Friday, December 7, 2007

Lex Wotton speaks

Hamish Chitts

Photo: Wotton and Chitts on Palm by Kathy Newnam

Lex Wotton has been portrayed by the Queensland police, government and mainstream media as the ringleader of the so-called “riot” that occurred on Palm Island on November 26, 2004. A police station and residence were destroyed after a police report on the death of community member Mulrunji Doomadgee that concluded that his death was an accident was read at a public meeting. Wotton will face court in April 2008. He continues to be vilified in the media. I spoke to Wotton at his home on Palm Island.

Wotton is a key member of the Palm Island community. He has been the driving force behind trying to build support for a community-owned and -controlled organisation that can buy the Palm Island store. The store currently has very little variety of stock, is extremely expensive, and not very healthy. The store’s profits go to the Queensland government. At the moment, most residents have to catch a ferry to Townsville to do their shopping (the ferry only runs to the island and back Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays, so residents have to stay in Townsville for at least two days when shopping). “We’re talking pretty basic items, just groceries”, said Wotton. He believes a community-run store will reduce costs and improve the standard of living for islanders.

For years Wotton has been helping run the island’s Drug and Alcohol Centre. In 1997, he set up a men’s group, which, since the death of Wotton’s close friend Mulrunji, runs a cell-watch program and night patrols. He’s heavily involved in community activity, has been on council twice, and attends all public meetings. Wotton wants to one day set up a combined library and cultural centre on the island so residents, particularly children, can learn about where they come from. Members of over 40 different Aboriginal nations from all over Queensland were sent to Palm, and some of the descendants are more connected to their past than others. Eighty-six per cent of the community on Palm are illiterate. “We can empower the community to lift itself up. In order to empower the community, you have to educate them”, Wotton told GLW.

Police treat the people on Palm Island like inmates and provide a poor response if they are needed. If you phone the police station outside of business hours you get put through to Townsville, 65km away on the mainland.

Three years after the death of Mulrunji, the Palm Island community is still waiting for the truth about his death. Wotton asks, “Why haven’t the police officers who botched the initial investigation into Hurley been stood down? People have to question what would have happened if Mulrunji had been white? It’s terrible how the police used their own investigators to cover up what happened.” (Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley was charged with manslaughter after Mulrunji’s death but found not guilty by a Townsville jury. He didn’t face court until mid-2007.)

Friday, November 16, 2007

Reconciliation, promises and lies

Hamish Chitts, Brisbane

30 people came to the Queensland College of Art’s central lecture theatre on November 15th for Reconciliation, Promises and Lies - the third forum in a series of pre-election forums presented by the Foundation for Aboriginal and Islander Research Action (FAIRA). Speaking on reconciliation were Les Malezer, Chair of FAIRA; Gary Highland, National Director of Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation (ANTaR) and prominent Land Rights campaigner and Michael Mansell.

“I don’t believe in Australian democracy,” Malezer said. “As an Aboriginal person I know that Australian democracy is only there to help a privileged few. Australia sends troops to Iraq, sends troops into Aboriginal communities - that’s not democratic.” Malezer stressed the importance of demanding and achieving justice before considering reconciliation and cited the recently adopted United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People as a step towards justice. “Our right to self determination is a starting point,” he said. “Australians have to realise that Indigenous issues are global and not domestic issues.”

Highland denounced the Federal Government’s invasion of Northern Territory Aboriginal communities as “ a racist intervention”. He asked, “How does taking land stop child abuse?” Highland was also critical of the scrapping of Community Development Employment Projects (CDEPs) as part of Howard’s plan for Northern Territory communities. He said while CDEPs have been used as a source cheap labour and need to be looked at the Federal Government is only scrapping CDEPs to force participants onto welfare so the government can quarantine 50% of their income.

“They keep saying soon it will be better. But the situation is still deplorable as it was deplorable 100 years ago,” Mansell said. He pointed out that over the years there has been one common theme to government policy on Aboriginal people, “assimilate or perish”. This policy hasn’t work though and there needs to be another solution. “We need our own land, our own parliament,” demanded Mansell. He called for all crown land to be immediately returned to Aboriginal people, all money raised on that land to go to Aboriginal people. Mansell argued that this wouldn’t be anything new - with Australia encompassing 340 separate governments already including Norfolk Island that is part of Australia yet completely self determined. He asked, “Is there no room for one more?”

