BRISBANE – “2018 marks the centenary of the first forced placement of people on Palm Island and we, the Palm Island Community, are inviting you to ‘Share Our Journey’ as we hold a series of events.”
This handful of words is part of a large, bold statement that introduces the online visitor to a calendar of activities in which the Bwgcolman (‘many tribes, one mob’) of Palm Island will reflect on the past, celebrate the present and look to the future.
Palm Island’s status as former penal colony was never imparted during my Australian school education, and to come across it is revelatory.
Instead, we are exposed to the story of a wayward society lacking in cohesion and a hot bed of violence cultivated in the blackwashed hyperbole with which the Australian media relayed the tragic events of 2004.
Touted as ‘the Palm Island riots’, repetitious coverage of smoke billowing from a police station paired with angry members of the indigenous population walking the streets conveyed the community’s outrage over the suspicious death in custody, less than an hour after arrest, of Mulrunji (Cameron Domadgee).
Missing from the reporting was the turbulent, heartbreaking and unpublicised history of Palm Island, specifically the nature of the relationship between indigenous and white Australia.
Against this backdrop, the escalating outrage of the indigenous community - when their pleas for arresting officer Sergeant Christopher Hurley to be removed from Palm Island - are better understood. After a controversial career Hurley retired from the police medically unfit early last year.
SEVERAL WEEKS AGO, in the courtyard of the Avid Bookstore in Brisbane’s West End, the launch of literary journal Griffith Review’s ‘First things First’ afforded another, much-needed occasion to continue unravelling the historical impact of colonisation and, at its centre, the inter-generational implications for the indigenous population of Australia.
Author and lecturer in Australian social history and health, Dr Joanne Watson, delivered an overview of her featured essay, ‘A century of activism of heartache: the troubled history of Palm Island’.
Watson provided a comprehensive account of resistance to 1800’s colonial intrusion and the subsequent ‘frontier war’ tactics used against the traditional home of the Manbarra and Buluguyban people. She focussed her oration on the language that saturated media coverage of the Palm Island riots.
Watson made reference then Queensland police minister Judy Spence describing Palm Island as a “dysfunctional community” where few people had any sense of social obligation. Then premier Peter Beattie referred to a “dysfunctional council that should get off their bums”. It seems the spin doctors had decided ‘dysfunctional community’ was a useful slur.
The council to which Beattie referred is Palm Island Community Council, established in 1968 after decades of penal rule. Thousands of Queensland’s indigenous people had been deported to the island. Watson’s advocacy over 30 years for the Palm Island community points to white Australia’s continuing failure to address indigenous disadvantage and its brutal history.
As Jack Jeweller wrote in Overland, this lack of progress is due to historical subjugation - systemic control, everyday racism, institutional racism and containment by police. Jeweller concluded that the outrage surrounding Mulrunjii wasn’t just because of the brutality but also the lack of transparency and the evident collusion involved with the investigation surrounding his death.
The hopelessness experienced by the Bwogcolman people is a logical outcome of nearly a century of containment.
A recent opinion piece by Luke Pearson, founder and chief editor of @IndigenousX, comments on the trajectory of indigenous Australians affairs under the Abbot and Turnbull governments. “Both agendas were plagued by bureaucratic incompetence and malfeasance,” he writes, adding that it is the historical and present-day treatment of Aboriginal people that are causal factors that need to be addressed, not Aboriginality.
We ought to seek out new stories, concludes Pearson, stories that bring depth, understanding and compassion and which seek to find solutions rather than scapegoats.
AS I REFLECT on this point, I cannot help but cast my eyes to Papua New Guinea.
A recent article by Francis Nii looked at the aftermath of Jubilee Australia’s report on the ‘resource curse’ impacts that have descended on PNG since the money started to flow from liquefied natural gas developments.
Right on cue, there followed a volleying of blame shifting and finger pointing between key players Oil Search Limited, Exxon Mobil and the PNG government.
In attributing community discontent and violence to inaction by the government of paying royalties to landowners, Oil Search chairman Rick Lee is reported to have said, “Clearly it’s the lack of distribution [of funds], not the lack of payment [by Oil Search], that is the cause of it”.
