The small world of big men

Peter Cochrane; 5/11/08

A Question of Power, The Geoff Clark Case; By Michelle Schwarz; Black Inc
The Tall Man: Death and Life on Palm Island; By Chloe Hooper; Penguin

At first glance the cases discussed in The Tall Man and A Question of Power could not be more different. One is set in the far north, the other in the far south; one features a white policeman on trial for a black death in custody, the other an Aboriginal power-broker accused of leading a series of pack rapes about 30 years ago. Yet there is much in common: both involved powerful men for whom violence was or had been a routine part of life and both men were at the centre of sensational events that made their cases, to varying extent, trial by media. Race was at the heart of each case and each was so muddied by doubt as to be inconclusive, though the white man was found not guilty of manslaughter while the Aboriginal man was confirmed, though not convicted, as a rapist.

See: The Australian Literary Review; The Australian, No Internet Text
The synergy is even greater in one particular respect: the confusion of courtroom evidence carries into a wider picture where clarity is possible, where we can know something for certain about the social relationships and the harsh, brutal realities that shaped Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley, Queensland policeman, and Geoff Clark, Gundijmara man, former chairman of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, the most powerful Aboriginal politician in the land.
The strength of these books lies in this wider clarity, in the sociological rather than the legal dimension, for the court cases themselves were so hog-tied by conflicting evidence as to ensure nothing but frustration as one searches, hopelessly, for finality.
The allegations against Clark surfaced in The Age in 2001. Four women claimed that Clark raped them in Warrnambool in the 1970s and ’80s. The details were horrendous but insufficient evidence made it unlikely that a- rape charge would stick. Instead, one of the women, Carol Stingel, brought a civil case against Clark claiming post-traumatic stress disorder caused by the alleged rapes. In a civil action the burden of proof required is lower than in a criminal court. The jury must find “on the balance of probabilities” the alleged event occurred. Stingel’s jury found in her favour and awarded $20,000 damages.
One suspects most non-Aboriginal observers took their cue from The Age, which led the case against Clark, highlighting his origins in juvenile bower, his later reputation for brutality in boxing and football and his time inside for minor crime. His looks were not much help, a bulky frame and a permanent scowl that most people didn’t know was the result of nerve damage from a car accident.
And, of course, he had a reputation for radical activism on behalf of Aboriginal causes.
He was more agitator than conciliator. It is probably true to say he was judged harshly in white conversation around the land.
But in Clark’s home town, the Framlingham Aboriginal community near Warrnambool in the Western District of Victoria, opinion was divided down the middle.
As Michelle Schwarz discovered, it was impossible to disentangle the rape allegations from the complex ties of clan and family, from a bitter web of rivalries and vendettas, from Clark’s legendary status as either hero or demon, patron or thug, and from the political struggle for control of the Framlingham Trust.
In A Question of Power the story of rape allegations quickly moves into an inquiry into Framlingham, Clark’s traditional country and his power base. Similarly, the inquiries into the alleged violations are subordinate to the pursuit of how and why they might have surfaced decades later, in 2001.
Framlingham has one of those familiar colonial histories, a fringe-dweller camp on the edge of a hostile town, a few huts and mia-mias, unwanted, despised, blamed for its own plight and yet ruled from afar by non-Aboriginal bureaucrats who, in this case, were happy to let the community carry into the ’60s with no electricity, no proper water supply and a scattering of substandard housing.
All of which may produce any amount of defiance or crime or delinquency. And yet Clark’s story was shaped not so much by this past as by momentous developments in Aboriginal politics in the ’70s.
When Clark came home in 1979 after a football career in Western Australia he plunged into Framlingham politics. By that time the community had acquired a significant degree of self-regulation through the auspices of the Aboriginal Lands Act (1970) and the creation of the Framlingham Trust.
The trust was responsible for land rights dealings with the Victorian government, for control of housing at “Fram” — accommodation, rent enforcement and even evictions — for jobs and other local matters. The trust was Aboriginal-run and the administrator, the “main man”, was powerful.
Clark was intelligent, talented, a natural leader, a relentless advocate, a stirrer, defiant, as tough as nails, a good advocate for Framlingham. He soon took control. That meant rivals lost status and power. The rivalry split his own family, irrevocably, into the now notorious rift between the Clarks and the Clarkes (with an “e”).
Some details are almost unbearable to read. One of Clark’s accusers was evicted from the Framlingham Aboriginal hostel in the mid-’80s due to non-payment of rent.
The evicting official was Clark. She was compelled to squat, with her two-year-old daughter, in a vacant house in Warrnambool. Her daughter was killed soon after on the highway nearby. She blames Clark. She is aligned with the Clarkes.
Yet this is just one story. The family-centred feud only worsened, each side gathering an array of supporters, barrackers and soolers-on, the gripes and grudges shared around, the feud never quite exploding, just ticking over, steadily, from one mean little outrage to another, year in, year out.
