The Coroner’s report into the death of an Aboriginal man, Mulrunji, in the Palm Island lockup in 2004 has found that his death was the result of a bashing by the police officer in charge of the station. Since the case may result in a criminal prosecution, I don’t intend to discuss issues of guilt or innocence in relation to Mulrunji’s death.

What is clear as a result of the case is that the system failed in all sorts of respects. The initial police investigation was a farce, with the investigators having dinner with the office under investigation, and other aspects were no better. Even in the absence of criminal charges, there’s more than enough in the coroner’s report to suggest that the officer should be stood down until the matter is fully resolved.

More importantly, the government seems to have done very little to implement the recommendations of the 1991 inquiry into deaths in custody and, by inaction, has let things go backwards putting at risk the modest gains of the 1990s. The dismissive attitude of Police Minister Judy Spence along with the government’s post-election decision (not mentioned in the campaign) to scrap the Indigenous Policy portfolio, suggests that things are only going to get worse.

There aren’t any easy answers to the problems of drunkenness and crime in Aboriginal communities. But that’s not a reason for ignoring those problems, and letting things slide back to the worst days of the past.

33 thoughts on “Mulrunji

  1. Agree fully. The comments from the QPU also indicate the attitude of the police union needs to be looked at properly as well. This whole sorry episode brings no credit to anyone involved.

  2. John;
    using Queensland as an example (but other States are in my opinion no better) there has been in my opinion evidence for major failures of administrative leadership and accountability in if I remember correctly, health, child protection and now police. (you may have other examples).

    Does this not indicate that there is a real problem with our ‘model’ of the accountability and administration of Government agencies in addition to, and responsible for, the problems in individual agencies.

  3. This incident is really a symptom of a much larger malaise hinted at here,10117,20496678-1246,00.html?from=public_rss
    Increasingly our police forces are powerless to act,10117,20496663-1246,00.html?from=public_rss
    and as a result their frustrations boil over from time to time. Nowadays you can swear at and abuse a police officer with total immunity from the judging classes who constantly take the side of a growing number of ferals in our society. Unfortunately they are the second and third generation of mostly Centrelink and social worker fathering, of which aboriginals are the most telling example. We are now reaping the outcomes of well meaning liberal progressives, from decades of their stupidity. Even sleepy old Adelaide now has its own no go suburbs to match its bigger cousins. We can’t build and staff enough prisons to cope nowadays and the common or garden villains know it. The Qld govt probably understand all this and don’t want to take it out on their overstressed coppers. They’ve got enough recruiting problems as it is.

  4. Observa, there’s a lot of assertions in that first post, but precious little facts to back them up.

    How many ‘judging classes’ side with the so called ‘ferals’? What are ‘ferals’ anyway, the lexicon I grew up with basically defined them as a sort of hardcore hippie, and I should know, I was perilously close at once stage to being one!

    How many ‘ferals’ are there? How do we know they’re growing? This seems odd to me when crime rates have been steadily falling since the recession, that one small area of crime-producing society would be blooming…

    How do you know they are second and third generation welfare recipients? How is that even possible when Centrelink has only been around since the nineties?? Furthermore, we all receive large amounts of government welfare, so far as I’m aware it hasn’t incited abusive behaviour in me…

    If these ‘ferals’ were raised by social workers? How in god’s name could there be so many of them? Do you actually know what social workers do, Observa? I can assure they don’t really ‘raise’ kids as such, and even if you looked at the number of Australian juveniles that have frequent contact with social workers, those numbers would be very small, and an even smaller proportion would be involved in harrassment and abuse cases, let alone assaulting an officer.

    In regards to prisons, so far as I’m aware (and I don’t really know what the story in QLD is) prison intake levels are fine.

    Finally, I’m sorry dude, but kicking someone so hard it kills them – for whatever reason – is not “frustration boiling over from time to time”. That you would dismiss it as such disturbs me.

