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Wednesday, 1 December 2004
Page: 101

Senator CHERRY (4:45 PM) —This is a very important motion, and I congratulate my colleague Senator Ridgeway on bringing it forward. It is important that we debate in this place the status of Aboriginal deaths in custody and the best way forward. I was disappointed by Senator Scullion's contribution that the government cannot support this motion, because this motion calls only for:

... annual reporting by State, Territory and Federal governments on the implementation of the recommendations of the Royal Commission.

What is wrong with that? What is wrong with acknowledging it is a Commonwealth responsibility to coordinate these areas, report annually and make sure that this issue is not lost and just swept under the carpet?

As a senator for Queensland, I have been deeply disturbed by the events on Palm Island. Queensland has had a very poor record on race relations for many years, and it seems old lessons are dying very hard. Premier Beattie keeps telling the people of Palm Island to wait for the Crime and Misconduct Commission investigation and to `show some leadership'. Yet the Premier and the police commissioner have prejudged the inquiry by declaring the police innocent of any wrongdoing, even before any witnesses are interviewed.

Mr Doomadgee died of intra-abdominal haemorrhage caused by a ruptured liver and portal vein after being taken into police custody—but the Queensland government is yet to treat the death as a death in custody. While the Aboriginals involved with the subsequent riot have been arrested and incarcerated, the police involved with this death in custody are yet to be suspended. Sympathy or understanding for the family and the community have been absent. I do not condone violence but, in the face of such governmental and official indifference, I can understand why the community of Palm Island has erupted. As Madonna King in yesterday's Courier-Mail said:

The way the Beattie Government and Police Commissioner Bob Atkinson have handled the riot, prompted by the death in police custody, raises many questions. And, unless those questions are answered fully and openly, the same suspicion that fuelled the fury and the rage that led to last week's riot will continue to grow.

I visited Palm Island some three months ago and met with local councillors, teachers and the CDEP program organisers. There is some very positive, very constructive work being done on the island to build a vibrant, positive community, yet they face many serious problems. The community want to achieve more, and they want the government to work with them to do so. But reverting to the age-old race relations tactic of blaming victims will do no good.

I wish to extend my sympathies to the family of Mr Doomadgee and to the community of Palm Island. I wish to call on the Queensland police and the government to show due respect to the family's grief in the lead-up to the funeral and to treat with full seriousness this death as an Aboriginal death in custody. Finally, I seek leave to incorporate into Hansard an open letter from Mayor Erykah Kyle of the Palm Island Aboriginal Council to the Premier, which was released on Sunday—an eloquent plea to the government, the community and the media for better understanding of the circumstances of this dreadful incident.

Leave granted.

The document read as follows—

Sunday 28 November 2004

Open Letter from Palm Island Aboriginal Council to the Premier

This letter was presented to the Premier and other recipients at the Palm Island Council today.

cc Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Policy Minister Liddy Clark, Police Minister Judy Spence, Police Commissioner Bob Atkinson & Media

Dear Mr Beattie

The Palm Island Aboriginal Council, with the support of the Aboriginal Local Government Association of Queensland, would like to express their deep disappointment at the criticisms which have been levelled at our Councillors and community over the past 24 hours.

As you may be aware the Council has sent a response to your statement, `Premier calls for Palm Island Council to show leadership', to the media late yesterday.

The Council has been frustrated you have not seen fit to communicate with us directly on these matters before now.

Our hands have been tied for these past few days by the `State of Emergency' imposed upon us and our people are feeling under siege after seeing the various—and some incorrectly reported—media items yesterday on radio, television and print news.

A man has died in police custody. Our people are angry. We are all affected by this, including our Council members.

The following issues need to be resolved immediately:

1. The removal of these services from the island has been extreme and unnecessary.

There has been a mass exodus of services from the island. Of immediate concern is the lack of medical staff at the hospital. Negotiations to re-staff and restore full medical services to the island are of utmost priority.

For reasons it is difficult to understand teachers from our schools have also been evacuated from the island and we are concerned that our children will miss schooling as a result of this evacuation. What arrangements will be put in place to cater for our children between now and the end of the school year?

No fresh bread or milk has been delivered to the island since Friday morning which has been of great concern to parents on the island—when will these deliveries be restored?

2. The police have been more than heavy-handed in their dealings with the community and community people, including our children, are feeling terrorised. The heavily armed presence of 80 police is not necessary at this time and those extra police should leave the island as soon as possible so real order can be restored by the Council and the people they serve.