The next forum Voting for Aboriginal Self Determination will be at Brisbane City Hall on Thursday 22 November at 6:30pm.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Justice for Mulrunji now!

Hamish Chitts

Photo: Palm Island by Kathy Newnam

Justice for the Innocent: A Benefit Gig for the Doomadgee Family of Palm Island
The Arena, Fortitude Valley, Brisbane, August 11
Tickets $42 + booking fee available from music shops and

Justice for the Innocent, offers an excellent chance for Murris and their supporters to get together and hear great music while supporting Aboriginal peoples’ struggle for justice.

Since Mulrunji’s death in a Palm Island police cell in 2004 the Doomadgee family have lost two more members and a close family friend through grief. “An enormous amount to bear for any family”, said Bob Weatherall, Aboriginal activist and member of the band Dick Desert & The Shotgun Country Club.

When family and friends of Mulrunji reacted in grief and anger, they were labelled rioters and many have been imprisoned awaiting trial or are already serving sentences. Already struggling families have lost income while relatives have been imprisoned. “We’re talking everyday costs like rent and hire purchase that have to be made up for. That is why the band decided to help out with a benefit gig”, Weatherall said. He told Green Left Weekly that as well as providing financial assistance the gig will show the families on Palm Island that they are not alone.

Headlining are the Beasts of Bourbon and top Indigenous artists including Kev Carmody, Banawurun and the Indigenous Intrudaz. Other artists include Lola the Vamp, the Palm Island Dancers and Dick Desert & The Shotgun Country Club. Alex Doomadgee will MC proceedings.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Oodgeroo honoured

Hamish Chitts, Brisbane

On June 1, around 150 people, including elders, family members, Noonuccal people of North Stradbroke Island and supporters of Aboriginal rights, gathered at Queensland University of Technology to pay tribute to Oodgeroo Noonuccal. This warrior woman’s life as poet, political activist, artist and educator was honoured with the inaugural public lecture and awarding of scholarships in her name.

The meeting heard from members of Oodgeroo’s family about her life. Oodgeroo (also known as Kath Walker) served in the army’s Brisbane headquarters during WWII. After the war she joined the Communist Party of Australia and was an active member throughout the 1950s. Oodgeroo was the first Aboriginal poet to publish a volume of verse, with We Are Going in 1964, and many more volumes followed.

As Queensland state secretary for the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (1960-70), Oodgeroo was prominent in the campaign for the 1967 referendum on Aboriginal citizenship rights. In 1970, Oodgeroo was made a member of the Order of the British Empire, a title she returned in 1987 in protest against the Australian bicentenary celebrations.

Oodgeroo purchased Moongalba on North Stradbroke Island in 1970 and over the next 23 years, some 30,000 people visited her there. Many were children, from all cultural backgrounds, who she encouraged to learn more about Aboriginal culture and society.

Presenting the inaugural public lecture, Jacqui Katona, the CEO of the Lumbu Indigenous Community Foundation, said that still today, “Aboriginal people have a slim hold on citizenship”. Katona reflected on the freedom rides and land rights campaign, and lamented, “My Mum saw increased freedoms for her children. My children see a tokenising of their freedoms.”

Katona compared the current government policy of “mutual obligation” for funding with the policies of assimilation perpetrated by governments in the first half of the 20th century, adding that it is a “policy which denies Aboriginal people citizenship 40 years after they gained it”.

Katona argued that Aboriginal people’s marginalisation can be overturned by recognising land ownership. She said, “All that is left in native title legislation is a framework to help mining companies and pastoralists exploit Aboriginal land”. She explained, “Our land is not a mere resource; it is part of our family”, and urged everyone to “keep fighting government — defend, resist and defy!”

Friday, May 25, 2007

Court allows Palm Islander to Withdraw Plea

Hamish Chitts, Brisbane

Photo: Wotton with granddaughter by Kathy Newnam

In a Brisbane court on May 25, Palm Island resident Lex Wotton was allowed to withdraw his guilty plea in relation to riot charges, after Judge Phil Nase found that Wotton had been asked to plead illegally.

