When a multimillion-dollar development threatens the sacred site of one of Australia’s Aboriginal populations, the Corrowa people file a native claim over the site. Hours after Justice Brosnan rejects the claim, he is dead. Days later, the developer’s lawyer is also killed. As the body count rises, it becomes clear that the key to unlocking the murderer’s identity the single red feather left behind at each crime scene. Filled with suspense and grisly detail, this book follows detectives Jason Matthews, a young Aboriginal policeman, and Andrew Higgins, a wizened cop possessed by his need for revenge, as they attempt to investigate the murders and stay impartial. A fast-paced crime novel as well as a cutting social commentary, this narrative puts native title and contemporary Australian issues under the microscope, exposing a nation still struggling to come to terms with its bleak past.
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About the Author
Nicole Watson is a senior research fellow at the Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia, and a columnist for Tracker. Admitted as a solicitor of the Supreme Court of Queensland, she has worked for Legal Aid Queensland, the National Native Title Tribunal, and the Queensland Environmental Protection Agency. She is the recipient of the David Unaipon Award and a member of the Birri-Gubba People and of the Yugambeh language group.
Read an Excerpt
By Nicole Watson
University of Queensland PressCopyright © 2011 Nicole Watson
All rights reserved.
Face buried in the marble. Crown is bare and pale, skirted by tufts of black hair locked in a macabre dance with bloody tissue. Feathers circle like reefs surrounding an island. Chards of green glass whisper dry white wine. Jason breathes in the floral perfume. Subtle and classic, but young.
Nothing else in the kitchen is disturbed. The double fridge sits in the polished wood like a cave in a cliff face. Elements on the stove so clean they'd scream in horror at the sight of burning fat. Empty glass sits on the bench. Blood at its base.
Bright lights unveil dust on the boundaries of the floorboards. As he walks through the corridor, Jason is surprised by the bareness of the walls. He'd expected to see portraits of weddings and childhood milestones.
The living room is dressed in elegant understatement. The black leather couch betrays no signs of wear, crystal vase on the coffee table looks new. Orange and pink brushstrokes demand to be worshipped.
Detective Senior Sergeant Andrew Higgins is staring at the canvas with the bloodshot eyes of a dachshund. He turns to Jason.
'Matthews, do you know who painted that?'
Jason is surprised. 'No. Do you?'
'Emily Kngwarreye – one of the most successful Aboriginal artists ever.'
'How do you know that?'
Higgins smiles. 'I'm a man of many talents.'
'DSS Higgins, DS Matthews, we have to stop meeting like this.' Doctor Robert Thomas, the forensic pathologist, is tall and gaunt. His hair is a nest of grey. Eyes hold a youthful spark. 'Judicial killings – that's a rarity in Australia. Haven't seen one of these in thirty years.'
Thirteen hours earlier
The air conditioning is soothing on Miranda's skin. In a city where the summer temperature hovers in the mid thirties, the Federal Court is one of the few places she feels comfortable in a suit. The dense fabric irritates her skin in the middle of the day. It's worse when she's hung-over.
Sudden laughter pierces the back row. She doesn't have to turn around to know it's the cry of journalists with rhinoceros skins. Some have been following the case since it started. Their reports are predictable – black people want to take control of the city, stop the development, the ever-constant drilling, and banish the cranes that seem to live on every corner. Even if native title could achieve that outcome, Miranda thinks, it wouldn't be such a bad thing. Brisbane is eating itself.
The new office blocks and apartments are like hives, colonising the body of what was. Traffic is relentless, driving the city into sleep-deprived psychosis. Caffeine pulses through the veins of its inhabitants, who live to work, so that they can buy bigger houses, to be filled with everything from state-of-the-art kitchen appliances to imposing televisions that are never quite big enough.
