A couple of weeks ago departing Telstra Chief Sol Trujillo was quoted extensively in the media on his comments about Australia being a backward nation of racists. I joined in unison with Indigenous leaders around the nation by offering a wry smirk and a silent nod of approval to an animated Sol while I was viewing his forthright reflection on the evening news.
The unsavoury and unbecoming R word that Sol attributes to Australians generally was viciously challenged by politicians and social commentators in the days that followed.
I guess in many ways Indigenous leaders see Australians’ denials of inherent racist behaviour, in particular the abysmal treatment of Indigenous Australians, as necessary to help perpetuate the convenient myth to the rest of the world of our flawless egalitarian state.
While I have referred to “Australians”, I by no means include all Australians in this category: Indigenous leaders are upbeat on the steady rise of support from mainstream society to closing the gap in our quality of life.
Liz Jackson’s Four Corners report aired on Monday, June 15, does little to allay the genuine concerns held by Indigenous leaders about an escalation in national racist sentiments. In her Four Corners story “Who Killed Mr Ward?”, Liz Jackson’s excellent investigative work further highlights the widening of the gap that Prime Minister Rudd claimed in his Sorry Day address in February 2008 would be closed within a generation.
The in–depth analysis of the death of Mr Ward (out of customary respect for the family of the deceased his Christian name can not be released publicly) reveals a shocking story of a well–respected community leader who was locked in a metal cell in the back of a prison van and driven through the desert in searing heat on January 27, 2008.
Four hours later he was dead.
Liz Jackson’s story revealed that the air temperature inside his cell was more than 47C, and the metal surface reached 56C. A post mortem examination conducted on the body of the deceased by forensic pathologist, Dr G.A. Cadden, concluded on August 12, 2008 that the cause of death was consistent with heatstroke. Dr Cadden explained in his findings that heatstroke is a process by which the body’s cooling mechanisms break down because the body can no longer lose heat either by way of conduction, radiation or evaporation. The mechanism of death can be by way of a cardiac arrhythmia or heart failure. In this case there would have been multi–organ failure and the central nervous system would not have been able to function leading to death. There may have been coma or seizure prior to death.
Respected long serving Perth Aboriginal Legal Service Chief Executive Officer, Dennis Eggington, expressed outrage on the Four Corners program at the treatment of an esteemed cultural custodian: “We don’t treat animals like that. We don’t treat our pets like that. People get put in jail for treating ... another creature the same as Mr Ward was treated.”
The Minister for Corrective Services at the time, Margaret Quirk, also told Ms Jackson, that she could not convince her Cabinet colleagues to spend money to replace the ageing prison van fleet.
I find the former Minister’s story implausible (even with the four tear drops that inexplicably rolled down her face on TV at precisely the right moment) and believe the money — in abundance in a state with a budgetary surplus from the mining boom at the time — would have been hastily procured to replace the entire ageing fleet if the transported prisoners were non–Indigenous.
The tragic story further revealed the callous disregard of the Indigenous elder by the guards driving the prison van, who admitted they did not stop to check on his welfare or see if he needed a toilet break, food or water until, they say, they heard a thud from the back. Even then they did not unlock both the cell doors, and instead threw water on Mr Ward through the chained–up inner door.
To add to the indignity of this extraordinary chain of unfortunate events, accentuated with racist fervor, the local Justice of the Peace who refused Mr Ward bail admitted to the inquest that he was unaware that Mr Ward was a well–respected, well–connected man.
“No, no. He was an Aboriginal [sic] in a very drunken state or very groggy state. That’s all I knew him as,” the Justice of the Peace said.
I was inspired by the eloquent words of Prime Minister Rudd when he said he was going to close the gap within a generation so all Indigenous people can have a quality of life comparable with mainstream society.
Try telling that to the family of Mr Ward, Prime Minister. Post your Sorry Day speech, our mob have now had a chance to assess your overall successes in this regard.
The report card on Indigenous rights at present is producing grades even your biased family members and infatuated parliamentary colleagues would find unpalatable, Prime Minister.
And while you’re setting goals for us, Prime Minister, do you think you could be a bit more selective with your choice of words? Your “adios” reply to Sol Trujillo’s departure referred to his Mexican ethnicity as opposed to his esteemed business acumen and reeked of intolerance at best and xenophobia at worse.
Perhaps Sol Trujillo hit a raw nerve when he scratched Australia’s racist underbelly.
About the Author:
STEPHEN HAGAN is a Lecturer in the Centre for Australian Indigenous Knowledges, University of Southern Queensland.