Summary publication

Mornington Island Review Report

A report by the Race Discrimination Commissioner and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner

April 1995



The Mornington Shire, in Queensland, is made up of 22 islands of the Wellesley group situated in the south eastern corner of the Gulf of Carpentaria. Mornington Island is the largest of these islands. The township on Mornington Island is called Gununa and it is the centre of the population. There are approximately 1000 Aboriginal people and approximately 60 non-Aboriginal people living in the Mornington Shire.

The Mornington Shire is an isolated community. The nearest city is Mount Isa situated some 500 kilometres to the south. The level of literacy is estimated at 30% of the adult population with perhaps a further 40% of the adult population semiliterate. A large proportion of the population has tested positive for Hepatitis B and there is a high incidence of sugar diabetes.

Mornington Island was administered by the Uniting Church until 1978. It is now constituted as a Shire under the Local Government (Aboriginal Lands) Act 1978. The history of Mornington Island can be found in the 1993 Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Report, Mornington.


This review is a follow-up to Mornington: A Report by the Federal Race Discrimination Commissioner, released in April 1993. That Report was the result of a two-and-a-half year investigation into a range of issues affecting Aboriginal people living on Mornington Island in far north Queensland.

In November 1990, the then Race Discrimination Commissioner, Ms Irene Moss, received a petition signed by 163 Aboriginal residents of Mornington Island requesting her to investigate an incident involving Aboriginal people and the police. It soon became apparent that the problems experienced by the community on Mornington were not confined to a particular incident. The incident itself became a focal point for requesting outside assistance through the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (1) and for expressing the frustrations which flowed from broader and more systemic issues. Indeed, the poor relations with police at the time, and what the community saw as the failure to deal adequately with their legitimate complaints, ultimately reflected wider problems concerning the social, economic and political situation governing the lives of people on the Island. In this sense, problems with the administration of the criminal justice system on the Island were symbolic of far greater problems with government more generally.

Events on Mornington Island have not remained static. During the course of the Mornington investigation, many Aboriginal people on the Island continued to develop community organisations and solutions to their own problems. They often initiated and sustained these responses with inadequate support from outside agencies.

Similarly, external events have also affected the situation on Mornington. The recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody have impacted to varying degrees on state and federal policies. In addition, both the investigation by the former Race Discrimination Commissioner and the subsequent Mornington Report itself has influenced service provision to the community. Indeed the Mornington Report noted that there was considerable improvement in the quality of policing services on the Island during the period in which the Commission undertook its investigation.

When the Mornington Report was released there was a commitment to return to the Island within twelve months to review the situation. Accordingly, a review team from the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission visited Mornington Island in April 1994 and consulted with Council and residents, as well as inspecting facilities on the Island and visiting outstations. A draft review was sent to the Council for comment and in October 1994 the Acting Race Discrimination Commissioner, Mr Michael Dodson, visited Mornington Island and met with the Council and the community. The concerns of Council have been considered in this Review Report. The review team also sought comments from all Queensland Government departments and other agencies to which recommendations were directed in the Mornington Report.

We (2) have jointly reviewed the material which has been provided and noted what changes have, or have not, occurred. This Review Report does not itemise responses to each of the 91 original recommendations'. Rather, it is concerned with the broad areas of change and with the extent to which the issues affecting the people of Mornington Island have been, or are being, resolved.
The Commission's original Mornington Report can be encapsulated in two basic themes:

  • the people of Mornington Island lived under a form of governance which had been imposed from the outside and were thus denied a meaningful process for achieving self-determination; and
  • the social, political and economic conditions under which people lived on Mornington Island would not be tolerated in any non-Aboriginal community in Australia.

In other words, the key points of the original report were the denial of self-determination and the failure to facilitate commonly accepted standards of citizenship and social participation.
In this Review Report, the changes which have occurred on Mornington Island are evaluated within the broad context of these original principles. The Report is divided into three sections: the Administration of Criminal Justice; the Availability of EmployMent, Goods and Services; and Self-Determination and Governance.

Self-determination is a key principle underlying both the original Mornington Report, as well as this Review Report. Self-determination is both a process and a fundamental right, and every issue facing indigenous communities including status, entitlements, treatment and aspirations is part of the process of self-determination.

When the original Mornington Report was released there were conditions for the Aboriginal community which could only be described as, intolerable. These were circumstances which would not be condoned in non-indigenous Australia. It was virtually impossible to get a job except for 'work for the dole' on the Community Development Employment Program (CDEP). It was impossible to buy a house. Indigenous housing was rented from a single authority. Many houses were in a  chronic state of disrepair. Incomes from CDEP were garnisheed for debts, rent and levies. There were mark-ups of between 40% and 90% on goods bought at the only store. There were endemic problems with banking and postal services including allegations of discrimination and interference with personal bank accounts and mail. Despite the cultural significance of giving birth on the Island, women were required to travel, often without support, to the mainland hundreds of kilometres away prior to the due date. The local economy appeared to be 'alcohol-driven' in that the only profitable activity was derived from the sale of alcohol.

It was the pervasive system of day-to-day control over so many aspects of people's lives which was most apparent. People were told when and where they could work and when they must take their holidays. They were allocated housing and were told if and when they might expect repairs. Some were told how much money they could withdraw from their bank accounts. Others were told how much money would be removed from their 'pay-packet' to cover debts. This form of control is insidious, all-encompassing and akin to life under former missionary and 'protection' regimes. Yet this regime existed under the eyes of a State Government formally committed to self-determination.

Of course, for any individual instance of control there were always explanations. Pregnant women were sent to Mt Isa because it was medically the safest option; outside contractors took the vast majority of properly paid employment on the Island because there was a lack of local skills among Aboriginal people; the administration of CDEP required allocation of work duties and time; the huge mark-ups at the shop were necessary to cover the costly freight expenses.

Yet it was apparent, when these instances were taken together, that the Aboriginal people on Mornington Island lived in unacceptably oppressive and inequitable conditions. Self-determination was simply not apparent at the community level. In fact, it was hard to imagine a social, economic and political situation more removed from self-determination than that which existed on Mornington. Inevitably, the original Mornington Report reflected on the role of the local council. Those reflections were not and are not directed at the Aboriginal council members who are elected in local government elections and who operate in surely the most difficult of circumstances. However, we do question whether the local government model is suitable for achieving the goals of self-determination. We do question how seriously the State Government is committed to the principles of self-determination in developing alternative governing structures for those communities operating under local government legislation (Mornington and Aurukun), for those communities operating under Deed of Grant in Trust, and for the many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living in other communities throughout Queensland. We also question how seriously particular government departments are in paying more than lip-service to the notion of self-determination. In some instances it is apparent that self-determination in practice has been reduced to a nominal and tokenistic form of consultation - it is essentially seen as a necessary gloss on decisions which have already been taken.

The political, economic and social problems which beset communities like Mornington Island will not be resolved until self-determination is taken seriously - until the resources, planning and decision-making processes are under indigenous control. This Review identifies some progressive changes which have occurred, particularly at the local level. These changes are slow and painful but they are occurring. Far more needs to be done, particularly in negotiations between the State Government and the community. At the broadest level, this Review Report shows the distance which must be travelled before self-determination has any meaning in the day-to-day lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Race Discrimination Commissioner

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner



(1) Referred to hereafter as the Commission
(2) Commissioner Dodson, in his substantive position as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner continued his involvement in the Mornington Review after the appointment of a new Race Discrimination Commissioner, Ms Zita Antonios, in October 1994.
The original recommendations are reproduced in the Appendix. References to the text indicate where there is general discussion relevant to specific recommendations.