Anxiety wrapped in murmur floats from the back of the courtroom. The Corrowa are prisoners without a dock. The outcome remains a mystery, but intuitively, they know they have been fighting a losing battle. So they bristle on the periphery of the law. Even the elderly with their arthritic joints insist on standing next to the huge wooden doors.
In the front row of the public gallery is the battalion that apparently guards the public interest – bureaucrats from the Department of the Premier and Cabinet, Crown Law, the Department of Natural Resources, the Brisbane City Council. Whatever the public is, Miranda thinks, it doesn't include the Corrowa, whose native title claim has been resisted by every level of government.
Those at the bar table have the look of steel. That look is to the lawyer what steady hands are to the surgeon. It disguises the jackhammer, keeps the client wrapped in the cotton wool of self-righteousness, pays the bills. When she was young, Miranda had felt sexy as she pranced into the courtroom like a Siamese cat declaring its territory on the couch. In those days, she had relished the enquiring looks of older men.
The four Senior Counsel for the respondents puff their chests like an army of peacocks. The most pompous of the flock is Harrison McPherson: the 'Golden Tongue'. McPherson's grey hair has the sheen of wealth. His skin is soft, caressed by elegant cologne. The Golden Tongue has shredded every single piece of the Corrowa's evidence. Spent hundreds of hours debating legal points that all share the aim of denying the Corrowa their identity.
At least she can understand McPherson. He is, after all, a gun for hire. Believes in nothing. His instructing solicitor, Dick Payne, is another matter. One of their own, he bludgeons native title claims, seemingly with ease.
This morning Payne has sent an underling in his place. One of the luxuries of professional success is having someone else to count time for you. If Payne is the most successful Aboriginal lawyer in the country, then Miranda is the poorest. She spends half of her life waiting: for the Council bus to deliver her to Court, for clients so high they may as well fly to their appointments and even then they would be late, for the petulant photocopier to work.
Today is the culmination of six years of her life. Of her family's life. Of Jonathon's. And she knows that today's result will send ripples throughout the country, will affect the future claims of strangers, will be probed and dissected by academics. But all that Miranda can think of are the psyches of those at this bar table.
What do we ever really achieve?
What is this doing to me?
And what of the Golden Tongue? What kind of a person spends his days wresting the faith of old men and women?
Do lawyers ever suffer from the bullets we fire at others?
She looks across at Jonathon. His black curls have been slicked straight; luminous blue eyes dance behind silver frames.
'Are you okay?' he says.
She smiles sadly at her friend. 'I'm fine. We're survivors, remember.'
The judge's associate is a young woman of twenty-four. Her blond hair is worn in its usual bun and her thin frame swims in the long black robes. She smiles at the court reporter, whose high hair and shoulder pads seem out of place.
Justice Bruce Brosnan's face is bloated. His eyebrows are dyed charcoal, which only makes his scowl more dramatic. He takes his seat at the altar of the common law and looks into the solemn faces below. He seems to pause at the journalists in the back row and expels a brief sigh, deftly suggesting contempt, but not quite. He clears his throat and reads from his notebook.
'The matter of Corrowa People versus State of Queensland has raised a number of issues common to native title claims brought by Indigenous people in metropolitan areas. Given the complexity of the judgment that is some three hundred pages in length, I will not provide a comprehensive summary this morning. However, I will make some brief comments. At the outset, I emphasise that the role of this Court is to apply the principles of the Native Title Act objectively. It is not the business of this Court to attempt to correct history by appealing to contemporary notions of social justice. That is a political matter best left to the Parliament.
'The applicants seek recognition of their native title over an area of land now known as Meston Park that provides a boundary between West End and South Brisbane. Over the years, Meston Park has played an important role in the affairs of the West End community. It is the home of numerous events held by various ethnic groups and it is a popular meeting place for the local Aboriginal community.
'In late 2002 the first respondent and second respondent, the State Government and Brisbane City Council respectively, entered into negotiations with the third respondent, Coconut Holdings, with a view to constructing a shopping complex and luxury apartments on the land. The complex will provide accommodation for five hundred specialty stores, substantial office space and will be adjoined by a highrise apartment building.
