A Culture of Forgetting – or how to make sure nobody remembers what you’re determined to deny
Today I’d like to exercise some poetic licence by tweaking our topic somewhat. Rather than A Culture of Forgetting: Stolen Wages, I’d like to call my talk A Culture of Forgetting – or how to make sure nobody remembers what you’re determined to deny.
For my purposes I’m interested in culture not as in shared beliefs and practices transmitted across generations, but rather culture as in something specifically cultivated in an artificial medium for scientific (here read, political) purposes. And I’ll construe forgetting not as misremembering but as opportunistic amnesia.
During the last 15 years I’ve read thousands of letters to and from a range of governments in Queensland covering almost 150 years, mostly relating to official controls of Aboriginal families in this State. And what really disturbed me was the damning discrepancy between what government authorities tell the public and what they divulge to each other.
The ‘protection’ regime operated in Queensland throughout the twentieth century into the early 1970s. Almost half the Aboriginal population was denied all choice as to where they lived and worked, denied control over their own wages and savings, denied guardianship of their own children.
Today official misremembering suggests that the regime was characterised by benevolent paternalism; it suggests that endemic poverty somehow relates to a cultural disinclination for steady work; it suggests that reparations today for Stolen Wages is regrettably limited due to patchy surviving records. This is the carefully cultured public perception of the operations and proposed closure of protection regimes, and it pertains for States around Australia.
Yet the documents themselves, the words of the men who ran the system, give a totally different picture. We learn that the protection regime was not bungled benevolence but deliberate exploitation, that endemic poverty is not a puzzling corollary but an inevitable consequence of government practices, that justice now is not a political bequest but a legal right.
Let’s look first at the protection regime. The official line is that the scheme ‘rescued’ those in need, provided them with food and shelter, trained them to become independent citizens, and exercised benevolent supervision over their labour and income. In fact from 1897 any person of Aboriginal parentage could be defined as a ward of State: destitution was not a prerequisite. File evidence reveals that families that were compulsorily relocated on the grounds of age and debility to desperately undermanned missions were described on arrival as predominately young and strong workers. We know that Aboriginal children taken into State control were for years subsidised at only a fraction the support for white children. We know that, unlike their white brothers and sisters, Aboriginal children were not free at 18 or 21 years of age, but were ‘owned’ by the State for life and provided an exploited labour pool and income resource. Indeed it was the chief protector who stated that the thousands of men, women and children under his control constituted ‘a valuable asset to the State’.
But were those ‘rescued’ into government care thereby protected? There is abundant evidence to the contrary. When a major scandal erupted over abuses and pregnancies among girls contracted into domestic work in the 1930s, the chief protector said he would not recall them, citing loss of their income and extra costs of maintaining them on the settlements. In fact we know that girls with babies were routinely sent back to work on even lower pay, or else their babies were retained in settlement dormitories.
We know that year after year correspondence confirmed Aboriginal pastoral workers were routinely more highly valued than their white counterparts, yet the State sold their labour at a 33 per cent discount for 50 years until 1968. In fact research shows the State didn’t demand even this cut rate during a 30-year period, providing a massive windfall to the government’s key voting base. Even when people were too old or feeble to work the State at times did not inform them of their entitlement to the pension until they had exhausted their meagre savings. There is no doubt that workers lost hundreds of millions of dollars during decades of blatant exploitation under the guise of ‘benevolent protection’.
Endemic poverty across generations among those taken under protection laws is an inevitable consequence of deliberate under funding which continues today. Missions and settlements around Queensland, the government-owned communities, were built and maintained by Aboriginal labour. This captive workforce was commonly unpaid into the 1960s, except for rations and ‘amenities’ which governments knew were below minimum requirements. At times there was neither fresh nor powdered milk for babies and infants. Fresh food arrived fortnightly at best and was sold out within hours. Surveys in the 1970s showed many homes lacked beds, furniture or storage cupboards – white goods were practically unheard of, in fact few homes had even sinks or showers indoors. These desperate conditions – after over half a century of government management – continued to exact a human toll in waves of hookworm and gastroenteritis epidemics which debilitated the strong and imperilled the weak.
There was no wage system for these community workers until 1968, when the department charged with their welfare set the rate at less than half the basic wage, and sacked half the workforce to keep within budget. Skilled tradesmen got one-third the award rate. Food sales plummeted, school absenteeism increased as there was no food for lunches, and for the next twenty years managers constantly warned that essential services were in crisis. By the late 1970s, when workers got less than 70 per cent the basic wage, records show the government clawed back revenue by regularly raising the rents and cancelling subsidised electricity and retail prices. It also sought, and obtained, changes to the State’s Audit Act so it could intercept Social Security benefits to recover rental arrears.
