Lex Wotton speaks!

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I was born on Palm Island in 1967, a product of the Stolen Generation. I grew up and

did all of my schooling on the island, apart from year eight when I went to school on the


My mum’s tribe is the Yidingi. They come from around the Tableland area, near Cairns.

Dad’s people are from around the Mossman area.

Photo by Alison Thorne

Mum’s mother went missing one night in a cyclone. They were all made wards of the

state — my mother, her two brothers and her sister. They were separated and my mother

was sent into Palm Island. She went into the dormitory system. To get out of that system,

she married my father and started a family. She had 11 children. My Dad’s passed on

now. My eldest and youngest brothers were both deceased through car accidents. Another

sister, who was the sixth eldest, died at a very young age.

I have four children of my own and brought up three others on top of that. I worked

most of my life on Palm Island as a plumber. Lately, I have helped run a weekend

rehabilitation centre for drug and alcohol.

Childhood years. I recall my Mum going to land rights meetings on the Island during

the ’70s. When the Whitlam government took office, there were high hopes across the

country for land rights to emerge for the Indigenous population.

We had a pretty good childhood. I lived in Palm Valley near the river. During the

summer we’d swim in the creek. We’d hunt freshwater yabbies. We had lots of different

bush tucker foods and fruits along the creek. We had a lot of freedom then.

It was during my childhood that I also saw the impact of alcohol. I think it is one of

the major turning points to becoming a dysfunctional community — that, and poor

leadership. By selling grog, the community raised revenue from our own people’s misery.

The community must decide. Fair enough, our people wanted the same right to walk into

pubs across the country and be treated equally and that was part of the referendum. We

wanted to be recognised as people, not flora and fauna.

But in terms of alcohol, the government hadn’t implemented any proper programs

to teach our people about the effects of alcohol. Governments built our community a

canteen, then they imposed rules. Initially, they gave our people just two hours to drink

and they were allowed a six-pack a day. Within two hours we had to drink all six cans

of beer, because they were opened at the counter! That made alcoholics. Over the years,

with more pushing to be treated equally, we could buy more than a six-pack. But it was

still opened inside the canteen and could not be taken away. So you were allowed a

carton of beer, but you had to drink that within four hours. Then you were allowed to go

to the canteen and drink from 10.00 in the morning to 10.00 at night — this has caused a

great deal of destruction in our community. Now the government is saying you are only

allowed mid- to light-strength beers and no spirits. So this defeats the whole purpose of

everyone’s right to drink.

I believe that my community should have a referendum, where all of us Indigenous

people, from 12 years of age to the oldest person, have the opportunity tovote on whether

we become dry or not. I think that’s a better solution than to have an alcohol management

plan imposed upon us. Dry would be good, but that’s my own personal view. But there is

no actual talk of a referendum.

History of resistance. Two of the Magnificent Seven, a group of Palm Islanders who

brought action under the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission charging

that the government had illegally underpaid them, were my in-laws. They used to talk to

us about when they were under The Act and when they used to line up for rations. They

were slave labour. No money was paid. Their mistreatment as young kids was shocking.

In the quarantine stations there was a medical examination board, and there was abuse.

It was way back in 1957 when they started to talk about the Palm Island strike. The

Magnificent Seven struck over their wages and other grievances. That was the first

recorded resistance against unfair wages and mistreatment. Yeah, that influenced me —

I recall when I was a kid watching a re-enactment at school of the strike of ’57. The in-
laws used to talk about it, too. So growing up, I knew that things weren’t right. I wanted

to own my own home, to work three days a week and get paid for it, to have nice things

and to travel, to have a pension and live until I’m old and stuff like that. After 20 years

of working hard as a plumber, I actually have nothing to show for it, because that’s the

system that we live in.

Speaking out against deaths in custody. On the day the deceased was killed, two

or three hours after it was announced, I was told. I rang my friend who works for the

Courier Mail to see if he would run with the story. When I rang, he was under the

weather so I left it at that. Then there was talk in the community in the following days

that there would be a gathering in the town area to discuss his death and try to come up

with some answers as to why he died in police custody. It all just went on from there.

