Indigenous Law Bulletin
compiled by Catherine Hunter
Our condolences to the family of James Wharton, a long-standing and valued member of the Aboriginal Land Claim Tribunal. Mr Wharton participated in two hearings, the Aboriginal land claim to Birthday Mountain in 1995 and the claim to Starke National Park completed in December 2006.
The New South Wales (‘NSW’) Premier, Morris Iemma, and the Treasurer, Michael Costa, have refused to provide funding to address issues of child sexual abuse in Indigenous communities identified in the report, Breaking the Silence: Creating the Future. The taskforce that undertook the report and three other ministers called for the NSW Government to provide funding of between $20 million and $40 million. Professor Chris Cunneen of the University of NSW, and a member of the taskforce, noted that without the funding, agencies would be forced to implement the necessary changes within their existing budgets. The Opposition noted the willingness of the NSW Government to provide $25 million to the Lane Cove Tunnel Company to compensate for delays and road closures.
The Federal and South Australian Government have contributed funds to the establishment of the Ceduna Indigenous Family Violence Strategy, intended to break the cycle of violence through direct interventions with perpetrators, building stronger families and community education. The project includes a safe house, training of community workers, and family support programs.
Another riot has occurred as a result of an alleged assault against an Indigenous person in custody in a remote part of Queensland. In the town of Aurukun, rumours of the alleged assault resulted in a crowd of 300 people. Police said that members of the crowd attempted to break into the police station with an axe and that one officer fired a gun into the ground to disperse the crowd. As a result, more than 35 police were flown to the town and the Police and Crime Misconduct Commission is investigating the alleged assault.
The man who shared a cell with Mulrunji at the Palm Island lock up when Mulrunji died in custody has committed suicide. The man was a witness to the death in custody and died just hours before the arrival of former NSW Chief Justice Sir Laurence Street who is conducting an independent review of the material on Mulrunji’s death. Lawyer Stewart Levitt, who is representing Mulrunji’s family, has said that pressure from police may have led to the man’s suicide.
The review by former NSW Chief Justice Sir Laurence Street into the material on the death in custody of Mulrunji in the Palm Island lock up has recommended that Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley face a judicial process. This will be the first time a police officer has faced court in Australia charged with an Aboriginal death in custody. This has marked the conclusion of a series of alleged cover-ups and denial of justice for Mulrunji, his family, and the Palm Island community beginning with the riots in response to his death in 2004. Despite the findings of the Acting State Coroner, Christine Clements, that Mulrunji should not have been taken into custody, that he was dead as the result of an altercation with Senior Sergeant Hurley, and that Hurley’s treatment of Mulrunji was callous and deficient, Queensland Director of Public Prosecutions Leanne Clare SC found there was insufficient evidence to charge Hurley with an offence. In comparison, Sir Laurence found that a properly instructed jury could find a case of manslaughter against Senior Sergeant Hurley.
Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation (‘ANTaR’) welcomed the recommendation by Sir Laurence Street regarding the death of custody of Mulrunji. National Director, Gary Highland, said, however, that there were still unanswered questions regarding the inadequate initial police investigation into the death in custody, and whether any action will be taken against the officers responsible. Mr Highland called for the Beattie Government to commission an independent, public inquiry into the relations between Indigenous people and police in Queensland.
Queensland police have asked for increased funding for remote Indigenous communities and for the State Government to implement recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (‘RCIADIC’) which called for 24-hour supervision of Indigenous people in custody, video surveillance and the removal of ‘danger points’.
Despite the mining boom in Western Australia, Indigenous people are not among those benefiting. Bryan Wyatt, Goldfields Land Council Executive Director, reports that while there are hundreds of small and medium land use agreements between Indigenous people and mining companies, they have not translated into employment. Wyatt reports that approximately 50 out of a population of 3000 are employed in the mining sector. Aboriginal unemployment in Kalgoorlie is around 15 per cent. A study by Ciaran O’Faircheallaigh, Griffith University professor, investigated 45 Indigenous Land Use Agreements (‘ILUAs’) with mining and government partners, and found that 50 per cent of the agreements should never have been entered into, or were deals that have delivered few benefits.
Northern Territory Local Government Minister, Elliot McAdam, announced reforms to the operation of local councils to ensure the provision of services to those in remote areas of the Territory. A report undertaken in March 2006 found that the councils carry a heavy administrative burden, have a high turnover of staff and lack expertise and resources. The reforms would result in the 63 existing councils being merged into nine regional bodies or shire councils. Mr McAdam said that the changes would not take power from the four main Land Councils.
Queensland Premier Peter Beattie has agreed to investigate the provision of 24-hour surveillance of remote watch-house cells in the State. Mr Beattie had formerly opposed the idea as being too expensive when it was recommended by the Queensland Police Union in response to the decision to charge Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley in relation to the death in custody of Mulrunji.