Legacy of racist past

PETER Beattie accompanied his wife Heather to Pormpuraaw Aboriginal community, south of Weipa on western Cape York, six years ago. Old women hugged his wife and cried. She danced in a corroboree staged in her honour because she was coming home, and these were the women who had nursed her and her two sisters as young children.
Heather Halliday left Pormpuraaw as an eight-year-old in 1962. Her father was an Anglican priest and her mother a nursing sister, and the family of three young girls lived there for five years.

It was after that emotional day that Beattie, the Queensland Premier, said: "If, when I leave politics, indigenous affairs in Queensland have not been sorted out, I will consider I have failed."

Reminded of his statement yesterday, he replied: "Yes, and that still stands. But the reality is that it has been a lot tougher than I thought. We have had 200 years of failed policy and it is taking time to effect change the way I wanted. I would argue we have done a lot of things. For instance, the alcohol management plans are not perfect but we are making progress, decreasing violence and making communities more peaceful."

Beattie points to the law and order initiatives that he contends form the basis for getting remote communities back on track and making them safe places for women and children. But, as he enters his fourth term as Premier, it is law and order and violence that have presented him with one of the greatest dilemmas of his stewardship.

He has suffered national condemnation for his Labor Government's handling of the 2004 death of Mulrunji Doomadgee, an Aboriginal man who died violently in a police cell on Palm Island.

A subsequent coronial inquest found that actions by the arresting officer, Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley, were responsible for his death.

Then that file was passed to Director of Public Prosecutions Leanne Clare, and two weeks ago she declared there was insufficient evidence to charge Hurley with anything; she described Doomadgee's death as "a tragic accident".

The public outcry was so intense from lawyers, indigenous leaders and Palm Islanders that Attorney-General Kerry Shine ordered that Clare's opinion be reviewed by an independent expert on criminal law. That person is yet to be appointed after the first appointee, former District Court chief judge Pat Shanahan, resigned on Wednesday before his review began.

That resignation followed a revelation in The Australian that Shanahan was on the panel that appointed Clare to the DPP position in 1999, attracting assertions that the former judge had a conflict of interest in reviewing Clare's work.

Beattie maintains his commitment to righting the accumulated disadvantage of indigenous Australians has a much sounder ideological base than family sentiment. Even his strongest detractors concede that he is trying, but the outcomes have been scant.

"Heather's mother is 82 and I asked her what Aboriginal people were like back in the 1950s and '60s when she and her husband lived on the missions," the Premier tells Inquirer. "She says they were beautiful people and she has trouble understanding the violence that occurs. That wasn't there in her day, but neither was the grog.

"Grog has just bloody shattered these communities, and in the end we have to do something about it. Europeans introduced grog to Aboriginal people and we cannot now turn our backs on what we did. You cannot just turn around and say that blacks can't handle their grog. We actually took it in there. They were happy before we did that.

"How long has it taken for Europeans to come to terms with alcohol? It has decimated these communities and we now have to fix it.

"It is at the core of the problems on Palm Island, even the death of Mulrunji. But we are at a stage where the Doomadgee family deserve to have closure on the death of this man, and they are entitled to that in the same way that Sergeant Hurley is.

"Any death in custody is a dramatic thing, and in this case justice has to be seen to be done, and that is why the Attorney-General has sought an independent review of Leanne Clare's decision."

Asked straight out for his opinion on how Mulrunji died, Beattie says he has not had the opportunity to read the transcripts of evidence, so could not comment. "What I do know is that we need to have a clear message from this: that justice has to be done and be seen to be done," he says.

"I acknowledge that some of these issues on Palm Island are incredibly difficult. Palm Island was a dumping ground for indigenous Queenslanders by both Labor and National Party governments in our racist past.

"People were dragged from their communities and their families and sent as troublemakers to Palm, dumped there. If ever there was a blight on Australia's history, it is Palm Island.

"What we have to try and do is rebuild it, and ... I will explain the frustration I have with this. Everybody thought land rights was going to empower Aboriginal people and in some places it has, like at Century mine in the Gulf, where Aboriginal owners share in the benefits of the project.

"But land rights was not the be-all and end-all for Aborigines. You will remember former Nationals premier Rob Borbidge was running around after the Wik judgment saying land rights would spoil everybody's rights, that mining exploration would cease. He was out there saying you will lose your back bloody yard. That was just plain wrong, and now, for instance, we have a mining industry where indigenous people get a fair go at it."

The Premier says a big stumbling block on Palm Island was the refusal of previous local councils to work with the Government on land issues, even to provide land to establish an ambulance station. "The newly elected council on Palm Island has stopped that nonsense, provided the circuit breaker, and these things are going ahead," he says.

"I considered that things on Palm were progressing at a reasonable but slow pace. I always thought it would be a generational thing. It wouldn't happen in 10 years.

"But the impetus for change - controlling the grog, providing education, housing - the only one with the ideas that work is Noel Pearson. He is providing the leadership on this stuff, but there are not enough elders standing up on these communities and supporting him.

"If it wasn't for the women on the communities, we would be in a real bloody mess."

Beattie is furious with several of the big breweries in Australia, whose assistance he sought a year ago on funding detoxification facilities on Cape York.

"Not one of them even replied," he says. "I think the breweries in this country should put their hand in their pockets and contribute towards these diversionary centres and provide some assistance.

"This is about giving indigenous people a benefit, and they should help, and they should also fund some educational scholarships for young indigenous kids. Frankly, how we are going to get through this cultural nightmare, I am buggered if I know."

He has moved to solve the long-running dispute over ownership of the local Palm Island general store and offered to transfer ownership from his Government to the local council and spend $1million doing it up; he insists that the council put out the running of the store to open tender.

As well, he has offered to barge all high school students from Palm Island on Monday mornings to Townsville, where they will be boarded at a high school for the week and be taken home on Friday afternoons. It is expected the council will gladly accept both offers.

And on the wider question of why, following his September 9 state election success, he abolished the indigenous affairs department, Beattie says it was done because "it just wasn't working" and mainstreaming the requirements of indigenous communities, such as housing, was much more effective.

"That is why I have given ministerial responsibility for communities to Warren Pitt the Communities Minister. He is a strong, senior minister who will argue for what is required. In the past, whenever anything was required, the department was the one that advocated it and the rest of the bureaucracy largely ignored them.

"The only way indigenous people are going to get a fair go is through mainstreaming. They are now full-blown councils and they have to behave like grown-ups.

"My experience is this: you have a department of Aboriginal affairs and they come through the door looking for funding for housing, and bureaucrats say, 'This is indigenous, their housing does not have to be up to the standard of others.'

"The bureaucrats will deny this and say it is not the case, but that is bullshit, it is what happens.

"The only way we can get uniformity is the way we are doing it now with health, education, housing, law and order. Pitt is a bit of a hardhead, he likes Aboriginal people and is not one who has a racist view about the world."