To date 13 people, including a minor, have been removed from the island and taken into police custody. Late last night three of those people were on suicide prevention watch. Yesterday the police systematically raided the homes of those they believe to be suspect over yesterday's events—we have had many reports of both children and old people being unnecessarily frightened and mistreated by the police while these raids have taken place.

We have had one report of a man who already had a broken bone being thrown to the ground in front of children and stomped on by police officers—this is terrorising our community people. Council has also had reports that Task Force officers are `running the streets' in full armoured uniform including balaclavas, and fully armed in some areas of our community. The island is otherwise calm, and has been for the past 24 hours, other than where these raids have taken place. The raids are scaring our people and adding to feelings of fear and uncertainty.

At no time have these heavily armed and numerous police ever had need to `fear for their lives', as reported by one media outlet. Police Commissioner Bob Atkinson should clarify and retract his statements to the contrary as soon as possible.

Despite the numbers of police currently on the island, the police have drawn Council's attention to a weapon missing from the police station and asked the Council to investigate this matter themselves. The only description they have offered is that the missing weapon is `high powered'. No explanation has been offered as to how or why this weapon was able to be removed from the police station by a member of our community.

The Council would like a guarantee there will be no police presence, or evidence of a police presence, at the funeral service of the young man who died when it occurs.

3. Alcohol has not played a role in any of the events of the past three days after the Palm Island Canteen was closed by the Palm Island Council on Tuesday. Statements by the Police Minister to the contrary should be retracted.

4. The declared State of Emergency has prevented our Council from taking up a leadership role.

Three members of our Council have not been able to return to the island as a result of the State of Emergency declared on the island. Council also understands more than 50 people were left stranded in Townsville on Friday evening after ferry services to the island were unnecessarily suspended and further concern has been caused by the inability of people to either get to or leave the island since then. When will our normal transportation services be resumed and what compensation will the government offer the innocent people who were affected by the suspension?

why were the police told to evacuate all white people and `any decent blacks' from the island?

The current status of the State of Emergency has not been communicated to the Council—no officer in charge has been identified and no certificate, as per the Public Safety Preservation Act (1986), has been issued.

5. The inability of Council to communicate directly with yourselves and/or the people able to make decisions about the issues outlined here has prevented us from taking on the leadership role you have accused us of lacking.

There were published (Townsville Bulletin, 23 Nov) calls for police and government representatives to come to the island to allay the concerns of our community about the death in custody as early as Tuesday this week which were ignored. Had the government heeded these calls and accepted the leadership of those who made these calls the events of later in the week would have been averted.

In regards to the bigger issues—the reasons for these current events—Council would like to make the following statements:

1. The young man this community has lost was know to be reliable and jovial, although generally of a quietly spoken and calm disposition. This young man was a hunter for the community and had never been in trouble with the law or the community. He was a fine example for our young people and admired for his character by our elders. His loss will be felt keenly by many of our people, particularly his family. Our people feel strongly that a grave injustice has occurred.

2. Deaths in Custody have been an issue in all our communities for many years—two deaths have occurred on DOGIT communities in the past two years and the systems in place for preventing these preventable deaths are inadequate. For 13 years there have been 297 recommendations for preventing deaths in custody, not nearly enough of them have been implemented.

Regardless of the causes of those injuries to the young man it is inexcusable that he was left unattended in the watch house until it was too late—the government and the police must accept blame for the current situation.

The Palm Island Council and community and all the Aboriginal people of Queensland call on the government yet again to re-visit the recommendations and implement all of them as soon as possible so the events of the past week never happen again.

3. Council has received reports that this is not the first time Police Sergeant Chris Hurley has had to be removed from a community because a similar series of incidents. If this is the case Council would like to know why Officer Hurley was re-assigned to another Aboriginal community without consideration.

3. There were no deaths or injuries as a result of events on Friday.

4. The Council is in no way to blame for the events of the past week.

In terms of a way forward Council would like to state that the people who make the decisions need to be coordinating with the Council to put processes in place to resolve these issues.

The way forward over the coming weeks and months will be difficult. Trust has been broken and needs to be restored. The people of Palm Island must be able to live in peace and with confidence there will be never be a repeat of the events of past week.

The way the government and authorities deal with the Council and the community in future should be respectful and on equal terms so all parties are able to take on their appropriate responsibilities with all lines of communication remaining open regardless of circumstance.

Erykah Kyle

Palm Island Mayor

Vince Mundraby

Interim President

Aboriginal Local Government Association of Qld