In one of the most significant racial discrimination cases in Australia’s history, the Queensland Government has agreed to apologise and deliver a $30 million settlement to residents of Palm Island for racial discrimination linked to riots in 2004.
The riots took place after the death in custody of local Aboriginal man, known as Mulrunji, who died of internal injuries while being held by police.
The compensation was awarded to 447 Palm Island residents following a class action in the Federal Court which found that there was unlawful discrimination in contravention of the Racial Discrimination Act.
“This settlement highlights how the Racial Discrimination Act is an instrument of justice. This is good news for the people of Palm Island and we welcome the Queensland Government’s acknowledgement of the pain and suffering of the residents of Palm Island” said Race Discrimination Commissioner, Tim Soutphommasane.
“The proud residents of Palm Island have demonstrated their resilience, commitment and patience in waiting for their rights and suffering to be acknowledged. It’s never too late to be vindicated and receive an apology, but it is a shame it’s taken so long,” said Social Justice Commissioner June Oscar AO.
The Commission hopes this case gives the community an opportunity to heal from the events that took place 14 years ago.
The Australian Human Rights Commission has been involved in the events surrounding the case over a number of years.
On 19 November 2004, a 36 year old Aboriginal man known, after his death, as Mulrunji, died in police custody on Palm Island. His death was investigated by the Queensland Police Service. A week after his death, there were protests on Palm Island a number of people were charged with criminal offences.
In 2005, the Commission was granted leave to appear at a Coronial Inquest into the death of Mulrunji. The Coroner adopted all 40 of the recommendations in the Commission’s submission to the inquest.
In 2010, a group of Palm Island residents made a complaint to the Commission about the role played by the Queensland Police Service in investigating the death of Mulrunji, in managing community concerns on the island in the week after his death, and in their response to the protests.
The applicants claimed that the police officers conducted themselves differently because they were dealing with an Aboriginal community and the death of an Aboriginal man. The matter could not be resolved by conciliation and the complainants commenced a class action proceeding in the Federal Court.
In December 2016, Mortimer J in the Federal Court found that there had been breaches of the Racial Discrimination Act. Her Honour found that QPS officers with command and control of the investigation did not act impartially and independently and that there were substantial failures by officers to communicate with the Palm Island community and defuse tensions prior to the protests.
Significantly, her Honour found that the policing response to the protests was excessive and disproportionate. Masked officers of the Special Emergency Response Team broke into the houses of 18 families on Palm Island with assault rifles and confronted unarmed local men, women and children. Her Honour found that police acted in these ways because they were dealing with an Aboriginal community, and with the community of Palm Island in particular.
The Court made declarations that the Racial Discrimination Act had been breached and awarded damages to members of the Wotton family. The Commission understands that the Queensland Government has now reached a $30 million settlement with the other members of the group of people affected by the conduct.
Photo: Andrew Zakeli/ Fairfax Syndication.