Queensland to pay $30 million in Palm Island class action

May 3, 2018
Cameron Doomadgee's funeral on Palm Island in 2004.

The Queensland government has reached a $30 million settlement with Palm Island residents in a class action in the Federal Court over the 2004 Palm Island riots that followed the death in police custody of Aboriginal man Cameron Doomadgee. But Doomadgee's family says no amount of money will alleviate the pain of losing him.

The state will also apologise to the community after a landmark racial discrimination case in which the Federal Court found police were racist in their response to riots that followed Doomagee's death.

Indigenous activist Lex Wotton launched the legal action in 2015 on behalf of 447 claimants.

Doomadgee died of massive internal injuries in a police cell on November 19, 2004. He was locked up for allegedly being drunk and a public nuisance, and at the time of his arrest had no visible injuries

Hours later, he was found dead with massive internal injuries, including broken ribs and a ruptured spleen and with his liver was so badly damaged it was almost cut in two.

When, a week later, Doomadgee's autopsy results were released, angry residents marched from the town square and burnt down the police station, court house and police houses. Queensland's then-Premier Peter Beattie declared a state of emergency and dozens of riot squad members were flown in to control the crowd.

Many people believed the arresting officer, Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley, murdered Doomadgee, but in 2007 he was acquitted of manslaughter.

Wotton said: "Everyone was angry. "Everyone in the end really wanted to know what really happened. And everyone also wanted a fair and impartial investigation into what really happened."

Wotton was later convicted of inciting a riot and served 19 months in jail before being released on parole in 2014.

He was awarded $220,000 in damages in December 2016 after the Federal Court agreed with Wotten’s claim that the islanders had been racially discriminated against during and after the unrest. He argued police had contravened the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth) in investigating Doomadgee's death, managing community concerns and responding to the protests.

In her 2016 ruling, Federal Court Justice Debbie Mortimer found police had acted "with impunity" and the Queensland Police Service's failure to suspend Hurley after Doomadgee's death was unlawful discrimination.

"I am satisfied the QPS … would not have had that attitude if this tragedy occurred in a remote, close-knit, but overwhelmingly non-Aboriginal community — for example, a pastoralist community in rural Queensland," she said.

"But on Palm Island, QPS commanding and investigative officers operated with a sense of impunity, impervious to the reactions and perceptions of Palm Islanders, and very much with an 'us and them' attitude."

Wotton said he is glad the class action has finally come to an end. "It did take a toll on me ... and I'm probably still suffering in some sense from it all now but I can move on," he said.

Doomadgee's cousin Alec said the community was still traumatised by his death and the events surrounding it.

"We will never move on. We will never forget our Cameron and no amount of money will change that," he said. "The community has suffered greatly. It's been a long road. It's a good day for the community and all the families who have been affected by the unfortunate death of my cousin.”

Wotten’s lawyer Stewart Levitt said: "This is an opportunity for a celebration. But the thing that does concern me is that people will be receiving substantial sums of money for the first time in their life. I just hope carpet baggers don't prey on them and lighten their pockets rapidly.

"I'd like to see [the Australian Securities and Investment Commission] keeping a close watch to see what happens to the Indigenous [people] to ensure they're not preyed upon by people with poor motives in respect to the sudden floods of funds that they're going to be receiving in Palm Island, where there's not even a bank branch."

Queensland Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships Jackie Trad said the government would work with the community on a way to recognise the apology.

"We do know that the events of the Palm Island riot so many years ago now have left a big scar on that community," she said.

Palm Island Mayor Alf Lacey said: "Hopefully that part of history will fade — I think it's really important there's an apology statement from the state government.

"From my end I certainly welcome the apology — it's about healing but it's also about moving on. I think it's really important a line is drawn in the sand and people move on."

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