    If you are going to have a response to this please – whatever it is – try to make it as reasoned and reasonable as John’s post. This generalised and frankly bigoted op-ed does no one – cops, ‘ferals’, courts – any good.

  5. The most important recommendations of RCIADIC not to have been pursued relate to public drunkenness, which was to have been decriminalised. The Royal Commission found that watch houses were inappropriate places in which to place people whose primary risk was to themselves.

    The reasons why there was no action taken on these recommendations are many, but most of them can be seen in sharp relief in the assumptions underlying Observa’s post. According to the assumptions informing Observa and her many confreres, a few deaths are but a small price to pay for not having to be confronted by the sight of drunken Aborigines – or indeed white derelicts – in public places. It is the role of police, apparently, to prevent the delicate sensibilities of the middle classes from being assaulted by evidence of the existence of another world and, heaven forbid, being forced to ask questions about their own complicity in dispossession and misery.

    This is why the Aboriginal ‘communities’ like Palm Island were created in the first place and people coerced into living on them – out of sight, out of mind. And why they ‘communities’ were located in places that had no conceivable economic value at the time – such things were the natural property of the colonists. It is to be remembered that the final vestiges of the Queensland legislation that removed from indigenous citizens rights available to the rest of society was only repealed in the mid-1980s. This last bit was the legal ability of the Queensland government to pay indigenous workers on communities below-award wages, btw. Up until the mid-1970s, residents of ‘communities’ were forbidden to operate their own bank accounts and had to seek permission of managers to cross the community border for any reason. Absconders could be – and frequently were – arrested and forcibly returned. Of course, according to the popular mythology put about among us white folks, all this happened 200 years ago, we should all move on, and no apology is needed.

    Alan Ramsay in today’s SMH offers a useful ready reckoner to detect racist assumptions about the present case. He quotes a lawyer for the bereaved Palm Island family. Imagine, if you will, the reverse outcome of the scuffle that led, according to the Coroner, to the death. The Aboriginal man gets up and the police sergeant is left unattended to die in agony. Would the Aboriginal man be moved to a congenial location and continue in his State government employment? Would the Premier and the Police Minister speak up in his defence, citing natural justice? Would the likes of Observa be posting about the many provocations to which Aboriginal people are subject, and the need to let off steam from time to time?

    I note that Mike Reynolds, new Speaker of the Queensland Legislative Assembly and Parliamentary representative of Palm Island, has broken the Omerta code of Queensland Labor politicians and demanded the suspension of the police sergeant. Reynolds’s action may well present Beattie with some unwelcome political challenges, considering his reelection was primarily based on a carefully crafted image of unity. For my money, though, Reynolds’s courageous outspokenness shows just how far Peter Beattie has moved from the principled young lawyer fighting the cynicism and corruption of the ALP old guard he was in 1980. A career modelled on Napoleon the pig, it would seem.

  6. What a load of utter bull***, Observa. So Mulrunji was beaten to death because the poor policeman had been harrased by criminal-loving lawyers supporting social-worker fathered lumpenproletariat, eh? Facts such that Murunji had been married for ten years and was one of the few people on Palm Island with a job, that the policeman involved had been posted to Palm Island after he’d had “between 20 and 30” complaints of brutality dismissed by the Police Commisioner – none of them enter your world, do they?

    I suggest you read the coroner’s report before you write such crap again.

  7. Echoing alpaca, can you enumerate “the modest gains of the 1990s”? My own impression is that there weren’t any.

  8. I welcome the opportunity to here embrace (in a metaphoric sense), Derrider Derider. The terse post is a killer punch, as to the discussion here.
    One thing, though. Whilst agreeing overwhelming with the above post, I will nonetheless stick my scrawny neck out here and dispute that the police have no right to “bust” someone (white or black), for aggressive or abusive drunkness.
    Having said that, I would say most people have heard stories over the years of drunks and others being “worked over”, sometimes fatally, by coppers “down in the cells”. In a civilized society, any requirement for police to “bust” someone for bad behaviour DOESN’T extend to the comprehensive “busting” or rupturing of the person involved’s liver or spleen!
    And, whilst on the subject of Aboriginal Affairs, depressing to observe yet another timid ALP state government fllowing the Fed govt lead, and taking another skulking, ignoble step backwards, this time over in Perth.

