Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Tall Man, by Chloe Hooper

Where to start with this amazing book? Chloe Hooper’s first book was a novel called A Child’s Book of True Crime, published in 2002. This was followed up six years later with not another novel but a non-fiction work about the death in custody on Palm Island, in Queensland’s north, of indigenous man Cameron Doomadgee.

The events surrounding Doomadgee are hard to fathom. He was picked up by policeman Chris Hurley for apparently using some bad language. Whilst being taken to the lock up both men tripped at the doorway and fell into the station. Chris Hurley maintained that he fell beside Doomadgee, not on top of him. Yet Doomadgee suffered the most horrific injuries. His liver was cleaved in two as it was pressed violently against his back bone. He died from these injuries. How did his liver come to be so violently cleaved in two? The court case never really looked into it, or made it a point of finding out.

A week after the death the Aboriginal community on Palm Island rioted and burnt down the courthouse, police station and police barracks. To all intents and purposes, this was pretty much a state of war. You can’t help but think of the footage you see on the news of the violence that happens in the Gaza strip in Palestine.

Chris Hurley eventually went on trial for Doomadgee’s death, but was found not guilty. The Aboriginal community felt that they never really did have a chance of securing a conviction. Like always, this would be another one of those sad death-in-custody cases.

You have to admire Chloe Hooper’s courage in travelling to Palm Island and other North Queensland remote Aboriginal communities in order to do on the ground investigative journalism that this sort of book requires. What she reports back from the whole terrible affair is how much we live in two distinct Australias. There is one Australia that is like a third world country, with its residents doomed to staggeringly poor health and next to no political or economic power. Then there is the well heeled mainstream, people like me.

It was tragic to read about so many Aboriginal people whose basic health was just terrible – diabetes, alcoholism, constant violence. Hooper also cites polls that find white Australians in the North of Queensland have a very low opinion of the indigenous population. And from all the descriptions in this book, you can sympathise. Here in leafy inner Melbourne you simply don’t see all the problems on a day to day basis.

The question is, why is the status of the Aboriginal population so bad, and can we honestly answer that question?

This book paints a very clear picture of two different countries within the one Australia. One is strong, rich and healthy, the other weak, in a constant state of sickness and completely dependent. Look at the body differences between Chris Hurley (115 kilo) and Cameron Doomadgee (75 kilo). This was reinforced in the book with the descriptions of the fit Queensland Police Force, who rallied to support their member Chris Hurley when it was announced he would go to trial. This in contrast to the alcoholic, sick, medicated and mentally befuddled Aboriginals who gave evidence at the trial.

In the end, the subtext of this book seems to be: black and white Australians may be in theory equal before the law, but the reality is white Australia is by far the more culturally, economically and politically powerful. No indigenous Australian has much of a chance of winning against such a powerful establishment of people. Better outcomes would occur, it seems, if the Aboriginal population was far more politically organised and could exploit the democratic system to get the best possible results in all situations. Yet this book showed, as I’ve already mentioned above several times, that the Aboriginal population are sick, weak, disenfranchised, addicted to alcohol, poorly organised, and with a long history of being completely downtrodden.

This is one of those books that you want all Australians to read.

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