about ending support to islanders. They also banned Aboriginal Legal Aid from the island, refused to open schools, run ferries or let bread or milk in for three days. Police made 43 arrests while “vehemently opposing” bail. Most of the 43 spent that Christmas in jail awaiting charges. Palms council wrote to Brisbane saying their people were “under siege” and their children were “terrorised”. They requested police to stay away from Mulrunji’s funeral. It was attended by 3000 people – all of them black.

In February 2005 a coronial inquiry finally brought some context to the death. It exposed Palms as an Australian Alcatraz with a chronic housing shortage and rampant unemployment. On average people died aged 50. The original custodians were the Bwgcolman people but in 1918 white Australians established Palms as an off-shore prison for recalcitrant survivors of the Kalkadoon wars of north-west Queensland. Over time, it became the ultimate punishment centre for Queensland’s Indigenous people in a policy of containment and control. Authorities rounded up all blacks considered troublemakers along the northern coast and packed them off to Palms. But by being “a penitentiary for troublesome cases” it brought together a group of outstanding leaders who forged a new Indigenous identity from various tribes.

Their lives were managed by the 1897 Queensland Act which restricted movement, kept them segregatedand treated them like children. Police held control over black wages (an amount worth over half a billion dollars in today’s money was never paid) and the island’s first overseer Robert Curry was prosecutor, clerk of court and judge. Two smaller islands Curacao and Eclipse were used as further punishment places where bread and water were the only rations. Curry arrived when the settlement started in 1918 and he ruled with a rod of iron. Floggings were frequent as well as summary removals. His medical officer Pattison argued against some of his decisions and Curry’s mind, addled by novocaine and depression following the death of his wife, snapped on February 3, 1930. In the early hours of the morning, Curry ran amok with a gun in his hand, first shooting and injuring Pattison and smashing Pattison’s wife with the butt of his rifle. Both later recovered.

He then set fire to his own house killing his son and step-daughter who were inside. He destroyed one of two boats before sailing in the other to Fantome Island, where he sat on the beach, drinking. His assistant gave guns to some of the Murri residents and ordered them to shoot Curry if he returned. When Curry did come back, one of the Aboriginal men shot him dead. The man who pulled the trigger, Peter Prior was charged with murder as was Curry’s deputy for supplying the weapon. The judge threw the case out saying it only made it this far because Curry’s killer was not a white man.

Conditions improved on Palms in the 1930s under Anglican chaplain Ernest Gribble. Gribble and his father John had long experience with Aboriginal people. Ernest urged assimilation with the white population. During the Second World War the island housed black American GIs as part of Prime Minister Curtin’s request to keep black soldiers away from white Australian women. The black Americans gave the Palms people a brief new sense of their own identity. But they were brutally quashed again by the arrival of a new supervisor in 1953 named Roy Bartlam.

Ex-army man Bartlam insisted on rigid apartheid and Murris were punished if they did not salute all whites they passed in the street. If they were late for roll call or curfew, they were imprisoned. People faced seven day’s jail for laughing or whistling. Blacks were jailed for being untidy or not having their hair cut. Women were sent to prison for not having skirts below knee-length.

Bartlam’s ridiculous rules led an all-out strike in 1957 with eerie foreshadowing of the 2004 riots. The trouble began when a native man charged with threatening Bartlam, broke away and was joined by demonstrators. They attacked police and abused settlement officers. Bartlam underestimated how much he had alienated the community and there was sudden unspoken urgency for change. Bartlam hid in his office but later attempted to arrest eight men planning the strike. A fight erupted and men refused go to jail and returned home. Murris controlled every corner and the native police joined the strike. They were promptly sacked. They sent a letter to Brisbane authorities demanding “adequate meat supply, increased wages, better housing and for Bartlam to leave the island.”

They threw bad meat at Bartlam’s house and marched up the whites-only Mango Avenue. RAAF planes rushed 20 police to the island, greeted by 250 demonstrators. After several days of siege, Bartlam’s men arrested the strike leaders in the middle of the night and the strike was ended. The leaders were exiled and Bartlam stayed but the strike had some success. There was immediate improvements in diet and conditions. Yet as late as 1969 blacks were still banned from Mango Avenue and new Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen equated Aboriginal activism with black terrorism.

But the tide was turning. Bjelke-Petersen overturned the hated Queensland Act under threat from Whitlam’s anti-racism legislation. The community was promised a system for granting Deeds of Grant in Trust (DOGIT), Joh’s way of avoiding native title. The DOGIT was finally issued in 1985 but the island still faced inadequate housing, sewerage and infectious diseases. Easier access to alcohol led to an upsurge in violence and suicide. Into the 2000s Palm Island remained a deeply troubled and desperately poor place hidden from view from mainstream Australia. Some locals called the place “Fallujah” but this Fallujah never made the national news until the riots.

All this was noted in Mulrunji’s inquest report. The Deputy Coroner found Hurley had contributed to his death. The police union were furious, the government backed off, and Hurley was never stood down. The largest police awards ceremony in Queensland history issued bravery awards for the cops involved in quelling the riot. Beattie refused a call for a Royal Commission. In 2009 Lex Wotton was jailed for seven years for his part in instigating the riot. Mulrunji’s death shows the ghosts of mad Curry and bad Bartlam still walk large on Palms.

Bruce Simpson in Leichhardt’s Footsteps

leichhardt footstepsI went for a walk last week with Bruce Simpson in Leichhardt’s footsteps. German explorer Ludwig Leichhardt disappeared in the Australian interior in 1848 with his team of men and animals on a quest to open up Australia to Europeans. Simpson was a drover and bushman who lived in many of the places opened up from Leichhardt explorations, including the place where he possibly died. Leichhardt’s disappearance after leaving Mt Abundance remains a great Australian mystery littered with near misses of evidence.