  9. You or me did that, even if we were on duty in our stressful and valuable job, and we’d be charged with GBH as minimum and be battling to make bail. The poor copper here, he gets to keep working a couple years at present job, and then keeps going behind a desk. Something stinks.

  10. This situation is no different to the accidental death of a loudmouth, aggressive, drunken, whitefella like David Hookes. In both cases their deaths were tragic for their friends and loved ones but were contributed to in large part by their own disgraceful behaviour. There was no intention to kill them for that behaviour but that was the end result of similar circumstances. If friends and acquaintances of Hookes decided that they didn’t like the verdict on the bouncer and rioted, burning down the local police station and rocking police, I’d want them pursued to the full extent of the law as the Palm Island criminals. For some reason here Deputy Coroner Christine Clements thinks black skin should give you special legal dispensation. As well she recommends all prisoners now be supervised in custody. As the police union rightly point out, with that recommendation, she is an off the planet liberal with an axe to grind.

    If you are going about your lawful peaceable business and a police officer or security personnel pick on you for no reason and you are injured or killed as a result, then I say throw the book at them. Strangely enough I’ve yet to hear of such an unprovoked case, but according to the usual suspects that’s always the case with overrepresented aboriginals in these matters.

  11. Oh and patrick can I say don’t be obtuse and read between the lines of the article I linked to. We have the police spokesman describing a leafy, latte operation with no probs(arrests?) whatsoever, whereas witnesses are describing another world altogether of heads crashing through glass windows and running street battles. Who are we to believe? Hint boyoh- you don’t get the STAR force out of bed for late night training exercises. Sheesh! What do the authorities think we are? Secondly don’t give me that crap about crime statistics. Firstly we have a much older popn than when the Whitlam govt embarked on a huge social experiment with sitdown money for all sorts of poor social behaviour and furthermore we (our police and community) have to tolerate an awful lot more bad behaviour these days. You can begin with graffiti, vandalism and torching schools for starters. In fact the SA State govt is so embarrassed about the last one the SA Auditor General no longer keeps stats on it. (They’re bussing kids from Coober Pedy to Roxby Downs now after giving up trying to keep up with the arsonists) Yes I can remember back doors being left open rather than the acquaintance by the tram line who is installing a 24 hr monitored alarm system after the latest $13,000 combined burglary and damages bill. The insurers won’t insure him again without it, albeit the premiums are horrible now. Oh and I had occasion last week to visit the public hospital, where as an 18 yr old with an extra knee from a motorcycle accident, they put it all to rights. Into casualty again, only this time it was bullet proof glass and security doors to enter casualty where Chubb Security guards equalled the number of doctors and nurses. Some of them stand guard outside special security cells within the shiny casualty dept, built for our modern clientele. I don’t remember any of that as a lad and it aint old timers disease setting in just yet boyoh.

  12. What a life as an real true intellectual conservative. After a leisurely read of Plato, Scruton and Strauss and penning some words on the evils of the 1960s some afternoon entertainment kicking someone to death, even better if you can arrange it so they take a time to die and you can listen. These are rare pleasures but there are expensive videos on the internet perhaps or else you just read the news and fantasise and get all aquiver. The war on the enlightenment is winning many victories.

  13. JQ,
    Thanks for the link. Lazy of me not to look it up myself. But now I’ve done a little more research.

    Figure 3 of the report does show a declining trend, but only since the late ’90s. Also it refers only to prison deaths. A large majority of custodial deaths occur in hospitals, public places and on private property (Table 35). Actually, looking at the raw data presented in Table 24, it’s hard to see any trend at all for indigenous deaths in police custody.

