Still sings loudly


Gone for a Song: A Death in Custody on Palm Island

By Jeff Waters

ABC Books, 2008

246pages, $24.95

In the light of the trial and conviction of Lex Wotton on October 24 for supposedly rioting after the killing of Mulrunji at the police watch-house on Palm Island in November 2004, Jeff Waters' book, Gone for a Song, is still timely and interesting.

In part the book's value stems from its mood. Waters is a journalist but has refused to remain dispassionate: "I am still angry, and I hope you become so too", he says. The story he tells justifies this.

Waters discusses the circumstances of Mulrunji's death and the two coronial inquests into it. But he also expands from this to concise accounts of the record of race relations in Queensland, the history of Palm Island as a state concentration camp for Indigenous people resisting their oppression, and current social conditions on the island.

Waters contrasts the jubilation of Palm Islanders on hearing that justice might beachieved because of the Queensland deputy coroner's finding that Mulrunji's death was caused by police officer Chris Hurley, with the police union's influential resistance to an officer being charged. Waters notes, "the issue was black and white".

What Waters says about the police investigation of Mulrunji's killing in Gone for a Song is very important. He also notes the coronial ban placed on the publication of some evidence related to the case.

I arrived in northern Queensland two years ago, when the campaign to force Hurley to trial was at its height. I attended part of Hurley's trial for manslaughter in Townsville.

I had felt that while there was clearly a case against Hurley which needed to be tested in court, police failings in the collection of evidence would make obtaining a jury conviction difficult. Waters systematically shows how these failures occurred.

One explanation for the failures in police action commonly offered is that Hurley and one of the investigating police, Darren Robinson, were friends.

At Wotton's trial, Robinson admitted he had lied about the existence of witnesses in an unrelated investigation of Hurley about an allegation that he had run over an Aboriginal woman's foot.

Waters also makes pertinent points about the repression carried out by police special forces on the island. The Special Emergency Response Team members wore no identification and, therefore, could not be held accountable for their actions, which included the forcible entry and search of homes and handcuffing persons who were not suspects.

In the concluding chapter, Waters gives substantial space to arguments for land privatisation and related measures on Palm Island and in other Indigenous communities. But he also provides some examples of contrary views, and expresses caution about its cultural effects, as well as opposing its unilateral imposition on communities.