'In 2003 the applicants successfully obtained an injunction to stop the sale of Meston Park from proceeding. Attempts by the National Native Title Tribunal to achieve resolution by mediation have been unsuccessful. It is common ground that if the Court finds that the Corrowa People's native title over Meston Park has been extinguished, the development will proceed.
'I find that a society called the Corrowa inhabited land that included the claim area at the time of European settlement. I find that all of the applicants, with the exception of Ethel Cobb, are biological descendants of the Corrowa. The earliest records that we have of Miss Cobb concern her placement into the girls' dormitory at the Manoah Mission at the age of three years. The identities of her parents and the circumstances that necessitated her placement into state care are unknown.
'In my judgment I have referred extensively to the evidence of Lesley Tagem, herself a Corrowa elder. Miss Tagem resided in the dormitory at the same time as Miss Cobb. Miss Tagem gave evidence, which I accept, that Miss Cobb was not recognised by other Corrowa at Manoah. Indeed, Miss Cobb only began to identify as a Corrowa person when she relocated to Brisbane, at the age of twenty, in 1962. I believe that Miss Cobb was a sincere witness, but in the absence of corroborative evidence, I cannot make a finding that she is a biological descendant of the Corrowa People. Consequently, I have rejected the totality of her evidence. This is particularly damaging for the applicants' case, given the reliance they placed upon Miss Cobb as an expert on Corrowa laws and traditions.'
Miranda feels a stab in her chest, but cannot look behind. The old woman is proud. And Miranda knows she expects her niece to be just as stoic.
'In order for their native title claim to succeed, the applicants must prove that they have maintained their connection to the claim area through the continuous practice of their traditional laws and customs since the change in sovereignty. The applicants gave evidence that they currently use the claim area as a meeting place. In recent years, they have begun to teach their children traditional dances and some Corrowa vernacular. The Court must determine whether or not those activities represent a continuation of traditional law and custom, or whether they are merely evidence of a cultural revival.
'I find the unpublished memoirs of the former native mounted policeman, Horace Downer, written in 1920, to be the most reliable evidence of the content of the traditional laws and customs of the Corrowa. Downer was posted to the area in 1890 and his memoirs begin in that year. He observed the Corrowa who lived on the fringes of South Brisbane. Some were employed to work as domestic servants in homes in West End, including the Downer home, which stands adjacent to Meston Park.
'By the time that Downer arrived in West End, an evening curfew for Aboriginal people had been in place for some decades. The curfew began at four o'clock each afternoon and operated for the entire day every Sunday. As a member of the Native Mounted Police, Downer was responsible for enforcing the curfew. In his memoirs, he refers to riding through Boundary Street, West End, cracking his stock whip, at four o'clock each afternoon.
'The lives of the Corrowa were changed irreparably in 1897, when the Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act was passed by the Queensland Parliament. As a result of this legislation, some of the Corrowa were removed to reserves throughout the State. Many of the Corrowa women, however, were forced to stay in an Aboriginal Girls' Home in Hill End, where they were prepared for life as domestic servants.
'Relations between the remaining Corrowa and the townsfolk of West End deteriorated significantly in the following years. Downer referred to starving Corrowa breaking into homes and stealing food. He also described an incident where a farmer shot dead a man who attempted to lure his wife into leaving domestic service.
'On 16 May 1906, Downer and his battalion gathered the surviving Corrowa and removed them to the Manoah Mission, two hundred kilometres north. We now reach the most critical question in this case – did the Corrowa cease to practise their traditional laws and customs after they were removed to Manoah? If the answer is in the affirmative, the Court must find that their native title was extinguished. Once native title has been extinguished, it cannot be revived.