Housing was grossly deficient with multiple families forced to shelter in condemned structures even into the mid-1980s. By this time, under federal pressure to lift wages to legally-due award levels, the Queensland government had sacked 1500 workers in full knowledge – it is written by their own hand – of the ‘massive social problems’ this would generate. They just sat by, and watched it happen. Legal wage rates were only paid after community councils took over in the mid- and late 1980s, by which time the State had pocketed over $180 million of workers’ pay. So we see that poverty among community residents has been knowingly cultured in the petri dish of these ‘protective’ institutions.
And what do records reveal about the Stolen Wages, which Premier Beattie discounts as some unfortunate outcome of ‘unjust practices of wages and savings controls’?
I have already noted the massive financial deprivation of workers subjected to government wage contracting. By limiting workers’ access to their own earnings the government built up a pool of bulk savings worth millions of dollars. Yet in general these workers ended their lives as impoverished as when they started, because the government not only failed to protect their savings from fraud and negligent dealings, but it imposed multiple levies without the knowledge or consent of the workers, and it sidelined up to 80 per cent of private savings into revenue-producing investment portfolios – with the revenue bonus going to Treasury, not to the account-holders. Some of these investments, since the 1950s, were offered for the development of regional hospitals at a time when workers themselves were relegated to substandard department-run alternatives. The government knew workers were struggling and dying in poverty, yet it maintained its investment scheme under the pretence that these desperately needed earnings were ‘surplus to requirements’.
Aboriginal people were eligible for federal child endowment from the 1940s and federal pensions from the 1960s. These entitlements could have done much to alleviate the poverty to which people were condemned, but it was not to be. Official files show the government had already planned how to divert the money to consolidated revenue by nominating itself as bulk distributor, and passing to mothers only a fraction of the endowment. Within eight years the three government settlements had accumulated over a quarter of a million dollars. By 1953 Palm Island alone had siphoned off twice that; nervous the commonwealth might found out they decided to spend it on buildings and vehicles. Meanwhile the people whose money it was, paid a terrible price. Medical surveys in the 1960s recorded deaths of children under one year were more than 4 times the white rate, and deaths of children under four years over 13 times the white rate, 85 per cent dying primarily from diseases of malnutrition. The sick and elderly fared little better, a 1960s document shows that over half a million dollars of aged, invalid and widows’ pensions was diverted directly to consolidated revenue.
So this massive financial dispossession is not some unfortunate outcome of ‘unjust’ wages and savings controls, as our Premier would have us believe. This is a culture almost of theft, all too similar, to my mind, to the Joke run by corrupt police officers not so long past. While people were denied any knowledge of what was happening to their finances, at almost every possible point money was knowingly taken or lost from their earnings and entitlements: the 33 per cent discount for pastoral workers; failure to enforce that parity in every year between 1931-1961; failure to implement pocket money safeguards; failure to prevent widespread police fraud; seizure of bank interest; imposing levies that were then corrupted to profit the State; failure to allow workers free use of their savings; seizure of bulk savings for State enrichment; failure to pass on full child endowment and pensions; failure to distribute deceased estates; failure to pay legal wage rates on the communities.
The loss of these Stolen Wages during most of the twentieth century amounts to hundreds of millions of dollars. Now we begin to understand the historical causes of endemic poverty and despair. This is Aboriginal money by law and should have been in Aboriginal pockets, but it was taken and/or lost by the State in its role as trustee. This is a trustee that failed to keep proper records; that ignored warnings, decade after decade, of systemic negligence and impropriety. This is a trustee that defied auditors’ advice and refused to allow workers to check dealings on their money; this is a trustee that exploited Aboriginal savings for its own gain; that seized child endowment while children died of malnutrition; that deliberately and illegally underpaid its own employees over a ten-year period.
This is a trustee that describes as ‘generous’ and a ‘historic offer of reparation’ a sum of $2000 or $4000 as final reparations for decades of malpractice; a trustee that refuses to supply everyone’s financial records before they must revoke their legal entitlements in the presence of a so-called ‘independent lawyer’ who will discuss only the government plan. No other financial institution would try such a stunt. This is not ‘righting a wrong’ as Mr Beattie claims. It is a cheap political handout. He knows full well that people want returned to them what is rightfully theirs.
This trustee must be made to face the full legal consequences of its flawed and fatal conduct which has exacted such a terrible toll on its Aboriginal ‘beneficiaries’. This trustee must be fully exposed – and held accountable – under trust law. Only then will we finally learn what our governments – over more than a century – are so determined to deny. Only then can we disinherit our ‘Culture of Forgetting’.