We ended up living under a State of Emergency that should never have been declared.

Read Jeff Water’s book [Gone for a Song]. It explains this well. I feel glad that people

want to listen, because it refreshes my memory about a lot of things and brings to mind

that people need to know that these things were illegal acts and they were done by the so-
called law enforcers.

I was targeted as the ringleader of the so-called Palm Island Riots. I am the scapegoat

for both the federal and state governments’ inaction and failure to implement the

recommendations of the royal commission into deaths in custody in all Indigenous

communities. They put band-aid solutions together and do not actually interact with the

communities to find a way forward by working with the people who live it 24 hours a


Special treatment. When I was arrested, I was unarmed and just in a pair of shorts and

on my veranda. My family was terrorised. I recall one day sitting in a vehicle with no

shirt on and a young lad came up to me and said to me, “Uncle, where were you hit with

the stun gun?” I showed him the scars and he asked if it hurt. I told him it did. Then I

recalled that he was there when my brother-in-law was arrested in the nude. This young

lad and his cousin were playing in the yard, and they were told to hit the ground and had

guns pointed to their heads. They were terrorised. My 16-year-old niece was also in the

house and they held guns to her head.

There were guidelines set out in the Black Deaths in Custody recommendations that

the suspects, after a death in custody, should be stood down and removed from the

community. They should have nothing to do with the investigation. This did not happen:

this man, the suspect of a murder, picked up his friend who had formally investgated

him before. It was wrong! The same officer that investigated Hurley in this case and in

previous cases was also the one arresting us.

If the recommendations of the royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody had

been implemented, it would have made a lot of difference. For example, if the video

surveillance was up to date on the day the deceased died, we might have seen a lot more.

Also, if the recommendations had been fully implemented, the deceased wouldn’t have

been arrested. The coroner touched on that: arrest is the last resort, especially in a case of

public nuisance.

Not Black and white. The union support for me has been great. There is a history

between unions and the Indigenous populations. One of the most famous is the Wave Hill

walk-off. The unions got behind that and supported our communities. This eventually

led to Whitlam handing back the land. Unions and their members are battlers, too,

and they stand up for people’s rights and have a social conscience. When Howard was

in government, he brought in the WorkChoices laws. Then we saw Kim Beazley in

Melbourne in one of the cricket arenas with all the unions talking about abolishing

WorkChoices. Then the Labor government was elected with the support of the unions.

The unions are a voice, and they have to be listened to.

I don’t present this issue as being a Black and white issue. There are non-Indigenous

people dying in custody, too. It’s a social justice issue. There is also a race of people

who have been treated unfairly from 1788 until today. We’ve witnessed 220 years of

domination — the raping of the land, the exploitation of Aboriginal art and the high level

of incarceration of Indigenous people. That’s exploitation, too. We can’t change what

happened over the past 220 years, but we can recognise what has happened.

The prison in Townsville holds about 600 male prisoners, and out of that we have 200

prisoners from Palm itself. We have to stop jailing people for minor offences, and let’s

pour money into proper solutions for communities, which will provide services for

women and children and help men deal with anger problems, unemployment and low


We also need to re-examine the entire case. There needs to be a push from the public

again for a judicial review. Let’s expose the real Chris Hurley. Let’s paint a picture of the

flawed investigation and demand answers as to why they didn’t follow these guidelines

instead of giving promotions and compensations. Let’s find the solutions together.

I hope that what I have spoken about in Melbourne in these past few days will come to

light in the court. If it doesn’t, pick it up and take it and say, “This is what we know, and

it comes from Lex himself.” For the past three-and-a-half years I have had to put a lot

of things on hold and live on hopes. I think positive and will continue to live like that. I

want to go forward and have the opportunity to create something better for my people.

This issue hasn’t gone away — there needs to be a change in the justice system, not only

for myself, but for others too.

Interview by Alison Thorne on 6 August 2008.

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