Summary publication

See also Guide to the Mornington Report (1993)

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In November 1990 the Federal Race Discrimination Commissioner received a petition signed by 163 Aboriginal residents on Mornington Island requesting an investigation of an incident, which is described in section 2.1 below. The Commissioner also received letters from other individuals on the Island requesting her intervention. All these requests had been forwarded through legal representatives of the West Queensland Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Corporation for Legal Aid (1).

In March 1991, Ms N Blair and Mr C Cunneen visited Mornington Island and interviewed many Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people, both as representatives of various organisations and in their personal capacities. A Preliminary Report was prepared for the Race Discrimination Commissioner. The Preliminary Report recommended, inter alia, that she, with members of her staff, personally visit Mornington Island to consult with residents. Commissioner Moss visited Mornington Island in November 1991. In October 1992, HREOC officers again visited Mornington Island on the Commissioner's behalf to discuss the proposed recommendations with residents and others on the Island, and to get an updated picture of the situation. This report is the outcome of these visits.

During the course of the preparation of this Report, the assistance of the West Queensland Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Corporation for Legal Aid is acknowledged. The Queensland Police Service has also been helpful in providing access to personnel and information.

It will be apparent from the information contained in this Report that the issues to be confronted on Mornington Island are wide-ranging. Although the issue which sparked the Commissioner's investigation centred around the criminal justice system and in particular relations with police, there are broader concerns which are of importance to the community. Indeed, these broader issues impact on and to some extent structure relations with the criminal justice system.

It is also noteworthy that there have been some positive changes during the eighteen months between the first and third visit by HREOC staff. It must be noted that there was considerable improvement in the quality of policing services to the Island. The Race Discrimination Commissioner is keen to acknowledge and support any positive changes in the delivery of services to Aboriginal communities. For example, it seems from most recent reports that improvements are being made as regards birthing practices. In addition, Northern Project Management is no longer involved in the administration of the Community Development Employment Program as was the situation at the time of the visits.

There are, however, fundamental problems of an ongoing nature. In many respects the people of Mornington Island live in a social, economic and political situation which would never be acceptable to non-Aboriginal people living in most parts of Australia.

There is a degree of surveillance and control of aspects of day-to-day life which seem extraordinary by the standards of citizenship and social participation which most Australians enjoy. Surveillance in this context includes the collation of data about Aboriginal drinkers; the collection
of monies by the Council etc.

In many respects the people of Mornington Island live under a system which is neo-colonia1.(2) Ostensibly there is local control through the election of councillors to a shire local government. However the political system has been imposed from the outside. It is a model of government introduced without consultation, let alone negotiation. Furthermore it is based on a model over which local people have little direct control and which reproduces the effective power of largely non-Aboriginal administrators. All key positions of power, decision-making and administration are held in non-Aboriginal hands; including health, education, justice, shire administration, civil engineering and trades employment and most other service delivery positions.

Many of the people in these positions exhibit what could be called a paternalistic attitude. Moreover the rapid turnover of non-Aboriginal staff in key positions means that there are often few opportunities for such paternalism to be challenged. During the course of developing this Report on Mornington Island all key non-Aboriginal personnel changed at least once.

This Report is critical of many aspects of the way in which affairs are conducted on Mornington Island. Such criticisms are made with the view to effect positive social and political change which will benefit all people on the Island. The view developed in this Report is that circumstances on Mornington Island would not be tolerated elsewhere in non-Aboriginal Australia.


1 Hereafter referred to the Aboriginal and Islander Legal Service.

2 The term 'neo-colonial' has been used, although another concept often used to describe such a situation is 'welfare colonialism'. For instance, Rowse writes that the change from colonialism to welfare colonialism 'involves a further stage of tutelage in which Aboriginal people nominally enjoy the right to run their own affairs, but actually fmd themselves having to learn to do so according to the forms of land tenure and administrative process created for them by the state.' (Rowse, 1992, p.19)