Peter Beattie probably wishes that global warming would lead to Palm Island being submerged by the ocean. The troubled Indigenous community on the Island – and their interactions with police – have spelled intermittent political trouble for Beattie.
Early in 2005, Beattie was cleared by the Crime and Misconduct Commission of a bribery complaint brought against him by Palm Island Council. Beattie had forgiven a debt owed by the Council in return for community support for his plans to ease tensions with police. The death of Aboriginal man Mulrunji in November 2004 led to angry scenes, with the cop shop in flames, and Indigenous activist Murandoo Yanner threatening “payback”.
Acting State Coroner Christine Clements has now concluded the inquest into Mulrunji’s death in custody. She found that Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley caused Mulrunji’s death through an assault which split his liver in two. Legal considerations mean that Clements cannot recommend Hurley be prosecuted.
The findings have been referred to the DPP. But Clements has also made a range of strong recommendations designed to avoid future deaths in custody. The Palm Island community, and other Indigenous leaders, have welcomed the outcome of the inquest as a step towards justice.
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It’s likely that different evidentiary standards between an inquest and a criminal trial will see the DPP not proceed with charges. Beattie faces an unenviable political position in all this.
The Police Union is a powerful force in state politics. In Judy Spence, Beattie has finally found a Minister the Union is happy with, though civil libertarians would say too happy. Spence is being reported this morning as describing many of the recommendations as “unworkable” and the Union has charged that the inquest was a political witch hunt.
But, similar to the Noongar decision in WA, Beattie faces strong pressure to act on the recommendations from the Indigenous community and within the ALP. At this stage, Beattie is talking due process in terms of the DPP and studying the recommendations. Of course, many are not dissimilar from those made by the Deaths in Custody Royal Commission 15 years ago and still not implemented.
Beattie will need all his political skills to navigate these choppy waters. One of his first post-election announcements was the abolition of a separate Department of Indigenous Affairs. He might be regretting that now. A Minister to take the heat on this one could be useful, particularly if Island tensions erupt again should charges not be laid.