A dark and shameful episode in Queensland history has come to end with the news the Queensland government has agreed to pay a $30m settlement and deliver a formal apology to the people of Palm Island. It comes as the federal court found police officers breached the Racial Discrimination Act and acted unlawfully in responding to riots over the death in custody of Cameron Doomadgee (known as Mulrunji) in 2004. The settlement, subject to approval by the federal court, resolves a class action involving hundreds of claimants, lead by Lex, Cecilia and Agnes Wotton.
Palm Island was a Queensland gulag, a concentration camp for Aboriginal people or an “island Siberia” as historian Henry Reynolds called it. Wotton would not have been old enough to remember the last time locals rioted against injustice in 1957. But he would have known the story and heard about the heavy-handed police response on that occasion. The police attitude has not changed with police union boss Ian Leavers claiming they did nothing wrong in 2004 and the settlement was made to “criminals”. Leavers is paid to defend his members but would have been advised to have kept his mouth shut this time rather than add to a flagrant injustice.
His officer Chris Hurley has been the centre of attention since the coroner found him guilty of killing Mulrunji with three fatal punches, a death compounded by the casual treatment of the body and the lies police told the family after his death. Fourteen years later no one has been convicted of his death despite numerous court actions. Mulrunji stupidly taunted police as they made an arrest but his subsequent arrest was needless as was Hurley’s punches which left him dying in the cells.
When his family came calling, worried for his health, Hurley lied to them that he was sleeping and then colluded with other officers to cover up the death. When the truth did come out about the death of a popular local man, anger quickly seethed in a community used to being discriminated against, but had never accepted it. When they surrounded the police station, the police response was to send in the riot squad. At 5am they broke into the home of community leader Lex Wotton – who was never implicated in the riots – and arrested him at gunpoint in front of terrified relatives. In 2016 Federal Court Justice Debbie Mortimer ruled police had breached the racial discrimination act as they responded to the riots. It’s hard not to agree with the Palm Island mayor it is the police who need to apologise not the islanders.
Ultimately police are state government employees and it was the state government that overstepped the mark in 2004 as they did in 1957. Back in 1957, Palm Islanders had almost no rights at all. Their movements and almost all aspects of their life were controlled by Queensland’s infamous Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1897. Palm Island reserve was created as a penal settlement for Aboriginal people across northern Queensland, and many were jailed for trivial offences. Saxby Downs stockman Albert Hippi was sent there because he “frightens women and tries to get liquor” while in 1924 Paddy Brooks of Millaa Millaa was exiled for causing “discontent”.
On the island they were ruled by a succession of harsh administrators such as Robert Curry. Curry arrived when the settlement started in 1918 and he ruled with a rod of iron for 12 years. Floggings were frequent as well as summary removals. In 1929 Home Department recommended a police magistrate inquiry into Curry ‘s alleged assault of a woman with a whip until “she fell senseless to the ground”.
After his medical officer reported him for flogging, Curry lost the plot. In the early hours of February 3, 1930 he ran amok with a gun shooting and injuring the medical officer before smashing the officer’s wife skull with the butt of his rifle. He then set fire to his own house killing his son and step-daughter inside. After he fled to another island and then returned, the medical officer ordered Aboriginal man Peter Prior to shoot him dead. Prior was charged with murder but the Supreme Court judge threw the case out saying it only made it this far because Curry’s killer was not a white man.
In the war years the US Army posted black American soldiers to the island to protect white Australian sensibilities from seeing black men on the streets of the city (the paranoid fear was they would have sex with white women). These soldiers gave the islanders a powerful new sense of their own identity and the Second World War was a time of political awakening for Aboriginal people. But islander hopes were brutally quashed with the arrival of a new supervisor in 1953 named Roy Bartlam.
Bartlam was an ex-policeman obsessed with control. He believed Murris could not think for themselves and used intimidation and police brutality to cement his reign. Locals 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. A Murri man was charged with threatening Bartlam, but broke away and was joined by demonstrators who attacked police and abused settlement officers. As Bartlam hid in his office, Aboriginal people went on strike and controlled every corner. They sent a letter to Brisbane authorities demanding “adequate meat supply, increased wages, better housing and for Bartlam to leave the island.”
Just as in 2004, authorities over-reacted. 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 the main street, Mango Avenue, and new Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen equated Aboriginal activism with black terrorism. When local leader Fred Clay and union organiser Bill Rosser started a newsletter called Smoke Signal to document life under the Act, they were legally thrown off the island.
Though some land rights and an Aboriginal council were established in the 1980s, the island was still home to inadequate housing, poor sewerage and infectious diseases. Easier access to alcohol led to an upsurge in violence and suicide. While regulations were introduced in 1972 which declared all Aboriginal workers must be paid an award wage, these regulations did not apply to workers on government reserves such as Palm Island, where payment was labelled a “training allowance”, despite many employees having worked for decades. In 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 2004 riots.
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. Premier Beattie refused a call for a Royal Commission. In 2009 Lex Wotton was jailed for seven years for his part in instigating the riot, though he was released on parole in 2010. In 2013 his family filed the class action and the Federal Court found in their favour in 2016.
As Justice Mortimer said about police in his scathing judgement: “If content is to be given to the obligation, contained in the QPS Operational Procedures Manual to consider ‘cultural needs’, then in the case of Palm Island those cultural needs could not possibly be understood or met in any genuine way without a good working appreciation of the racism and oppression that characterised the island’s history.” Something that Leavers would do well to understand.