Simpson is an experienced bushman who turned to writing late in life. Aged 65, he published his life story in Packhouse Drover. “In Leichhardt’s footsteps” is his fifth book and is crammed with anecdotes from Simpson’s life in western Queensland. The most memorable line in the book has nothing to do with Leichhardt but Simpson’s mate who, while holed up in Boulia’s only hotel, entertained his friends in the morning on the veranda by holding a full two gallon jug of water on his erect member.

Simpson’s connection to Leichhardt was also related to Boulia, one of Queensland’s westernmost towns. Leichhardt may well have come this way as he sought a way to the west coast, Burke and Wills certainly came through here as they headed north in 1860. Both expeditions were before the birth of Boulia. Although Queensland had separated from NSW in 1859, this area, which Peter Saenger called “Queensland’s Western Afterthought“, was not yet part of the new colony. Western Queensland ended at latitude 141 degrees east which marks the border with South Australia. The three degrees of land to 138 degrees east that marks the border with NT (then South Australia) was contested by Queensland, SA and Victoria. Though Victoria had no contiguous border with the region, they financed Burke and Wills’ expedition. When it went wrong, Queensland led explorations to find them and the area was included in the northern colony in 1862.

The Burke and Wills mystery was solved thanks to John King’s survival, but none of Leichhardt’s men survived the disappearance 12 years earlier. Where they went and what happened to them remains conjecture but almost exactly 100 years later Simpson and his mates may have stumbled on their last camp site. That was on Glemormiston station, half way between Boulia and the NT border, as remote a settlement today as then.

In 1848 it was the home of the Wonkajera people, who grew a narcotic called pituri along well-established trade routes. When Simpson arrived in 1947, the Wonkajera and their pituri were long gone replaced by cattle stations. In May 1948 (almost 100 years to the day when Leichhardt and his crew were last heard from at Mt Abundance) Simpson was mustering cattle through a patch of gidgee trees when something caught his eye. It was a piece of iron on the ground, scorched by fire and turned up by a horse hoof. When the team investigated they found a saddle buried in the dirt.

They found other packs and riding saddles with bits of steel scattered over a wider area. When the men discovered steel buttons and buckles they were convinced they had stumbled on a camp from the distant past – one whose inhabitants suffered a bad end. Simpson found two stirrup irons of an unusual design. He took them as a keepsake but were later lost when sold with all his droving gear. Back at camp no one had heard of the relics the men had found. Glenormiston had been settled for 70 years so it seemed likely this camp was from before then. One man said it could be from the Leichhardt expedition as iron and steel survive a long time in low humidity and arid soil.

Simpson planned a return trip but it would be almost 40 years before it would happen. He and his mates fell out with the station owner not long after the find and they left the property and its tantalising relics. Simpson forgot exactly where the site was and the relics were “disdiscovered”. Simpson worked all over Queensland, but memories of the Glenormiston find never left him nor the nagging feeling it was related to Leichhardt.

Ludwig Leichhardt was an impoverished German with few connections who improbably crossed Australia south to north in 1845-1856 for the loss of only one life. He was pronounced a hero on his return in Sydney and plotted an even bigger adventure east to west. His first go was thwarted by floods and illness and in his second attempt he disappeared without trace. The men on his first failed trip east-west painted Leichhardt as a liar, thief, coward and martinet and his reputation suffered as British Australia turned against the Prussian. It wasn’t until the 20th century  Leichhardt’s reputation as a great explorer was re-established.

Simpson mentioned his Glenormiston finds in “Packhorse Drover” and it rekindled his interest in Leichhardt. His reading of Leichhardt’s life convinced him the German was a superb explorer and competent bushman whose reputation was unfairly maligned. Simpson was fascinated by the mystery of the disappearance and the many failed attempts to find traces of the expedition. Leichhardt had seven or eight men (he left with seven but may have picked up an eighth at Mt Abundance), 77 animals, carts, tents and other paraphernalia. There are trees blazed with L and LL scattered through the outback and tales of massacres and “white aborigines” though none have been verified. The only genuine artefact ever found was a gunplate marked “Ludwig Leichhardt 1848” apparently found in a tree near the WT/NT border. The person who found it is long dead, the tree cannot be found with accuracy and in any case it may have been put there by Aboriginals not by Leichhardt.

One legend about Leichhardt’s disappearance concerned Glenormiston station. When the station was taken up in 1875, manager John Richard Skuthorpe was told of a very old white man who live with Aborigines on the Mulligan River south of the station, speaking an unknown language. Skuthorpe found the man was dead and buried with a saddle bag containing his papers. Skuthorpe became convinced the man was the German Classen who went with Leichhardt on the final expedition. Skuthorpe’s belief was based on a story conman Andrew Hume told about meeting Classen in the NT many years after the disappearance.

Simpson decided to have another go at finding the Glenormiston relics. He contacted the other surviving drover from the 1948 trip and with the help of an ABC documentary team and other parties, decided to find the site. Simpson had two goes at finding the relics, first in 1996 and again in 1998. Both were frustrating failures as neither he nor the other drover could remember which part of this giant haystack their pin might be buried in. The country changed considerably in 50 years and regrowth was hiding the site. Simpson concluded his report that “although the search was unsuccessful, the fact remains – the relics are there.”

Simpson is still alive and ABC Landline did a profile on the “droving poet” in August. The program harked back on Simpson’s part in the glory years of droving until replaced by trucks in the 1960s. Simpson was, as Professor Bill Gammage said, a “spokesman for a way of life that’s vanishing very quickly”. Any hope clues into Leichhardt’s fate might be discovered is disappearing at the same rate. The Glenormiston Relics, like the fate of Leichhardt, remain a mystery.