January 04, 2007 | Graham

Mulrunji – it’s time for some more housekeeping.

With the appointment of Sir Laurence Street to look into the DPP’s decision not to prosecute we’ll get some genuinely knowledgeable insights into this matter. Hopefully his decision will be accepted, even if he does find that a trial should not proceed.
In the meantime, I think a lot of the anger has been misdirected, and that to some extent we’ve witnessed a type of reverse racism where the onus of argumentative proof is up-ended because a member of a persecuted minority is the victim. Would this furore have occurred if Mulrunji had been white? I don’t think so. Could this have happened to a white person? Absolutely. The problem of police bastardisation is much broader than race.
Various participants have combined to make the issue more fragrant than it needed to be. Judge Shanahan, who retired because of a “conflict of interest”, should have been able to foresee his problem. DPP Clare was unwise to state that Mulrunji had died because of an accident. (She should have merely said that a properly instructed jury was not likely to find beyond reasonable doubt that he died because he was assaulted). In the latest misfortune to hit the inquiry online posters are pointing out that Clare’s maiden name appears to have been “Hurley”. It won’t matter if there is no relationship, it will become an urban myth.
From what I’ve seen, Clare was probably correct in her assessment. The evidence of the only eye witness who says Mulrunji was assaulted is unreliable, the medical evidence doesn’t support assault, and the police investigators acted improperly and miscarried the investigation.
I’m not arguing that no-one should be punished. The way the police, the police force and the police minister have handled this matter has been appalling. The government’s probably quite happy for Leanne Claire to take the stick and divert attention from the fact that despite employment matters requiring a much lower hurdle of proof to be met than murder or manslaughter charges, Hurley, and the incompetents who manage and investigated him, continue in their jobs. The coroner’s finding might not stand up “beyond reasonable doubt”, but it would be a good starting point for “on the balance of probabilities”.
They’d also be happy that no-one is asking how it is that so long after the Deaths in Custody Royal Commission the police are still locking up Aborigines for drunk and disorderly behaviour when that was pinpointed as one of the reasons there were so many aboriginal deaths in custody. The problem of deaths in custody is not that Aborigines die at greater rates than other ethnicities when in custody, but that larger numbers of them are arrested in the first place, so they die in absolutely greater numbers.
This issue is much broader than Mulrunji and if it is going to do any good for anyone, it needs to be used as a catalyst to get change in the way that the police do their job, rather than another opportunity for civil libertarians, aboriginal activists and others to merely vent. Senior officers ought to be sacked and the police minister should also be called to account. Strategically it offers an opportunity to force real change in the police force. It’s been almost seventeen years since the Fitzgerald Commission of Inquiry. Things have improved, but not nearly enough. It’s time for some more house-keeping.

Posted by Graham at 10:00 pm | Comments (3) |
Filed under: Australian Politics


  1. I understand what your saying , but I don’t think ‘reverse racism’ is the right description. It’s certainly true that the same thing could have happened to a white person, and it is rare to put a policeman on trial, let alone convicted, in such circumstances. However, the major historical injustices towards Aboriginal people from the law and justice system over many years add significantly to the sense of grievance now. The acute awareness that Indigenous people have of that history (which not enough of the rest of us know enough about), and the fact that many of them still live daily with its legacy is bound to inform peope’s reaction. I think ‘reacting from experience’ is a better term than ‘reverse; racism’.
    The real reverse scenario isn’t if Mulrunji had been white, it’s if Hurley (or any policeman) had been injured or killed by a black man. I may be overly cynical, but I don’t just find it implausible to think the same outcome could have occured in such a scenario, I find it totally impossible.
    One immediate contrast is comparing how Mulrunji’s detah has been handled compared to the massive police reaction to the subsequent riot on Palm Island, the draconian bail conditions and the state government appeal to ensure jail sentences even for a first offender who pleaded guilty to involvement in the riot (but whose main individual actions apart from being part of the threatening mob appeared to be to throw a rock or two).
    I haven’t seen any terms of reference, but from what I can tell this ‘review’ is just a very narrow ‘seeking a second opinion’. If that’s the case, it’s quite possible it will just say that there’s not enough admissable evidence to support a conviction beyond reasonable doubt. From what I’ve seen (and of course no one knows what other evidence the DPP relied on), it was certainly possible to reach a reasonable conclusion that charges shouldn’t be laid. But I think a major part of the problem was the extra ‘finding’ of the DPP that it could only have been from an accident – this is much harder to rationalise given the Coroner’s finding and the evidence before them.
    It may be supportable to not lay charges, but I don’t agree with you that “the medical evidence doesn’t support assault.” From what I’ve read of the medical evidence to the Coroner’s Inquest, it is not conclusive either way. However, it is not inconsistent with the fatal injury being inflicted by certain types of assault. I suspect no one will ever know for sure what really happened except Sgt Hurley.
    I agree we need to try to ensure the situation leads to major meaningful change, and also that the many other errors and dodgy processes along the way are not just ignored.
    The high imprisonment rate of Indigenous people is also scandalous. The Beattie government made a pledge to reduce this substantially, but it has instead increased. Their plan to build a huge new prison precinct out at Gatton and substantially increase the overall number of prison places is no doubt going to make this even worse.

