Palmed off and abused

The Mulrunji case did not start in the Palm Island police station. It is a condemnation of policies that have led to an island of tropical beauty off the coast of one the richest countries in the world becoming an almost unimaginable slum.

Most of Palm Island's 2500 to 4000 inhabitants living on welfare in 280 crowded, derelict houses are so disadvantaged by lack of jobs, alcoholism, drug abuse and domestic violence that many children run wild during the day and wander the streets at night to escape injury at home.

In 1999 The Guinness Book of World Records gave Palm Island the accolade of "the most violent place on Earth outside combat zones". In April last year, the Queensland Parliament was informed that Palm Island health standards were "Third World", with a life expectancy of 50 years, or 30 years less than in the rest of Australia. The contrast with the island's neighbouring Queensland coastal communities could not be starker.

Typically some 300 non-indigenous administrators, policemen, teachers, nurses and others perform "services" such as rounding up drunks and treating them in hospital when they injure themselves or get hurt by other drunks. There are only a handful of indigenous jobs.

So after a spot of fishing early in the morning of Friday, November 12, 2004, Mulrunji, together with most other Palm Island men, cashed his welfare cheque at the Post Office so that he could start drinking. A little later, already inebriated, he made a rude comment to a policeman arresting blokes mixed up in a "domestic", was arrested and on arrival at the police station, according to the coronial inquiry, took a swipe at a policeman and later died.

Palm Island was established as a penal settlement in 1918 for Aborigines unwilling to be docile, underpaid bush and domestic workers. After World War II, without even such education as was provided to other children (who in Brisbane were still writing on slates in 1961), the Queensland Government began the long task of making Palm Island the jobless, welfare-dependent intractable, dysfunctional slum that it is today.

The 1967 Referendum did not release Palm Island dwellers from their bondage. On the contrary, in the 1970s new "homeland" philosophies of preserving "living museums" of traditional culture eroded schooling further to produce the illiterate, non-numerate Palm Islanders of today. They have to be extraordinarily motivated to escape to low-skilled jobs in Townsville.

Palm Islanders have made efforts to dig themselves out of the mire. Football was started to give boys and young men an interest. In 2003, young men started to round up the 300 or so wild horses (the horse population estimates seem to be more accurate than those for the human population) and the dog population was brought under control; 30 dogs were put down a week and the survivors were micro- chipped, desexed and wormed. Dogs are now probably in better health than people on Palm Island.

But Palm Islanders do not have the private property rights that enable other Australians to help themselves. The Bwgcolman Community School underperforms Queensland schools. Yet when a parliamentary inquiry made 65 recommendations to fix problems in 2005, nothing was done.

A report by lawyer Andrew Boe commissioned by the Palm Island Aboriginal Council to explore how to turn Palm Island into a working community and take advantage of its location has been ignored. Evidently the State Government can see nothing wrong with Palm Island as it is.

Like the Northern Territory, Western Australia and South Australia, Queensland is stalling the Commonwealth's efforts to improve policing, education and health and to introduce private property rights.

The shocking state of Palm Island does not mean that Aborigines are different from other Australians.

Palm Island is a typical victim of the apartheid-like policies that have denied Aborigines mainstream Australian lives since the 1970s. Any group subjected to the same policies would become dysfunctional.

As Boe saw correctly, Palm Island has to have an economy in which people can work and run businesses. This means the privatisation of land and private investment in job-creating enterprises instead of sham communal land rights which make Aborigines "land rich and dirt poor".

The Mulrunji case is a wake-up call. Concern should not stop at a miscarriage of justice, but indict policies that have led to what Palm Island is today. This year should be a turning point in a national determination to enable Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders to have decent lives.

Emeritus Professor Helen Hughes is a Senior Fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney. She is working on a report on remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island communities .