    Moreover deaths in ‘custody-related operations’ are on the rise. Although there is no break-down by ethnicity, Figure 8 shows no declining trend in ‘deaths in police custody or custody-related operations by year, 1990–2004’:

  14. Hmm. I just plotted Table 24 on a graph. It shows a rising trend of indigenous deaths in custody since 1990 and a (very slightly) falling trend for non-indigenous deaths.

  15. Hookes was hit hard once. His head hit the ground hard. The bouncer was tried and acquitted of manslaughter. The jury deliberated for five days.

    Mulranji was kicked until his liver split in two. Unlike Hookes, Mulranji suffered a prolonged, violent attack. Mulranji died as a direct result of the damage done to him in the course of the attack. Hookes died as a result of an indirect but not unforeseeable consequence of the attack. Will Hurley face a jury? How long would that jury take to arrive at its decision?

  16. Observa, the coroner said nothing *at all* about the riots that followed the death – it was not her job to comment on them, and she didn’t.

    Despite what I said about Hurley, though, a properly instructed jury may not convict him, and this is probably as it should be. They could not be told of his past record, and the prosecution would find it harder to prove things beyond get reasonable doubt – coroners operate at a civil standard (“balance of probabilities”) of proof.

    Once again, I suggest you read the coroner’s report at

  17. Katz’s characterisation is exact. It’s also worth mentioning the contrasting media and public reactions to the two events.

    Hookes’s death initiated a frenzy of talkback radio and newspaper comment throughout the nation demanding greater scrutiny of crowd controller [bouncer] licensing, although as it turned out there had been no offence committed. The individual in the frame had to go into hiding following death threats and I understand has not worked in the industry since.

    The Palm Island death and subsequent riot initiated, by contrast, not demands to restrain police, but a mild flurry of demands for more police intervention in indigenous communities with less obtrusive oversight by the likes of the Crime and Misconduct Commission. Premier Beattie’s main concern seemed to be to to muzzle the Palm Island Council, and when that failed, to disband it.

    Hookes had a well-known history as an obnoxious drunk, but that was hushed up just as his philandering was whitewashed. Mulrunji had a clean record up to the day of his arrest, but was characterised as another drunken blackfella.

    Observa’s finding of no difference between the two events seems to require substantial revision.

  18. As I understood it Hal9000, Murunji was drunk and abusive with police and interfering in their arrest of a mate of his. That’s why he was arrested too. I do not expect mature 36 year olds to behave in such a manner. If they do they can expect trouble, whether their name is Murunji or Hookes. I did not condone the confected outrage of David Hookes fans over his tragic demise or the convenient loss of memory of his friends that night as to his aggressive, provocative and drunken behaviour. Nevertheless I heard local media mates of Hookesy like Cornsey and KG decry the fact the young bouncer walked free. I think they are as naive and one eyed as Murunji fans, albeit I can understand grief can cloud better judgement.

    Essentially I’ll err on the side of those whose job it is to protect peaceable citizens from thuggish, yobbo behaviour and I’d rather see the odd yob go down than decent citizenry or their protectors. I appreciate noone wants to see a death occur but if you want to fray, you have to pay and unfortunately that can be the ultimate price occasionally.

  19. Let me say I think this is a small part of a much larger debate rearing its head. It’s about values and the softcock, girlieman policies we’ve had for a number of decades, which have patently failed. What’s brought the values debate to a head has naturally been the rise of Muslim fundies and their challenge to the West to state categorically what it stands for. Enter stage left, one remade Judeo Christian Kevin Rudd and his attempt to carve out a niche in the new marketplace. We’ll see Kev, but we know where you’re coming from matey.