'In light of what we now know about Queensland's former Aboriginal reserves, it is highly unlikely that the Corrowa would have been able to continue to practise their traditional laws and customs. The State's historian, Dr Ritchie, gave evidence, which I accept, that the inmates of Manoah were forbidden from speaking their traditional languages and, in time, most converted to Christianity.
'Ultimately, I find that the Corrowa ceased to practise their traditional laws and customs soon after they were removed to the Manoah Mission. Therefore, the claim must fail.'
The room is eerily silent. The Corrowa's anger is palpable, so heavy that it overwhelms voices, the sounds of chairs moving, files being picked up from the floor.
She looks up. Jonathon's face speaks of obligation. 'Yes, I know,' she says. But she's not ready. Just a few more seconds.
She finally turns to face the back of the courtroom. Her father, Charlie, is holding Auntie Ethel. He's wearing one of his old suits from his days at the Aboriginal Legal Service. The dark blue is faded, revived a little by the drycleaner. Auntie Ethel's black cotton dress sits just below her knees. Her glossy black hair was cut into a bob shape only yesterday. A group of uncles have gathered around them, eyes pleading for hope. Journalists begin to approach them. They hesitate.
'Judge, here are the files for next week's sittings.'
'Thank you, Anne.'
She's not quite beautiful. Acne scars live beneath translucent powder and her nose is shaped like a fish hook. But the young men in the registry behave ridiculously around her, volunteering to carry her files, engaging in small talk.
'How are your mum and dad?' Bruce says.
'Dad's still working very long hours at the firm. He slaved to become a partner and now he's working like a slave to remain a partner.' She deposits the files on the coffee table near the door. 'Mum's been busy with her volunteer work.'
'Please give them my regards.'
Anne smiles and closes the door behind her.
Justice Bruce Brosnan's room has all the trappings of judicial office. Walls are lined with bookshelves that house law reports. In the few vacant spaces are dot paintings that he and Emily purchased at an auction in Melbourne, many years ago.
He looks to the window and drinks in the exquisite shades of light pink and orange dangling above the Kurilpa Bridge. Blue and white ferries part the khaki waters of the river. Above, the green glass of the art gallery seems to beckon.
When he was young, Brisbane was a backwater, a place where few ventured out after eight o'clock at night. Those who did were often questioned by the police. How things have changed since Expo '88, he thinks. Outdoor dining, live music and contemporary art are now standard fare. Walking bridges sprung up overnight, and at any time of the day you can see joggers running along the river's paved banks.
He understands why the Corrowa hold such deep feelings for the river. He can even concede that the law is unfair: in order for their native title claims to succeed, black families must somehow prove that each generation was unscathed by the carnage of the Europeans, an insuperable obstacle for those in the cities. But people who choose to roll the dice with the law have to live with the consequences. Besides, he can always do some social justice work when he retires. Become the President of the Human Rights Commission, perhaps. He hears a gentle knock at the door.
'Judge, I'm just about to leave. Is there anything else that you would like me to do?'
'No, that's all. Thank you, Anne.'
'You look like you were deep in thought.'
'I guess I was. Either that or dementia.' She gives the forced laugh he knows well from all his associates. 'Are you excited about next year?' he says.
'Yes and no. The hours are going to be long, but I'll be working with great people. Of course, my work won't have the same meaning as yours did.'
Like laughing at his jokes, her reference to his days at the Aboriginal Legal Service is expected. He has shared his stories from the trenches with each of his associates.
'You can always go on to pursue social justice work after a few years in commercial firms – if that's what you want to do.'
Anne smiles coyly.
'The most important thing is that you're happy, whatever it is that you end up doing.' He grimaces at the clock on the wall. 'I'm such an ogre of a boss. Please, go home.'
Her blue eyes seem to burst with excitement.
'You're not going home, are you?'
Excerpted from The Boundary by Nicole Watson. Copyright © 2011 Nicole Watson. Excerpted by permission of University of Queensland Press.
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