Free Lex Wotton

AAWL public meeting on unions and the Aboriginal movement today

The AMIEU reprints a speech given by Alison Thorne, for Indigenous Social Justice Association - Melbourne 1 April 2009


Welcome this meeting — it is important that as unionists we take the question of justice for the Indigenous nations of Australia very seriously. As unionists we ignore this question at our peril because none of us can achieve our liberation while we are living on stolen land and in a country that has never reached a treaty with those the land was stolen from.

There is also a very strong connection between Aboriginal people and workers of every race. The ruling class of this country profits from both the theft of Aboriginal land and the exploitation of workers’ labour.

It is therefore not surprising that the most politically conscious sections of the trade union movement can point to a very proud history of supporting ongoing struggle for Aboriginal rights.

Unions played a key role mobilising support for:

  • the Pilbara battles in the 1940s when Aboriginal stockmen demanded equal wages
  • the Gurindji people when they walked off Wave Hill in 1966
  • for the yes campaign during the 1967 referendum and many other struggles.

During the 1990s the Freedom Socialist Party worked closely with ex-miners demanding justice for the inhabitants of the remote NSW Aboriginal community of Baryulgil where the population had systematically been exposed to asbestos. This campaign also generated considerable support amongst the Trade Union movement with one of the leaders of the campaign, Charles Moran, speaking here at Trades Hall.

It is important that we acknowledge this history and use it to inspire trade unionists to push our unions to build on these traditions today.

I’ve been asked this evening to speak particularly about Lex Wotton, a respected Aboriginal leader who is currently doing time in Townsville Prison.

I’m going to cover:
•    Some background as to why Lex is currently doing time
•    An overview of support that has come from the union movement
•    Some thoughts on what needs to happen now.


Firstly, ISJA – Melb characterises Lex a political prisoner. He is an innocent man who is doing time for participating in a legitimate and absolutely justifiable protest. He has been made the fall guy, forced to pay for property damage resulting from community outrage at yet another death in custody where an Aboriginal person wandering along just singing a song is dead on the floor a police cell less than an hour later. The police treatment of Aboriginal Australians in murderous. But, again and again, Aboriginal communities are told to trust in the system and let justice take its course. What justice! There is no justice when police office Chris Hurely has been exonerated, promoted and compensated and Lex Wotton is in jail.

Let’s do a quick recap of the facts.

On Nov. 19, 2004, Mulrunji allegedly mouthed off to police officer Chris Hurley as he was arresting another Aboriginal man on the street. Hurley arrested Mulrunji for being “drunk and disorderly,” beat him, and took him to jail. Mulrunji was found dead on the cell floor 40 minutes later. He had suffered head and jaw trauma, four broken ribs, and massive internal bleeding. His liver was literally cleaved in half.

Had the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody been implemented, Mulrunji would not have been arrested in the first place; if he had been, he would have been properly monitored in the police station; and, finally, the investigation would not have been so spectacularly tainted with Hurley being investigated by mates, meeting them at the airport and having dinner and drinks with them to chat “off the record” before the investigation had even began.

When the first coroner’s inquiry into Mulrunji’s death declared it an accident the community rebelled. More than 10 percent of Palm Islanders took to the streets. Protesters burned down the police station, courthouse, and Hurley’s police residence. What triggered the militant protest was anger that the death was declared an accident based on an appallingly flawed interim report by investigating police who “forgot” to mention that Roy Bramwell, a witness who’d told a public meeting he’d see Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley repeatedly punching Mulrunji, and yelling, ‘Do you want more Mr Doomadgee? Do you want more?’ had already provided a statement to police accusing Hurley of assaulting Mulrunji shortly before his death.

Mulrunji’s death and the decisive community response revitalised the movement to stop death in custody. Demands to know the truth and hold those responsible to account resulted in a proper coroner’s investigation in 2006 that found Hurley culpable for Mulrunji’s death. More mass protests were necessary before Hurley was made to face court, making him one of the few cops responsible for a death in custody to face trial. That Hurley actually faced court — a rare occurrence in the struggle to stop deaths in custody — was a victory for the movement.

But, in 2007, an all-white jury acquitted Hurley. He was promoted to the rank of Inspector, transferred to Surfers Paradise, and given $100,000 to compensate for the fire.

In contrast, on 7 November 2008, an all-white jury returned a verdict of ‘guilty’ against Lex for the crime of ‘rioting with destruction,’ He has been sentenced to a six-year prison term with a two year none parole period. Lex, who works as plumber, was found guilty on the flimsiest of evidence — primarily film footage of him with a wrench he was using to fix the Islands’ water supply.