  20. Am disappointed to see contributors of otherwise useful material dangerously “reducing” as to the death of David Hookes- a victim of a king-hit from a steroid-driven thug who took the law into his own hands, well aware of his own power and the inequality of any contest with the middle-aged, tipsy Hookes. The thug, following well-reported tendencies in the entertainment industry also reported in recent times, ignored obvious duty of care concerns that surely must attend on the job of bouncer or club security resulting in Hookes’violent and UNNECESSARY death.
    And not even an assault charge up and running, for this king-hitter?
    Should the bouncer have been convicted for murder, though?
    Perhaps not. But to walk away scot-free as he did, made a mockery of justice as truly as the one that will be made if Murunji’s murderer is also not brought to book.
    Unfortunately, those crowing about Hookes killer escaping forget how this sets a precedent for the case of the copper who murdered Murunji, to also avoid any accounting.

  21. Paul –

    The jury could have brought in a lesser verdict eg manslaughter but chose to acquit. There endeth the matter, I’d suggest, since neither of us heard all the evidence.

    Observa –

    There has been no suggestion of interference by Mulrunji in the arrest, merely that he used abusive language in querying what was going on – surely not a heinous crime or unusual even in white society in the context of a neighbour being arrested. In this context, I recall seeing a watchhouse charge sheet some years back wherein an Aboriginal man was recorded has having been arrested for obscene language, towit “Who are you calling a black c***, copper?”

  22. “And not even an assault charge up and running, for this king-hitter?
    Should the bouncer have been convicted for murder, though?”

    The bouncer was charged with, tried for, and acquitted of, manslaughter.

    The Crown did all it could to have this man gaoled.

    Friends of Hookes could not ask for more from the Crown.

    Can we be confident that the friends of Mulrunji will be similarly satisfied?

  23. Yes.
    Actually Hal 9000, this is a useful old double-dipping trick that has gone on since Jeremiah played second row for Damascus. Give a someone a hiding, then charge them for abusive language to explain the assault. Two stings in
    one hit, so to speak and subject matter for laughs later, with mates over a beer or twenty. Good ol’ “Aussie values”!
    Katz, sorry. I agree with so much of what you say. I am well aware of the arguments that account for indigenes in settler societies as (usually) victims and accept these as unfortunately all too obviously true, as born out by the evidence and patterns of evidence.
    You will only gain wreckage out of wreckage, which is usually all that is left apat from grief and trauma, after western impact on prior civilizations. I also comprehensively DETEST opportunist creatures like Brunton, by the way.
    But I can’t quite feel convinced at what’s being said here, as to Hookes. This is for the same reason I don’t like seeing rapists, drunk drivers and thugs responsible for mob beatings that leave victims maimed or even dead walking away with bonds, when the evidence indicates something has occured warranting an altogether more concerted response.

  24. “It’s about values and the softcock, girlieman policies we’ve had for a number of decades …”

    You really don’t get what democracy, liberty and the rule of law mean, do you observa? You really believe that thinking with your balls is a virtue, not a vice. I’d give that mindset its correct name except that I don’t want people invoking Godwin’s Law.

    Just a hint for you: you’re not tough on crime unless you’re tough on official crime too.

  25. It amazes me how fast right-wingers manage to tie everything into Muslim fundamentalists these days.

    In three posts we have gone from the preventable death of an aboriginal man with his liver split in half on a small island in Northern Qld, to the Whitlam government and “Islamofascists” or whatever catchy term you would like to throw about today (ironic, given that Observa and Muslim fundamentalist would seem to have a lot in common…).

    What I would don’t get is why you bother reading posts – and blogs – like this Observa. You’re clearly not here to be informed, or inform; is the seething outrage you feel at our pinko commie orgies really worth it?

    Be careful, “boyoh”, you will give yourself an ulcer – better than a ruptured liver I’ll grant, but judging by the standard of your racist screeds that may not be so far away anyway.

  26. I would like to take up a minor point of J.Q.’s article….

    “there aren’t any easy answers to the problems of drunkenness and crime in Aboriginal communities”.

    I do not think this is true. In fact I think the opposite is true. There are basic solutions, obvious to, and articulated by leaders in all Aboriginal communities, relevent to their own situation and preferences. The problem is these basic solutions are ignored and often villified by governments who continue to pour crisis funding into programs that are dysfunctional.

