The Palm Island Inquest findings
the unacceptable political inertia
Photo: Hundreds of residents of the Aboriginal community of Palm Island, Australia, burned down the local police station, court building and the housing barracks of local police officers on November 26, 2004, after a coroner's report on the police custody death of island resident Mulrunji Doomadgee, a 36-year-old Aboriginal man, was read aloud to a community meeting. (Thanks to 2wii'nimkiikaa)
15 July 2006: Twenty-five Reports that line government bookshelves ... on Indigenous Australia - Australia already has a complete roadmap to indigenous well-being. Report after report was written, commissioned by governments. The one aspect jumping out and screaming for answers, is the absolute lack of will on the part of the Howard government to build on that roadmap.
15 July 2006: Women in Black on Whitefella business: walking to Canberra - On 11 July 2006, three women started on a journey from Perth to Canberra, and this page contains some of the published information, their message to the Prime Minister John Howard and the Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough, and an open letter to all Australians.
7 December 2004: Palm Island: will Indigenous people get justice for Doomadgee? - "Cameron Doomadgee was found to have suffered four fractured ribs, a ruptured liver and torn protal vein. He died from these injuries he sustained while in police custody on Palm Island. Apparently he sustained these injuries when he fell off a table. Yeah, sure he did."
11 November 2004: Howard's way with The First Australians: shame, shame, shame - Welfare for showering yourself with soap - today is Howard's day for Howard's way with indigenous people. The PM is quietly, bit by bit, announcing his hardline welfare policy for indigenous people, he raids the only Indigenous newspaper we have, the National Indigenous Times.
6 October 2006
An edited version of this opinion was published in The Australian newspaper on 6 October 2006.
Andrew Boe is one of the Brisbane based lawyers who appeared for the Palm Island Council and community at the inquest
The Queensland Deputy State Coroner, Christine Clements, last week published findings concerning the death of an Aboriginal man on Palm Island, about 70 kilometres off Townsville. He was found dead in a police cell in November 2004 less than an hour after being arrested for swearing as he was walking home.
Clements found that Snr Sgt Chris Hurley angrily punched the man a number of times while he was still on the floor and "that these actions of Hurley caused the fatal injuries." She noted that his "liver was virtually completely ruptured ... cleaved in two". His cries for help as he lay dying on the cement floor were either unheard or ignored by police in the station. Clements also found that this man (referred to as Mulrunji in the proceedings) should never have been arrested, and severely criticised the entire police investigation. She added that "clear directives from the Police Commissioner and a commitment to ensure proper standards of investigation are required to restore public confidence." She was referring to the palpable lack of interest and obstructiveness of some senior police called to give evidence at the inquest.
It cannot be disputed that policing in indigenous communities is complex and difficult. The well documented socio-economic disadvantage in these communities cannot be ignored in any critical analysis or in devising effective policing policies. These difficulties cannot however condone police thuggery or collegiate and institutional indifference towards such conduct.
There has been significant political blustering as a result of these scathing findings. This had to be expected. However, some important points have been deftly deflected by the Police Commissioner Bob Atkinson, the Police Minister Judy Spence and Premier Peter Beattie. For example, much has been made about the fact that the Coroner did not recommend criminal charges. Yet they all know that amendments to the Coroner's Act 2003 changed the function of coroners - a coroner is no longer permitted to determine whether any person is to face trial. Instead, a coroner is now required to refer any matter which might suggest some criminal liability to the DPP. The purpose of an inquest was refined so a coroner could get to the truth as to how a death occurred without being hindered by the rules of evidence that might apply in any trial. Nevertheless, in order for evidence to be considered by a coroner it must still be cogent, relevant and reliable.
The other public responses of the Commissioner and the Government suggest that these findings come as a surprise or have only little relevance. They have also summarily dismissed some of Clements' recommendations. It must be doubtful that either of them had read the evidence adduced in the inquest or reflected upon the detailed findings before doing so. These responses are disingenuous and unsatisfactory.