At the same time, Clark was building a national reputation as a vigorous advocate and able negotiator in the wider world. In 1996 he was elected to the board of ATSIC and in December 1999 he was elected chairman, the first ATSIC chairperson to be elected by his Aboriginal peers.
All to great cheers from one end of Framlingham and to sonorous, doom-filled “make yer spit” groans from the other.
Schwarz works through all this backgrounding, and the court cases, with meticulous care. She does not identify a plot to dethrone Clark and ruin him in his finest hour, though that, of course, is a view held firmly by the Clarks.
But the entire book, by virtue of its thrust and emphasis, is an inquiry into that possibility. Schwarz concludes, having charted all this factionalism and feuding, “how difficult it is to disentangle the rape allegations from the complex ties, rivalries and grudges of the community at Framlingham”.
The uncertainties compound.
Which way to lean?
Where to cast one’s sorrow?
When the allegation is rape, one’s sympathies are naturally with the victim. Any question of doubt is tinged with unease. The history comes to mind, that long, cruel history of doubting and vilifying the victim, of a legal process almost as vicious in its probing as the act of rape itself.
On the other hand, there is the gnawing possibility that perhaps one of these claims, as the defence team argued in the committal hearing relating to another alleged victim, might be an exquisite payback triggered by Clark’s triumphs; that the charge, whether real or fabricated, might have a twisted purpose other than justice, or alongside justice: two scalps off one head.
The case of the tall man seems a lot simpler. On Palm Island on November 19, 2004, Cameron Doomadgee, drunk and staggering, abuses the towering Hurley. He is arrested, shoved into a paddy wagon and 40 minutes later, following a “fall”, he is dead in a watch-house cell.
At the outset the investigation was a disgrace. Two friends from Townsville CIB interviewed Hurley for 32 minutes. The focus in the interview was on a punch thrown by Doomadgee and the scuffle that ended with both men falling to the floor. Hurley was adamant he did not fall on the Aboriginal man, but landed beside him.
Doomadgee had hit a cop, end of story. No further details required. The same evening the policemen dined together at Hurley’s house.
But further details fast came to light. An Aboriginal man — a drunk and a wife-beater — claimed to have had a partial sighting of Hurley bashing Doomadgee in the cell. A week later the autopsy was available: head bruised front and back, a purpling eye, four broken ribs and a liver cleaved in two across Doomadgee’s spine, an injury so brutal it could be likened to car crash damage.
The news raced around the island. Doomadgee’s friends and relatives massed together, working themselves into a fury. For a time it seemed the besieged police might be burnt alive in their stockade.
That didn’t happen, but now the case was a nationwide controversy, the latest Aboriginal death in custody, seemingly another bout of watch-house brutality.
The autopsy put an end to neat and tidy police work among friends. Somehow the black man in the cell had suffered a killing blow.
Now in better hands, the investigation turns to the “fall” and its aftermath.
Hurley’s evidence will change too. He will concede, finally, that he must have come down, somehow, on top of Doomadgee.
The tortuous course of the investigation culminating in Hurley’s trial for manslaughter and a nation-stunning not guilty verdict is but a thread in Chloe Hooper’s extraordinary journey into Hurley’s past.
Her findings are startling.
Whatever happened in that cell, Hurley was no racist cop. His story, writ large, is part of the tragedy of the frontier, that long, brutal history of policing the “natives” now complicated by small-l liberal values, by cultural relativism and a greater appreciation of Aboriginal heritage, of what has been lost and the damage done; by grog-fed, chronic dysfunction, by Aboriginal politics, by the tourist dollar, the hovering eye of the media and heaven knows what else.
What’s certain is that Hurley wanted his postings in the far north. He chose places other cops didn’t want.
What drew him? Was it the boy’s-own adventure, the idea of the frontier, the wide streets, the red dust, the heat, the fights, the swagger, the vastness, that compound of menace and beauty, an allure that is ancient yet alive?
Or was it the power that goes with remoteness, the chance to be one’s “own man”; a fiefdom, Kurtz in his little kingdom?
There is more than one nod here to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
Perhaps it was all of this but there was something more.
Hurley was drawn to north Queensland by good intentions. He was two years on Thursday Island, then spent the next five working in Cape York. He was drawn to Aboriginal Australia. At Palm Island and previously at Burketown in the Gulf Country and on the cape, he forged close ties with Aboriginal people.
He went at this with an exuberance suggesting idealism and a determination to succeed, to make his way up in the world. He was ambitious, opinionated, charismatic, powerful, decisive, the tall man, some 2m tall, about 6′ 7″ in the old scale, and he had a lot of friends among local Aboriginal people.
At Burketown, Hurley was into everything: dance, gymkhana, boxing tent, rodeo, he was there, drinking, backslapping, sitting the women on his knee (when he could), walking a fine line. At the rodeo he risked a bull ride to raise money for the Flying Doctor and came off the worse for wear.