    Comment by Andrew Bartlett — January 5, 2007 @ 10:04 pm

  2. I was thrilled to learn that the policeman involved in the death is to be held accountable.
    I was not thrilled to learn that fellow police officers some how found it a threat to their integrity that one of theirs had challenged.
    For a short time there I thought the Premier was to be found wanting is that he almost washed his hands of ensuring justice was not only done but seen to be done.
    Aboriginals have been treated as kicking balls for far too long and even if much of the drama arising out of alcohol abuse, who introduced them to it in the first place.
    On another matter I see that some think The Age Newspaper is having a go at “aboriginal bashing” with its tenacious follow up with the Geoff Clark being found guilty of rape. I thought it unusual to be successfully held accountable after so long but obviously the Court was privy to information we the general public were not.
    Susan Nicol (Age 6/2/07) of Wellington Point, Queensland was angry because Mr Clark’s activities resulted in the loss of ATSIC. But in fairness if any man is guilty of rape, be he black or white he should be publicly shamed.
    No one believes all Aboriginals are rapists by definition any more than any other race and sometimes color is convenient to call up when one feels threatened.
    I believe Ms Nicol needs to understand that the survival of ATSIC should not be equated with picking on black people because of Mr Clark as an individual. The Organisation was always bigger than one man.
    I think if the truth be told what is happening now is the culture of the Governments we’re dealing with and with or without Mr Clark, ASTIC would have folded. The authorities want all people to be self sufficient and they don’t want to discriminate in that.
    There is evidence everywhere in our culture of the Aboriginal influence and I’m sure many indigenous people would never have needed ASTIC to fall back on as a crutch…..one of the feistiest girls I knew was an Aboriginal and no one was going to make her a victim.
    Perhaps it is easier for me as a white observer to generalize about Aboriginals problems, and accordingly, I don’t mean to be offensive. I just think when I look at films like the Ten Canoes, and the Rabbit Proof Fencing the people themselves have a beautiful spirit which shouldn’t be allowed to be bullied into submissiveness by a white man’s sometimes mistaken sense of superiority.
    I can readily admit though that Aboriginals in general are sometimes treated badly much to my shame. I just try never to do anything personally that contributes to that badness.
    I marched in the Sorry March and felt useless in spite of my intentions.
    Mary Walsh

    Comment by Mary Walsh — February 7, 2007 @ 4:16 pm

  3. Discrimination is evident when there appears to be an imbalance between when a white person commits a crime, and a black man, in the final outcome of sentences.
    I agree that the scenario would have been entirely different if the black man had killed the white man, and most surely the book would have been thrown at him without a second thought. At least there would have been none of the “consideration” that was given to white man’s legal position. The police force would have been on its platform within the hour demanding protection for its men. No such courtesy was given to the prisoners to protect them from the police.
    All power corrupts, and the legal system has allowed death in custody to go unaccountable for far too long. If any person goes into a confined space in a good healthy condition and comes out dead, the cause absolutely must be investigated. It is what makes our legal system different from a dictatorship. Accountability keeps everyone honest.
    According to my understanding of the law, the anti discrimination legislation which the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity administers “defines discrimination as less favourable treatment than another person, and the reason for the treatment is a person’s sex, race or disability”
    The Commission advises it can only investigate a complaint of human rights violation in which the subject matter of the complaint arises from an act or practice of the Commonwealth.
    So in order to ensure the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity works for all Australians, why hasn’t the Federal Government stepped in to protect the human rights and equal opportunities for indigenous people along with every one else?.
    I sometimes feel we are following the American trend that black people are somehow seen as second class citizens even in their own country, and an uncaring society allows this to happen?
    Indigenous people don’t really “need” special treatment I feel, they just need to be given equal rights to all others.
    If we manage as a country to develop harmonious relationships with hundreds of diverse cultures successfully what makes it more difficult when it comes to Aboriginals.
    Mary Walsh

    Comment by Mary Walsh — February 8, 2007 @ 8:00 am

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