Unfaltering in its quest to erase corporate responsibility, the company loftily advocated more transparency in the handling of the gas project royalties and trumpeted the benefits of publishing a detailed public breakdown of payments as a mechanism for curbing corruption.
Simultaneously, in an interview with Radio New Zealand, an ExxonMobil official said it had invested “$US246 million to build infrastructure, develop social programs and implement skills training”.
As fast as lightning, PNG government petroleum minister Dr Fabian Pok issued stern words to Oil Search not to shift blame while doing some blame shifting of his own: “In PNG LNG project, ExxonMobil on advice from Oil Search Limited, rush(ed) on Section 47 requirements and relied on social mapping reports as complete and pushed ahead with the project development”.
Perhaps reeling from the shock, a subsequent media release from Oil Search adopted a different tone and language, segueing to a position no longer isolated from the PNG government and declaring it was “committed to PNG and will continue to work with the State, the developer, its joint venture partners and the communities to ensure the benefits are distributed as soon as possible”.
This back-pedalling by vocal white men was signed and dated by Oil Search communications manager Ruth Waram, a Papua New Guinean woman no less. But this failed to hide who had control over the narrative.
And yet, amongst all the politicking and unravelling of opaque dealings and dismal accountability, the real story is about the Papua New Guineans who have had to live with the consequences of the decisions made by whoever was responsible for this gross mismanagement.
The Monthly magazine’s May 2018 issue delivered a timely snapshot of this through Jo Chandler’s outstanding long form journalism.
Entitled ‘The Resource Curse: Papua New Guinea’s boom gas project is burning up’, he article reviews the US$19 billion liquefied natural gas project from the first meeting between ExxonMobil and PNG representatives in Brisbane in February 2010 to the present-day anger and anguish replete with unpaid royalties, toxic and violent law and order problems and the steady disintegration of the lives of the people of Hela Province who host the LNG project.
While the PNG government, ExxonMobil and Oil Search issue glowing statements of their performance in bringing social and economic benefits to PNG, the people of Hela say otherwise. Men, women and children gaze on a blank landscape, once promised to be rich with tertiary campuses, roads and all manner of other benefits.
Passivity is not within the repertoire of the Huli people of Hela. “We are the women of Hela, but we are not benefiting,” Janet Koriama, president of the Hela Council of Women, tells Chandler.
Koriama recounts her conversation with ExxonMobil and government personnel when she travelled to Port Moresby in search of answers about where the ‘big money’ had gone. Her questions were unanswered, and they remain unanswered. She blames to the government: “Our own sons, who were educated, who were supposed to put it all together.”
Janet Mbuda, a highschool teacher from Hides, drew attention to the young men. “Their mindset is spoiled,” she says, describing teenage boys who left school following the disruption that stalks the gas project. “They can kill anyone. The white men, the black men, they don’t care…”
Chandler refers to an earlier essay when she told of how Powerpoint slides shown by PNG specialists to ExxonMobil in February 2010.
The final slide said: “I will be 18 years old in 2022 and, if I have not been educated and I am still a subsistence farmer living in relative poverty, I am going to be really angry! I may be armed and dangerous!”
The words were juxtaposed with imagery of a small Huli boy crouched by the side of the road with a barefoot youth bearing a high-powered automatic rifle.
The article articulates the feelings of the should-have-been beneficiaries: the women, the young men, the children of Hela Province. It offers a deeper understanding of the plight of those forced into the trajectory of a grim future.
These voices of the indigenous people must be fostered and elevated above all. When the final story is told, it would be ideal if the needs of the people were seen to have overshadowed corruption, blame-shifting and scapegoating and that there had been a steady movement towards inclusive solutions.
This ideal narrative would show that Western operators and the PNG government had eventually chosen to commit to delivering on all those promises made to the people of Hela so many years ago.
This essay was prepared under the My Walk to Equality Writer Fellowship 2018 sponsored by Paga Hill Development Company. Attendance at the Griffith Review 60: ‘First Things First’ launch (Avid Bookstore, West End) and the purchase of a copy of The Monthly (May 2018) were undertaken as literary activities of the fellowship. The fellowship commenced in mid-March 2018 and will conclude at the end of September 2018. Information and regular updates of activities undertaken by fellowship recipient, Rashmii Bell, may be found here or via Twitter: @amoahfive_oh