The Tall Man: Death and Life on Palm Island

By Chloe Hooper, Hamish Hamilton, $32.95

CHLOE HOOPER, a novelist whose first book won international praise, recently released The Tall Man, a book on the Palm Island inquest into the death in police custody of Cameron Doomadgee. She won a Walkley Award for reporting during the inquest.

Mulrunji, as Doomadgee is known since his passing, was killed in police custody on November 19, 2004 at the hands of Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley. Hooper met the Doomadgee family’s lawyer, Andrew Boe, and decided to follow him up to Palm Island in February 2005.

The result is an excellent report of the inquest but with a significant focus on the people living on Palm Island and the life and character of police officer Chris Hurley.

Having spent time with the Doomadgee family, she describes a group of people who attempt to survive amidst disturbing living conditions. The island was very familiar with death; they had already suffered the loss of many family members as a result of police brutality, suicide and an appalling level of health services. There is also a very good section about the history of Palm Island and how the effects of the Stolen Generation are still visible in the community today.

Throughout The Tall Man Hooper shows that evidence was clearly stacked against Hurley, but the cover ups and intimidation began immediately after Mulrinji was found dead. Once Mulrinji was found dead in the cell, Hurley and his police colleagues spent hours making up a story to save his career.

The coroners’ reports made it clear that Mulrunji could not have received the injuries that led to his death simply by tripping and falling over the step at the police station, as Hurley claimed. As Hooper reports, there were a handful of people who witnessed how Mulrinji was arrested for public nuisance after shouting, “Who let the dogs out?”

At least a quarter of the book is spent delving into Hurley’s past. She finds out that he was liked by a lot of people, black and white. Murrandoo Yanner was one of them. An Aboriginal activist living in Burketown when Hurley worked there, he campaigned against mining plans and called on black nations to boycott the Sydney Olympics. Yanner describes him as a mentor for black children, participating in school camps and sports activities. But others remember him as sleazy, a heavy drinker, and eager to participate in pub fights.

Another important fact was that Hurley had twenty complaints lodged against him before Mulrunji’s death; information that Queensland Police tried to prevent the court from hearing about.

Although Hooper finds both negative and positive character references for Hurley, these chapters are the weakest parts of the book.

Hooper does question Hurley’s paternalistic involvement in Aboriginal communities, highlighting that police officers can move up the ladder faster by doing time in regional areas. But it seems like she is desperately trying to uncover another reason for Hurley’s motivation to work in towns with Indigenous majorities. Hooper never states that Hurley murdered Mulrunji, even though Hurley conceded that as a result of his knee “falling” onto Mulrunji, he incurred injuries that resulted in his death. “A few phrases Hurley repeated had the subtlest air of rehearsal, but if he was lying he was brilliant at it. He seemed grave. He seemed sincere.”

Hooper actually interviewed several police officers who were on Palm Island when Aboriginal people rioted against them after Mulrunji’s death. She seems sympathetic to their situation, devoting a page to officers describing how they have become alcoholics and how their families were put in danger. Hooper does provide a brief history of the well-known corruption entrenched in the Queensland Police during the 1980s, and suggests that certain practices are common today. Her criticisms of Howard’s Northern Territory intervention, which was announced the day before Hurley was found not guilty, are also quite good.

In short, The Tall Man is very informative for anyone wanting to know the details of the case. However, while Hooper is definitely more sympathetic to the Indigenous side of the case and to the pursuit of “justice”, she still attempts to present the case in a “balanced” way, even though the truth is staring any reader in the face.

Rachel Cramp


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  1. Up here in the UK, very few people read about what goes on in queensland. It is a completely surreal place, but the odd Ozzie jokes that come out about queensland are treated like the Irish jokes used to be.

    I have seen in Australia, my first racial hatred out in Freemantle, in 1962 and sickening primitive behaviour of the white fella, dishing out the superior white attitudes to the black fellas, and I am appalled and disgusted. Queensland is a beautiful state, in occupation by people that are every bit as bad as the ‘rednecks’ of the southern states of america.

    Even in the UK, we have elements of bigotry, racism and general ignorance that frightens any person with a dollop of decency about them.

    I spent some time in PNG, out in the swamps of the western province, and was treated with hospitality, kindness and humour all the time.

    I am shocked that the whites of Qld are so corrupt and brutal to the aborigines, even after all the shameful history that there is . The QLD police are to be shunned from decent society, and to be held accountable for ALL THEIR TRANSGRESSIONS

    The whole of the Queensland state is just about the same as the 19ty century in attitudes and behaviour. It’s about time they started to grow up and learn that there is no place for the dinosaurs of law and order.

    Peter Ballan
    No 8
    NE66 1AF

  2. In reply to Peter Ballan, you may not see this as you posted your comment in 2009 but you have described it acurately. It isn’t only in Queensland, the entire country is affected and West Australia, where I live, is extremely bad. The Aboriginal people make up 25% of the community yet the prison population here is 75%, does that make sense? NO! Australia can indeed be likened to America as both countries were colonized in the same way. Native Americans (Indians) are still to this day treated as a lower class of people unless they choose to live the ‘white’ way. They aren’t even classed as citizens of their own country if they choose to live their own way on reservations. Many attrocities were committed to the Indigenous people of both countries and it’s STILL happening. These wrongs have never been taught in history classes at schools and it is just recently that here in Australia our last Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, made a very public apology to ALL Indigenous people of this country, for past and current issues. The police force, unfortunately, don’t recognize it therefore Indigenous people are treated differently. We are working on change but it remains difficult. Thank you for your comment.
    Sue Clayton
    West Australia

  3. Personally Peter, I wonder how you can be so critical of and opinionated about QLD when you do not live there, and you even admit that not many people read about it in the UK anyway. Perhaps generalisations such as “I am shocked that the whites of Qld are so corrupt and brutal” are a tad uncalled for and maybe even unfounded, given your own physical and emotional detachment to the state of QLD, that couldnt possibly allow you to have a totally educated opinion.
    Sue, I respect your position as much as I can, and I don’t live in WA, I’m in Victoria so I don’t know how it is there, but I will tell you for a fact that all through primary and secondary school I was taught about the atrocious history of Australia with regards to black versus white. We spent whole units on the subject, went on excursions to talk with people that were afflicted by such things as racial prejudice or the stolen generation, and were constantly encouraged to develop our own opinions. So when you say that “these wrongs have never been taught in history classes” (NEVER being the crucial word) I am taken a back.
    The racial divide in Australia is a huge issue, one rife with corruption on many fronts and plain laziness on others, but at least we should be educated about it before commenting in this way.

  4. […] Solidarity Online » The Tall Man: Death and Life on Palm IslandPeter Ballan Posted 31st Jan 2009 at 11:36pm. Up here in the UK, very few people read about what goes on in queensland. It is a completely surreal place, but … […]


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