Andrew Boe: Shame of palming off report
The political response to a judicial inquiry is out of order

6th October 2006

QUEENSLAND'S acting coroner Christine Clements last week published findings concerning the death of Mulrunji Doomadgee in Palm Island. He was found dead in a police cell in November 2004, less than an hour after being arrested for swearing as he was walking home.

Clements found that Chris Hurley, a senior sergeant, angrily punched him several times while he was on the floor and that these actions "caused the fatal injuries".

Clements, who said Doomadgee should never have been arrested, severely criticised the entire police investigation. She added that "clear directives from the police commissioner and a commitment to ensure proper standards of investigation are required to restore public confidence". She was referring to the disinterest and obstructiveness by senior police called to give evidence.

It cannot be disputed that policing in indigenous communities is difficult. The well-documented socioeconomic failings in these communities cannot be ignored in any analysis or in devising effective policing policies. These difficulties cannot, however, condone police thuggery or collegiate and institutional indifference towards such conduct.

There has been significant political blustering as a result of these scathing findings. Important points have been deflected by Police Commissioner Bob Atkinson, Police Minister Judy Spence and Premier Peter Beattie.

For example, much has been made about the coroner not recommending criminal charges. Yet amendments to the Coroners Act 2003 changed the function of coroners: they are no longer permitted to determine whether any person is to face trial.

The purpose of an inquest was refined so a coroner could get to the truth as to how a death occurred without being hindered by the rules of evidence that might apply in any trial.

The other public responses of the commissioner and the Government suggest these findings came as a surprise or have little relevance. These responses are disingenuous and unsatisfactory.

It is nearly two years since Doomadgee's death. The process took much longer than it should have, primarily due to two unsuccessful appeals brought by Atkinson and Hurley against some rulings made by Clements.

Atkinson first sought to prevent the parties having access to records of previous complaints made against Hurley (by others who claim to have been assaulted by him in Palm Island) and how they had been investigated (and dismissed) by the police. Second, they argued that a coroner was not entitled to take any of these previous matters into account in making her findings. These arguments were rejected in two Supreme Court rulings.

Throughout this process, police interests were forcefully asserted by senior counsel and teams of lawyers. Every opportunity was afforded to them to make their positions known in respect of damning evidence. Incidentally, the commissioner publicly declared his support for Hurley in The Australian on the first day of the inquest.

It is in this light that the failure of the commissioner to make any adequate response, or for Spence and Beattie to now criticise some of the recommendations, should be viewed. Each of them has been aware these issues were being canvassed in the inquest and none took the proper opportunity to sensibly contribute to this important independent judicial inquiry. The decision of the Government and commissioner not to make any submissions to the coroner was a cynical political exercise.

The inaction in respect of the findings is appalling. Announcements that a special taskforce would examine the coroner's findings to look at implementation, and that the commissioner would review matters before deciding what to do in respect of the findings, are insulting.

The suggestion that a taskforce could be impartially headed by the Premier's director-general is open to criticism that he will be conflicted in assessing whether to implement any recommendation because of his primary duty to protect the interests of his boss. He is being asked to assess Government decisions which may have contributed to the parlous state of policing in question.

Of course, nothing should interfere with the Department of Public Prosecutions' independent decision on whether to prosecute Hurley. However, does that absolve the entire administration from responding to these serious findings? The findings cannot be dismissed as mere allegations.

Finally, Gary Wilkinson, president of the Police Union, who contemptuously dismissed the findings as rubbish before embarking on a personal attack on Clements, most transparently reflects police interests in this matter.

However, the dismissal of Clements's findings by the Premier, the Police Minister and the commissioner is more concerning. It underpins the systemic and political disregard for any criticism of policing even if it follows a judicial process covering nearly two years and which comes from a judicial officer hand-picked by this Government.

A responsible government would act swiftly. The coroner's findings comprise the third official report that the Queensland Government has commissioned about Palm Island since the death and riots. The other two are from a parliamentary committee and from a lawyer. Both were commissioned by Beattie's Government and both are gathering dust.

Andrew Boe appeared for the Palm Island Council and community at the inquest.