He endeared himself to Aboriginal children, always found time for them, took them camping, supported their school, showed them how to march on Anzac Day and how to drive on the local oval, the police car lurching and stalling. “Children climbed on him as if he were a tree,” Hooper writes.
His good relations with the Aboriginal community nearby (eerily called Doomadgee) is perhaps an important clue as to what might have happened in that cell on Palm Island.
Hurley struck up a camaraderie of sorts with the Yanner brothers, Murrandoo, Vernon and TJ, radical, tough, outspoken men, good hunters, good fighters, often on the wrong side of the law.
They were, as Hooper puts it, “sleek movers”, gruff and full of charm, not unlike Hurley. Perhaps he thought that beer and manhood just might transcend race?
They shared a belief it seems, in a no-nonsense code of summary justice. As Murrandoo put it:
Had he not been a policeman him and me would have been identical in many ways … Like him, I will take on the black or white who talks shit to me. He was a thug and a mug. I am the same. He liked to give blokes a touch up if they got outta line.
But brawling was rarely about justice. As Vernon Yanner observed, toughness among the young black men was now a mark of defiance, a generational thing: “The older generation,” he told Hooper, had been beaten down, tied up in the heat like dogs on a chain. The younger ones different. They’re saying, “I’d like to see the c..ts do that to us.”
In broken hunter-gatherer communities a warrior code of sorts still figures, twisted into something new and grim, and the law, the flesh in uniform, no matter how “full of charm”, is still an obstacle to be got round: he is still a “demon”, a “bullyman”, a “dog”, a “f..king c..t”.
“Had he not been a policeman” was how Murrandoo launched into fond commentary on Hurley. A beer bottle might still crash into Hurley’s paddy wagon as he drove around town. The sound of abuse still carried to his ears on a daily basis. He remained ever alert to the punch from out of nowhere.
The picture of Aboriginal masculinity, of a warrior code like the code of some exhausted, zonked-out bikie gang, is not pretty, but nor is it servile; on the contrary, the element of defiance is here in everything. And this is what Hurley dealt with, more or less alone, often summarily, like a frontier sheriff in an old western.
Perhaps better to go to such work with no idealism at all, for good intentions that are routinely smacked down and smothered by defiance and futility might well give rise to rage.
No one has written about the dirty side of police work on the frontier, and about its humiliations, the way George Orwell did.
In his essay Shooting an Elephant he wrote of his time as a colonial police officer in Burma. He recalled some good times but uppermost in his mind was the petty harassment that he and other white officers of the British Empire suffered when they were dealing with “the natives”.
From a distance he was baited, mocked, laughed and “hooted” at. Taken individually these incidents were bearable but as they accumulated so too did Orwell’s resentment.
His biographer, Michael Shelden, writes: “On one level, Orwell’s reaction was simply to return the hatred shown to him, to strike back violently against any sign of insolence, whether it was real or imagined.”
But his anger and frustration were becoming difficult to contain: “The sneering yellow faces of young men that met me everywhere, the insults hooted after me when I was at a safe distance, got badly on my nerves,” he wrote. He began to hate both the British Empire and its enslaved subjects.
“I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest’s guts.”
Orwell’s lesson is profound and lasting: the empire might enslave its subjects, but it also enslaves its agents, the men on the front line, the policemen who are just important enough to be hated yet who bear the brunt of the hatred because, unlike the politicians and the bankers, they are there.
At Palm Island grog and violence infected everything. Beautiful one day, deadly the next.
The unemployment rate was over 90 per cent. Getting to age 50 for a male was and is something akin to a miracle. In one six-week stretch a man stabbed and critically wounded his brother over a beer, a woman bit off another woman’s lip and a man poured petrol over his wife and set her alight.
And these horrors were just the stand-outs, figuring amid a sequence of violent behaviours so routine as to be hardly noticed and beyond the reach of the law.
The town on Palm, as Hooper tells it, was a slum on a lush tropical island, a community in extreme dysfunction where police were despised. Sometimes the abuse was sung to a Caribbean rhythm as the cops drove by: “Who let the dogs out (woof woof, woof).”
Observers said that Doomadgee was singing or shouting this song when Hurley drove by on November 19, 2004, and someone else was yelling “f..king Queenie c..t” from a nearby front yard. Whatever he heard, whatever was on his mind Hurley put his foot on the brake and backed up to Doomadgee and said, “I’m locking you up.”
So it began.
As ALR went to print, riot ringleader Lex Wotton had been convicted. He will be sentenced on November 7.
The Tall Man is a powerful tale of Hooper’s brave, sometimes tremulous journey into Hurley’s past.
The death of Doomadgee, subsequent inquiries and the trial are subsumed in a bigger story, a tour de force on race and policing in the north. This is beautifully written and finely researched and, as Helen Garner notes on the back cover, it is “all the more moving for its intense restraint”.
For no one can be certain of what happened in that fall and its aftermath, no one that is, but Hurley.