Wotton — who has been portrayed by Queensland Police and the corporate media as the supposed ringleader of the Palm Island “riot” in 2004 following the death in custody of Aboriginal man Mulrunji — pled guilty on the eve of a trial with four other accused rioters in March. John Clumpoint, William Blackman, Lance Poynter and Dwayne Blanket were acquitted two weeks later, but before their trial had finished Wotton applied to withdraw his plea.

At an application hearing last month the court was told that Wotton was on medication for back pain and had received poor legal advice when he entered his original plea. However, the main of point of argument between the defence and the prosecution was whether Wotton’s guilty plea was heard in a closed court or not. Under Queensland law it is illegal for pleas to be heard in a closed court. Despite witness statements describing a sign on the courtroom door saying “court closed” and the fact that members of the public (including Wotton’s family) weren’t able to go into the courtroom, the prosecution tried to argue that it wasn’t officially closed.

After nearly a month’s deliberation, Nase found that the court had been closed and Wotton’s plea should not have been heard. He upheld the application to withdraw the plea and adjourned the matter until June 1 when Wotton will plea again and be able to apply for bail. Wotton was refused bail on March 5 and has been remanded in custody ever since.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Australia’s Indigenous health shame

Hamish Chitts

On April 2 the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation and Oxfam Australia published Close the Gap, a report highlighting the shameful state of Indigenous health in Australia. The report ranked Australia as the worst at improving the health of indigenous people compared with other wealthy nations.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders die nearly 20 years younger than other Australians. This is in stark contrast to the US, Canada and New Zealand, where the life expectancy for indigenous people is approximately seven years less than the non-indigenous population. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander infant mortality is three times the rate of other Australians.

Nearly three times as many Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children die before the age of five than indigenous children in Canada. Infant mortality rates for Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are more than 50% higher than for indigenous children in the US and New Zealand. These figures reinforce the findings of the 2003 United Nations Human Development Report, which found the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians expected to live to the age of 65 is lower than for Third World nations like Bangladesh and Nigeria.

While spending on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health has increased, it hasn’t done so any faster than for the rest of the population, so the expenditure gap hasn’t narrowed. The federal government spends approximately $0.70 per capita on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s health for every $1 spent on the rest of the population. Executive director of Oxfam Australia Andrew Hewett said: “At what point do we stand up and start shouting? It’s scandalous that in a country as wealthy as Australia we cannot solve a health crisis affecting less than 3% of the population.”

The report argues that the poor levels of health in Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population can be reversed. Most of the diseases leading to premature death, hospitalisation and chronic disability are preventable if diagnosed early and treated with affordable medicines. Many of the poor health outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are related to social and economic factors: diseases triggered by poverty; overcrowded housing; poor sanitation; lack of access to education; poor access to medical care for accurate diagnosis and treatment; and poor nutrition.

The report calls for government action, including:

•Improving access for Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islanders to culturally appropriate primary health care, and to a level commensurate with need;

•Increasing the number of health practitioners working within Aboriginal health settings, and further development and training of the Indigenous health work force;

•Improving the responsiveness of mainstream health services and programs to Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islander health needs;

•Greater targeting of maternal and child health and greater support for Indigenous-specific population programs for chronic and communicable disease;

•Increased funding and support for the building blocks of good health such as awareness and availability of nutrition, physical activity, fresh food, healthy lifestyles, and adequate housing;

•Setting national targets and benchmarks towards achieving healthy equality, by which progress can be closely monitored.

Aboriginal rights and prison reform campaigner Alex Gater told Green Left Weekly, “We have the worst health in Australia. My elders died of old age; now as an Anglican priest I’m burying too many Aboriginal people that are too young.” She added, “Governments have been promising to fix Aboriginal poverty and health for too long. Oppression and racism have kept us on the bottom rung unable to access decent health, education and legal services. We want action and we want it now.”

The report provides several examples of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health successes like the Nganampa Health Council. Operating on the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands in the far north-west of South Australia, this health service has a sustained national reputation for best practice clinical services, leading edge collaborative program research and development and for the collection of outcome data as a basis for ongoing evaluation.

