Palm Island community members say life hasn't improved in 50 years, they hope a Voice will make the difference

palm island community members say life hasn't improved in 50 years, they hope a voice will make the difference

Palm Island, off the coast of Townsville, has a transient population of about 4,000. (ABC News: Baz Ruddick)

An idyllic island that sits just off the coast of north Queensland masks a dark past of subjugation, displacement and discrimination.

Up until the late 1960s, men, women and children from more than 40 tribal groups from across Queensland were forced to live in dormitories on Palm Island.

Some were sent there as punishment for resisting government control.

The legacy hangs heavy over the transient community of 4,000 Bwgcolman and Manbarra people and is now front of mind amid a national debate for an Aboriginal Voice to Parliament.

Uncle Edward Walsh was born on Palm Island.

His grandparents were sent there in 1918 from different parts of Queensland.

He remembers life under the government’s protection acts, which were dictated to the people on the island by the sound of the bell and the white overseers.

“You didn’t have a say. You say something you were told to shut up. You couldn’t leave this island without a permit from the white man,” Mr Walsh said.

“At 6pm you’re back home in bed. The bell rings and you get off the streets or you go to jail for two weeks. It was a bad time.”

The island was notorious for severe treatment of those who didn’t follow the rules or challenged harsh working conditions.

“It’s not happening like that, but it still is happening. The government says ‘we think we should do this for these people on Palm Island’,” he said.

“Maybe sometimes they have a good point of view, maybe a lot of the time they don’t. They’re not listening to what we want to say.”

Sentiment echoes around island

Palm Island Aboriginal Shire Council Mayor Mislam Sam said he had seen lots of public money spent on the island but not always with outcomes.

“From decades of working in the community I can see the level of wastage that goes on a regular basis. We’ve let the systems go on for far too long without ever being taken seriously,” he said.

“I can see us still spiralling out of control in terms of our social disadvantage. And we need to change the game on that because the next generation of Bwgcolman kids will be affected time and time again.”

He said the island would benefit from greater community control of the delivery of government services, and he hoped a Voice would make that possible.

“I think if any community was suffering with 70 per cent unemployment, you’re going to have the social stats going against you. It is grassroots initiatives that will be able to make the change,” he said.

Professor Lynore Geia, a Bwgcolman woman, said she wants Indigenous people to be part of the political development of Australia into the future.

“Our history is a very punitive history, but we have now moved into a season of working together to bring hope and a sense of liberation and emancipation and do what we want to do,” Prof Geia said.

“We still feel the spirit of that control here.”

Palm Island has long had a history of activism and standing against injustice.

In 1957, a five-day island wide strike for unpaid wages ended when seven of the strike organisers were removed from the island.

Prof Geia said if the Voice fails, she believes her community would be “worse off than the status quo”.

“You hear No campaigners say ‘we are one people’, well we are not one people just yet. There is still unfinished business that needs to happen, historically deep business for our country,” she said.

“A no answer will be just another level of sorry business for us that will be so profound it would take away some of our hopes that we were ever going to have that liberation.”

While some Palm Island residents do not support a Voice to Parliament, most believe more needs to be done to turn disadvantage around.

No vote ahead in polls

The ABC spoke to some community members on Palm Island who did not support the Voice, but did not want to be interviewed.

Some told the ABC they were sceptical of any new government policies, while others were concerned about who the representatives on the advisory body would be.

Recent polling from Newspoll, Essential polls and RedBridge all showed the Yes vote trailing the No vote.

The ABC recently reported that support for the Voice was at its lowest point yet and had been falling by about 0.7 percentage points a week.

Griffith University’s policy innovation hub director, Professor Susan Harris Rimmer, said recent polls show a No vote was ahead in Queensland and Australia more broadly.

“The spend from the Liberal party in Queensland is very high and Peter Dutton is a Queenslander. He has made it a very personal mission to spread the word about the No campaign,” Prof Harris Rimmer said.

“People haven’t really turned their mind to it [the referendum] until the John Farnham ad has come out. That is the first time I have seen a real upswell in interest or appreciation.”

In the 1967 referendum the North Queensland division of Herbert, Leichhardt and Kennedy had the lowest Yes votes in the state.

She said Queensland was unique when compared to the other Australian states as more residents lived outside cities than within them.

She said the results of the referendum were likely to differ throughout the state.

“It is also a vast state with very different cultures,” she said.

“We say there are three Queenslands, four Queenslands, maybe twelve Queenslands in terms of voting habits.

“It has a particular history. History with the frontier wars with Indigenous people, with mining, with Joh Bjelke-Petersen and that kind of era, so it has a very particular history. It generally swings very hard in elections.”

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