Not long after the Palm Island police station was burnt down by locals to express their grief at the death in custody of a well-loved member of their community, Peter Beattie, the Premier of Queensland, issued a statement saying the community council had shown poor leadership leading up to and during the community upsurge. Beattie quickly produced a five-point plan to soothe non-Indigenous outrage that Indigenous people were being “naughty people” – again. It happens all the time.
This approach was not unsurprising: it’s what premiers and politicians often do when confronted by distressing social issues. Politicians understand their government’s lack of commitment to addressing the root causes are often the reason why these unfortunate situations erupt.
When in doubt blame the issue, not the failure to address the cause. It works every time, especially in Indigenous affairs where blaming blackfellas for their lot is now a national pastime.
“It can’t be the government, must be welfare dependency”; “it can’t be the police, must be the grog” is now the standard rhetorical convention used by politicians, newspaper columnists and others in analysing all matters Indigenous – no matter how complex they really are.
So while Indigenous people in Queensland (and nationally) are now waiting patiently to see if the Queensland’s Director of Public Prosecutions will recommend prosecution of the policemen implicated in the death in custody, it’s a good time to reflect on the state of affairs in Queensland in regard to how government and Aboriginal communities are engaging with each other.
Why? Well if the DPP does not move towards prosecution there will be heightened anxiety in Aboriginal communities as this will confirm once and for all in their minds that police and policing Aboriginal people is driven by politics, not the impartial application of law and order. After all, politicians and politics have played a central role in the Palm Island issue from the outset.
If charges are not laid it will send a message to all Aboriginal people that the criminal justice system has not moved one iota towards addressing its past and present failings and has no regard for the 339 recommendations handed down by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody over 14 years in 1992.
It will also send a clear message to Queensland police personnel who harbour a deep hate for Aboriginal peoples and communities that the system will be there to protect them and their revulsion and loathing of Aboriginal people.
It is timely to point out that this culture of hate goes back two centuries in Queensland policing. It is very much ingrained in how they think, feel and understand normality and required attributes of policing Aboriginal people and communities in Queensland.
As long as I can remember, Queensland governments have provided a diagonal nod of support and complicity to this culture of policing. After all, keeping blackfellas in their place is deeply rooted to white fears of black uprisings going back to the 1800s. But it need not be like this at all.
In many ways governments since then have recognised that their support of this approach to policing will draw wide community support and will be perceived to be a natural, justified and politically measurable part of how they conduct their public duties in office.
The most glaring point of contention is not whether the Queensland Government intervened or is seen to play a mediating role in the outcome of this impending decision by the DPP, but how it can facilitate a purposeful relationship with Indigenous people in Queensland over a longer period of time.
It could certainly make use of the taxpayer funded reports it recently commissioned: one which its own select parliamentary committee inquiry made into Palm Island; and the other from lawyer Scott MacDougal. Both reports identified gaps in how government does not communicate with communities with any real purpose, be it Palm Island or other communities in Queensland.
Central to developing better relations will be how government recognises and reforms its own understanding of its obligations, to both Aboriginal citizenship and participation in democracy in Queensland, as a matter of urgency.
The police culture referred to previously will not change over night. This will require longitudinal structural reform processes that can only be bought about by strong and informed outsiders to the force being given the mandate to create much needed change.
Building good institutions that support civil society principles is key to developing a just society.
Bearing this in mind, some Queensland Indigenous leaders condemn the recent abolishment and mainstreaming of the Queensland Department of Aboriginal and Islander Policy by the Beattie Government; others see the need to create a more dynamic and representative political interface between the grassroots and government. This would ensure policy can become informed as well as accountable.
In any case, the Beattie Government can take this opportunity to bring about real reforms to how it engages with Indigenous people and community leadership.
If Indigenous Queenslanders enjoy the same citizenship rights as other Queenslanders, they too as a group of citizens should expect that government will see the need to re-establish communications between government and community. Leadership needs to have a level field for both camps to meet and negotiate. Government advisory committees and councils have had their day.
Rushing in and waving a five-point, ten-point, or 100-point plan in the air is not a response to those 339 Royal Commission recommendations that came from inside of the bowels of governments and Australian law 15 years ago.
The interface between government and Aborigines needs to be reformed with clear thinking, strategic planning and mutual understanding of leadership.
The Beattie Government is presented with a real opportunity to break the mould of administrative orthodoxy that has failed to deliver results for government and Aboriginal people alike for over two centuries.
The usual policy and legislative responses to Aboriginal issues by leaders on both sides will not in itself solve anything. But invariably the buck stops with Premier Beattie. He can show the kind of visionary leadership that would move Indigenous affairs from the bottom of the pile to a higher level of priority and action or he could simply let it slip deeper into the abyss of despair and apathy. But for upward movement he will need support from Aboriginal leaders across the state of Queensland.
Governments cannot provide strong leadership in our communities; this is the responsibility and mandate of community people and aspiring leaders themselves.
It’s time to rise to the occasion, talk together and then work out the best model of representation that can communicate with government. Peter Beattie should, in my view, be enthusiastically supporting the development of grassroots leadership models. The most vulnerable in our communities rightfully demand this happens sooner rather than later.