It is controlled, owned and managed by the Anangu people, who are responsible for all key policy, resource allocation and staff appointment decisions. The director and clinic managers are Anangu and together they ensure that all 120 staff are accountable to the Anangu people and that Anangu determine the development and delivery of services.

Oxfam is running a campaign to lobby the state, territory and federal governments to address the shameful state of Indigenous health. The full Close the Gap report and campaign information can be viewed online at

Friday, March 23, 2007

Jury clears four Palm Islanders of 'rioting'

Hamish Chitts, Brisbane

Photo: Palm Island by Kathy Newnam

Scenes of joy and relief erupted outside the Brisbane courts complex on March 21 after a Supreme Court jury cleared four Palm Islanders of charges of rioting causing destruction.

The four men — William Blackman, Dwayne Blanket, John Clumpoint and Lance Poynter — were part of a larger group of Aborigines on the island, 40 kilometres off Townsville, who besieged a police station on November 26, 2004, in protest against the death in police custody of Palm Island resident Mulrunji Doomadgee a week earlier.

During the protest, the island’s police station and courthouse were burned down, as was a police officer’s dwelling. Fire also destroyed a police car.

During the three-week trial, police witnesses had problems identifying individual islanders and evidence indicated that the fires had already been lit before the protesters arrived at the police station.

“I believe justice has been served today, not only for me and my three brothers but also for all Indigenous people”, Poynter said. “I praise the jury for that.”

Socialist Alliance lead Senate candidate and prominent Murri activist Sam Watson told Green Left Weekly that the jury’s verdict was a “wonderful moment” and a victory for the accused men, the Palm Island community and for all Indigenous Australians and their non-Indigenous supporters.

“This verdict represents a pivotal point in the campaign for achieving justice for Mulrunji”, Watson said.

Former police officer Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley has been charged with the manslaughter of Doomadgee and is scheduled to face trial in Townsville in June. Watson is calling on people to demand that the trial be heard in Brisbane.

In 2006, a survey found Townsville residents too racist to guarantee any Aborigine a fair trial. “Townsville’s white community is on par with Alabama’s hateful and racist white community in the 1960s”, Watson said, adding that Murri people have more confidence in justice being delivered by a Brisbane jury.

Watson is also demanding a full judicial inquiry into the actions of police on Palm Island from November 2004 up to the present day. Of particular concern was the heavy handed response days after the “riot” when masked, unidentified squads of police kicked in islanders’ doors and forced children as young as four to lie face down on the ground with the laser targeting devices of police weapons trained on their heads. “Each officer must be investigated and answer for their actions”, said Watson.

Lex Wotton, accused by police of being the “riot ringleader”, pleaded guilty to rioting with destruction earlier this month and is awaiting sentencing. On March 21, he indicated through his legal team that he now wants to withdraw his guilty plea and face a jury trial.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Modern day Dreamtime fable

Hamish Chitts

The Mack
Written by Sam Watson
Directed by Ian Brown
Judith Wright Centre for the Performing Arts, Brisbane
Until March 31
For tickets & information phone (07) 3872 9000

An angry, resentful Murri man in a wheelchair, a hate filled policeman dedicated to destroying the Macks, a woman unhinged and a powerful, deadly sorcerer who comes hunting — The Mack is a play like no other.

Set in inner-city Brisbane, this powerful play, written by leading Murri activist and Socialist Alliance Senate candidate Sam Watson, tells the story of Peacey, who is confined to a wheelchair after a car accident in which his older brother was killed. His father, Bullocky, must place his hand upon the shoulder of the man in the family who will succeed him as the Mack. That man, unquestioned and unchallenged, will be the leader of the family and his community.

Now Bullocky is waiting for Peacey to step up to the mark and claim that mantle that is rightfully his. Time is pressing, he and Nanna must return to the tribal country and “walk the line” to safeguard the sacred sites. But before he can go, Bullocky knows that he must ensure the succession and stabilise his family network.