Unfortunately, the events on Palm Island are not an extraordinary one off, but part of an entrenched pattern.

In early 2007 a jury acquitted four other Palm Islanders charged with “riot.” They now describe themselves as “marked men” who are targets for attention by Queensland Police. One, William Blackman, found himself in court late last year charged with public nuisance! During his arrest, in a pattern becoming all too familiar, Blackman was pushed face down and kneed in the back. He was then capsicum sprayed and taken to the watch house where he was denied a shower and spent the night without bedding on a concrete floor. The public nuisance charge was dismissed and Blackman, unlike Mulrunji, survived to describe his treatment.

If we contrast the treatment of both the Doomadgee family, who have received not a penny in compensation and the treatment of Lex, with that of the police — some of whom received bravery awards — it is easy to see why the Palm Island community is angry. The ingrained racism is systemic and there’s plenty to be angry about.

The last chapters in this struggle are still to be written. As 2008 ended, the 2006 coroner’s finding that Hurley was responsible for Mulrunji's death was set aside. The inquest will be reopened and, Lex is still in jail.

Union movement support

Based on the above, it is clear why Lex is being characterised as a political prisoner.

Lex’s supporters have made links with people like Noel Washington who also risked jail by defying injustice with his refusal to appear before the repressive Australian Building and Construction Commission.

There has been some significant trade union movement support for Lex Wotton.

The most substantial has come from the MUA.

  • On the day Lex was sentenced the entire Sydney waterfront came to a standstill as wharfies stopped work to demand justice for Lex
  • The union also funded a bus from Sydney to take supporters from the community to Brisbane for Lex’s trial
  • In Melbourne, Dave Cushion from the MUA spoke at a Free Lex Wotton rally and the union gave its hall free of charge to ISJA to host a solidarity fiesta that Lex spoke at

The RTBU in Brisbane have been strong supporters sending officials to Townsville to participate in solidarity protests.

When Lex visited Melbourne last year he addressed and got support from AMWU and AEU.

He also spoke to both VTHC meeting and VTHC executive meeting and received important solidarity.

So where to now?

By jailing Lex Wotton, the state hopes to head off future opposition to racist persecution. The Queensland government is trying to scare people away from responding to the whitewash of Mulrunji’s killing and resisting Canberra’s draconian invasion of Northern Territory Aboriginal communities.

This subjugation of Indigenous Australians is yet another form of the repression being unleashed against trade unionists who stand up for workers’ rights. For example, the Australian Building Construction Commission has spied on, intimidated and threatened to imprison several building workers for organising strikes and other resistance against exploitation.

So, it is vital that we continue to campaign to build support to free Lex Wotton and stop the ongoing Aboriginal deaths in custody.

ISJA has been campaigning around these demands:

  • Free Lex Wotton! Free all political prisoners!
  • Defend the right to oppose racist state brutality!
  • Jail Hurley and all killer cops!
  • Justice for Mulrunji! Stop Aboriginal deaths in custody now!
  • Implement the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in custody in full now
  • Establish elected community controlled civilian review boards to hold the police to account

The work that has been done to generate solidarity in the union movement to date has been valuable but, other than the exemplary actions by the MUA with its waterfront stoppage, the focus has been largely on trade union officials expressing their solidarity with Lex Wotton.

I’d like to see more activity at the grass roots level amongst rank and file unionists and in workplaces.

The following actions would be valuable:

  • articles demanding freedom for Lex Wotton and support for the campaign to stop DIC in as many union journals as possible
  • workplace meetings to hear a speaker, discuss the campaign and pass motions of support
  • motions passed in as many union movement forums as possible demanding freedom for Lex and taking up other elements of the campaign to stop DIC
  • unions supporting rallies and other actions to stop DIC by bringing flags and mobilising members!
  • another motion from Trades Hall now that Lex has been jailed demanding he be freed but also committing Trades Hall to remain active around the issue.

What we do remains very important. This issue has to feel politically hot to the Queensland Government to ensure, at minimum, that Lex is released at the earliest possible parole date. 

Since the death on Palm Island in 2004, the Queensland government has urged Aboriginal people and their supporters to have faith in the system. But those of us in ISJA - Melb have no faith in a system that acquits Senior Sargent Hurley but has found Lex Wotton, a leader with enormous integrity, guilty of riot. The point for workers and for Aboriginal Australians is that the “justice” system exists to protect the rich and the powerful. It is a system where, to quote legendary singer songwriter, Kev Carmody, Aboriginal people can be “executed without trial” while held in custody. It is a system that hunts down opponents of racism, like Wotton, who protest against this injustice. The union movement needs to act — we must demand Lex Wotton’s freedom, now!