It is nearly two years since Mulrunji's death. The process took much longer than it should have, primarily due to two unsuccessful appeals brought by Atkinson and Hurley against some rulings made by Ms Clements. Atkinson firstly sought to prevent the parties having access to records of previous complaints made against Hurley (by others who claim to have been assaulted by him on Palm Island) and how they had been investigated (and dismissed) by the police. Secondly, they argued that the coroner was not entitled to take any of these previous matters into account in making her findings. These arguments were rejected in two separate Supreme Court rulings.
Throughout this process the police interests were forcefully asserted by senior counsel and teams of lawyers. Every opportunity has been afforded to them to make their respective positions known in respect of damning evidence. Incidentally the Commissioner went to the point of publicly declaring his support for Hurley in an interview published in The Australian newspaper on the first day of the inquest. He was even cited for contempt although no further action was taken. It is in this light that the failure of the Commissioner to make any adequate response, and Spence's and Beattie's criticism of some of the recommendations, should be viewed. Each of them has been aware these issues were being canvassed in the inquest; none took the proper opportunity to contribute sensibly to this important, independent judicial inquiry. The decisions of the Government and of the Commissioner not to make any submissions to the Coroner were a cynical political exercise. The current inaction in respect of the findings is appalling. Announcements that a "special task force" would examine the coroner's findings to look at implementation, and that the Commissioner would review matters before deciding what to do in respect of the findings, are insulting.
The suggestion that a task force could be impartially headed by the Premier's Director-General is open to the obvious criticism that he will be in a position of conflict in assessing whether to implement any particular recommendation because of his primary duty to protect the political interests of his 'boss'. He is being asked to assess government decisions which may have contributed to the parlous state of policing in question. It must be doubtful whether that is likely to be more effective than an independent judicial assessment of the evidence that has been uncovered in this inquest. If the government is not prepared to accept a coroner's capacity to guide recommendations why does it invest such a judicial officer with such a statutory function? Would more notice be taken if a more senior judicial officer made such findings? If so, surely this is a proper premise from which to consider a Commission of Inquiry.
Resorting to department heads to attempt to deal with a 'brotherhood' mentality in the police force or to identify operational shortcomings will just make it easier to develop political spin, rather than resulting in pragmatic, perhaps politically painful, steps towards addressing these alarming findings.
Yet remarkably, the only significant decision made so far is that Hurley should remain working as a police officer, albeit limited to deskbound duties. He has not been suspended, despite an independent judicial finding that he violently killed a man. The 'party line' that any industrial action should await the decision of the DPP as to whether any criminal charge is brought rings hollow. Query which public servant other than a police officer would be given such a buffer from consequences after such a finding.
Of course, nothing should interfere with the DPP's independent decision on whether to prosecute Hurley for homicide. However, does that absolve the entire administration from responding to these serious findings? Judicial findings cannot be dismissed as mere allegations. Clements is an independent judicial officer charged with the specific duty of finding out what occurred.
Atkinson, Spence and Beattie cannot pick and choose when to accept a coroner's findings. The rule of law behoves public officials to accept such findings and the proper and only forum to challenge them is the appeal courts. If the findings had gone the other way and Hurley had been cleared from wrongdoing, these officials would probably have embraced them as the final word and admonished members of the community for not doing so.
Finally, Gary Wilkinson, the President of the Police Union, who contemptuously dismissed the findings as 'rubbish' before embarking on a personal attack on Ms Clements, most transparently reflects the police interests in this matter. Others have rightly condemned him as being in contempt and unworthy of a spokesman for decent police. However, the more subtle dismissal of Ms Clements' findings by the Premier, the Police Minister and the Commissioner is more concerning. It underpins the systemic and political disregard for any criticism of policing, even though it follows a judicial process covering nearly two years and comes from a judicial officer appointed by this government.
A responsible government would act swiftly. When the Palm Island police station was burnt down, following the bungled release of a misleading interim autopsy report suggesting accidental causes, the Premier immediately declared a state of emergency and permitted the use of battalions of armed and hooded police to descend upon the community and arrest suspects. Many people were immediately charged on suspicion and removed from the island. A magistrate banned these people from returning to their families until the Court of Appeal overturned such conditions. Many of them have had their charges dismissed. Contrast this with the snail-like pace of action when it comes to a policeman being found by a coroner to have killed a man. The Deputy Coroner's findings comprise the third official report that the Queensland government has commissioned about Palm Island since the death and subsequent 'riots'. The other two are from a select parliamentary Committee and from lawyer Scott McDougall. Both were commissioned by Beattie's government at considerable taxpayer cost and both are, seemingly, attracting Cabinet dust.