    Circle sentincing and restorative justice is one such simple basic and obvious element of a solution. Instead we get another bureacratic review of the Royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody.

    The provision of detox and rehab programs would be another. There is a handfull of token institutional programs in Nth Qld. with massive waiting lists. If all alcoholics had access to community programs just like white society then things would improve.

    The inherent failure of the A.A. model because of its guilt base rather than health base is institutionalised in Qld’s racist prohibition laws such as what Murunji was arrested under. (I might remind people that his “offensive language” was a satirical rendition of “who let the dogs out?”)

    What percentage of people who are referred to A.A. actually give up drinking? Less than 10% in mainstream society I understand (please correct me if I am wrong), so why would such a model that fails in mainstream society be considered relevent for Aboriginal society? Especially since it has been the only focus of Qld.s indigenous policy for at least 4 years.

    The late Oodgeroo Noonuccal used to say that the solution to Aboriginal alcoholism is a jobs. She meant daily lifestyle as well as the economic aspect.

    The following is one successfull experiment in a community health mode of acute alcoholism treatment, there are many others. It suggests that the time for healing is before someone hits the bottom, and through family intervention even if it is resisted by the individual. it tackles the issue as a family/community/environment issue and therefore must be tackled as such, not as individual disease. The A.A. model depends on an individual hitting the bottom before finding an individual path to recovery.

    Child abuse
    More housing in Aboriginal communities would mean less over crowding which means less drunken horny adults sharing sleeping areas with children. A basic protection from child abuse – a private room for kids.

    The reason problems fester in Aboriginal communities is because paradigms that have been proven to fail are entrenched, not because another paradigm will not work.

    simple solutions for simple problems – just lots of them.

    It is a matter of lack of will not lack of options.

  27. I’ve no doubt John Tracey is right on the community vs individual basis of the problem. The complexity seems to lie not so much in the ‘what solutions’ but in the ‘how to do it’? For example, what kind of decent and sustainable jobs might be created in places like Palm Island and Wadeye?

  28. Rally and March
    Justice for Mulrinji
    Stop black deaths in Custody
    Rally 10am, Tues Oct 10, Queens Park Brisbane
    (Cnr Elizabeth and George Sts)
    March to State Parliament.

  29. Justice for Mulrunji,

    I was listening with disbelieve to the QLD DPP’s declaration on the 14th of December 2006.

    That her dissuasion is on Doctors opinion, that “Mulrunjis death was from a fall� I can believe that a person folioing 10 metres and would have his liver almost in two not to mention the rest of Mulrunjis injuries on his death.

    This injustice can not be tolerated that this Polisman will not even face the courts and at least the full story could be tolled and cross examined before the courts to decide the guilt or incense when a death accrues at the police station.

    I urge dissent people in Australia to stand up for justice for all.

  30. I applaud you all for contributing to this debate. It brings forward a compelling argument that we should be more involved in what ails our society and what we could possibly do to educate more people in what do about it. The coroner’s inquest was quite clear in its findings and involved many credentialed people educated in matters of the Law. The findings did not suit the Police Union who set about denigrating the Coroner, by insult. As it was a Court convened under the Queensland Judicial System, that criticism should have brought a swift response of contempt of Court. When it did not it merely emboldens those who want to treat us all with contempt. The findings were quite clear in what the Coroners Court heard and subsequently reported on. There is no doubt in my mind that, Sgt. Hurley should be charged with an offence of some description and brought to trial by Jury. There are a number of options available to the DPP. Trials by Jury serve several purposes, the main one being that our society should live in the security of knowledge that any alleged indictable crime will be brought before us, ergo a selected Jury, for judgment and not left in the hands of a politician or a public servant, e.g. the DPP. Such trials should not be open to criticism, and as we know, the Judiciary has the power to punish contempt of our system. The defendant has the right to defend themselves and go free or is punished, thus settling the matter and above all, it serves the interests of the victims and the people when they see Justice being done.

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