Peacey, who doubts his ability to lead because of his confinement to a wheelchair, is also feeling tension from the spirit world. The car accident happened after he visited a sacred site with his brother and his brother’s girlfriend Birdie and now a spirit man hunts both Peacey and Birdie. Birdie, who can’t accept her boyfriend’s death and is haunted by the spirit man, has been placed in an institution and it’s up to Peacey to look after her son Corowa. All the while Sergeant Davis is determined to bring the Mack family down and has his hateful gaze fixed firmly on young Corowa. Birdie must come out of the hospital, Corowa must be saved from prison and Peacey must become the man that they all knew he could be.

The Mack’s director Ian Brown believes, “Regardless of the reason you take your seat at this performance, you are engaging in a political act. Watson’s writing is rich with conflict; between traditions and contemporary urban existence; between Indigenous law and a subjugating European law; between tolerance and respect.” Watson says, “The Mack is written as a Murri Dreamtime fable set in the modern day — among bitumen and concrete, rather than red-soil country.”

Saturday, February 3, 2007

Community discusses Indigenous rights declaration

Hamish Chitts, Brisbane

One-hundred people gathered at Brisbane’s Riverside Centre on January 27 to discuss Indigenous self-determination and the United Nation’s draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which is expected to be ratified this year.

Les Malezer from the Federation of Aboriginal and Islander Research Association (FAIRA) and chairperson of the Global Indigenous Caucus has spent the last two years in Geneva working on the draft declaration. He told the gathering that the Australian government has tried to exert pressure within the UN to water down the declaration. Malezer commented, “No democratic government should fight the rights of its citizens”.

Specifically, the federal government has opposed articles that ensure indigenous peoples have the right to use, develop and transmit to future generations their histories, languages and traditions; to participate in planning laws that may affect them; and to have treaties and agreements respected by the state recognised. Malezer noted that since the declaration cannot be enforced through Australia’s courts, the challenge will be to pressure state and federal governments into meeting the standards.

He also highlighted the systemic racism in Australia and called for the reestablishment of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), a return to the reconciliation process, the development of parliamentary and judicial tribunals to discuss Indigenous rights, and the removal of the anti-discrimination act’s application in native title legislation.

Jacqui Katona, CEO of the Lumbu Indigenous Community Foundation, told the gathering that as soon as the UN declaration is ratified, Australia will be in breach of it. She highlighted how the Australian economy is geared to deny Indigenous rights and how the Australian government protects racist policy through international forums. This was exemplified by the millions of dollars the government spent to prevent Kakadu National Park from being listed as “in danger” in order to allow the Jabiluka uranium mine to open in the park.

Katona urged non-Indigenous Australians to counter the propagation of colonial attitudes and to listen carefully to Indigenous people in order to bring about change. She also called on everyone not to rely on the government to achieve Indigenous rights, and to actively challenge racist governments and institutions.

Lex Wotton is facing the possibility of an 8-10 year jail term for being the supposed ringleader of the Palm Island “riot” in 2004 following the death in custody of Mulrunji. He told the meeting that the incident on Palm Island was not a riot but an act of resistance to the daily oppression faced by people there. He reiterated the other speakers’ calls for non-Indigenous Australians to get behind the Indigenous struggle for justice.

Wotton said he hoped that his version of the events on Palm Island come out clearer than the police’s, but vowed that, even if the worst happens, “jail won’t stop me”. The diverse audience gave him a standing ovation.

Political parties were invited to present their perspectives on Indigenous rights and self-determination, and members of the Democrats, the Greens, the Socialist Alliance and the ALP spoke. The Socialist Alliance’s Paul Benedek received a warm response for highlighting the need for everyday, grassroots commitment to the fight for Indigenous rights, and for the rights of all oppressed people here and internationally.

“Socialist Alliance’s parliament is the parliament of the streets”, he said, noting the success of the Justice for Mulrunji campaign, in which “the alliance fought every step of the way with the Murri community”. The Socialist Alliance is calling for all deaths in custody cases to be re-opened and for charges against those who rose up in grief and anger on Palm Island to be dropped.

While all the party speakers advocated greater Indigenous representation in parliament, the Socialist Alliance was the only party to run an Indigenous candidate in the last state election. Sam Watson will stand again as the lead Socialist Alliance candidate for the Senate in the federal election later this year.

The group decided to continue to meet to discuss the progress of the UN declaration, and to raise awareness about it and all the struggles of Indigenous Australians.