Ironically, the Premier, immediately following his re-election last month, closed down the indigenous affairs portfolio. His political explanation was that he wished to "mainstream" indigenous issues. This decision must be revisited in light of these findings. It is clear from the inquest that the police department cannot be left to look out for indigenous interests. A startling example of Spence's approach is of her cancellation, a mere two weeks before final submissions were made in the inquest, of the proposed $3.8M construction of a new police station which was said to be specifically designed to meet the needs of an indigenous community in holding people in the watch house and prevent similar deaths. No explanation has been afforded for this decision other than that the temporary buildings currently being used were considered adequate.
Beattie and his government should not be left unaccountable for something that can be fixed if there is genuine political will. This death, like the health crisis, occurred on his watch, and he has an equal obligation to see the necessary reforms through. Labour lawyers like Beattie and others in his Cabinet dine out on their supposed support for the indigenous community. Since he has been in government there is little evidence that this has been translated into actual steps towards addressing the considerable disadvantage that indigenous people suffer, particularly in places like Palm Island.
This is not an issue that should concern only indigenous people. Police should not be permitted to become a law unto themselves and the police lobby should not be permitted to become the political force they were in the pre-Fitzgerald era. We are all diminished if we stand by and tolerate a response which shows such a systemic disregard for basic levels of human decency.
Palm Island death witness tells of threat from police
CRIME and Misconduct Commission investigators in Queensland are examining new claims that a key witness against a police officer facing criminal trial over a homicide was warned by another officer: "If anything happens to Hurley, you're next."
Roy Bramwell, one of the last people to see his friend Mulrunji Doomadgee alive in Palm Island police station on November 19, 2004, expressed fears for his safety yesterday as the Director of Public Prosecutions weighed evidence against Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley.
Mr Bramwell's testimony during an inquest into the death contributed to the finding by Deputy Coroner Christine Clements last week that Sergeant Hurley had killed Doomadgee in a violent attack.
Mr Bramwell had said in his evidence: "All I can see is Chris's elbow going up and down and (him saying): 'You want more, Mr Doomadgee, you want more? Have you had enough, Mr Doomadgee?"'
Ms Clements, in her judgment, said: "I accept Roy Bramwell's evidence to the extent that he saw Senior Sergeant Hurley leaning over Mulrunji with his elbow going up and down three times.
"I am satisfied that on the basis of Roy Bramwell's account of what he saw and heard, together with the immediately preceding sequence of events, that Senior Sergeant Hurley lost his temper and hit Mulrunji after falling to the floor.
"I reject Senior Sergeant Hurley's denial as untruthful."
In a statement to the CMC yesterday, obtained by The Weekend Australian, Mr Bramwell alleged he was threatened by one of Hurley's close colleagues and friends, investigating officer Detective Sergeant Darren Robinson, in the days after Mulrunji's death.
Mr Bramwell claims that Sergeant Robinson threatened to come after him if anything happened to Sergeant Hurley. Mr Bramwell, who remains incarcerated in the Townsville Correctional Centre, said he had not previously disclosed the alleged threat because he feared for his family's safety. His claims are being investigated by the CMC's Detective Inspector Ken Webster, who has previously interviewed Sergeant Robinson.
Sergeant Robinson's conduct during his 2004 investigations of assault claims involving Sergeant Hurley, a friend, was the subject of criticism during the inquest. Sergeant Robinson rejected suggestions he had tried to cover up for his friend, but admitted he felt uncomfortable being involved in the investigation.
The Deputy Coroner ruled it was reprehensible that the initial police investigations into the death were so obviously lacking in transparency, objectivity and independence.
Queensland Police Union general secretary Phil Hocken stood by Sergeant Robinson yesterday.
"Roy Bramwell has had ample opportunity to bring a complaint forward over the past two years, including when he was giving evidence at the inquest," Mr Hocken said. "His claim will no doubt be properly investigated. However, I severely doubt its veracity."
Mr Hocken said that a separate allegation involving Sergeant Robinson and members of the Bramwell family was quickly proved to be false.