Senate, Wed 5.10.2005 p142
Indigenous People: Wages
Senator BARTLETT (Queensland) (7.19 pm)
I should try and think of something to stick it to Senator Scullion about now just to balance it out, but I will focus on what I was going to talk about. The issue known as the stolen wages matter, which was raised in this chamber a number of times by my former Queensland Democrat colleague John Cherry, is one that I believe needs much further public debate and public and political pressure. In short, whilst an enormous amount of detail is now available, thanks particularly to the research of Dr Ros Kidd, the simple facts are that a large percentage of the wages, federal child endowment and related welfare payments that were made to Aboriginal people in Queensland over many decades was put aside into government run trust accounts and other accounts and only a fraction of it was ever paid to the individuals who were legally entitled to those wages and payments.
There is quite a lot of data now in the public arena that shows basically what was large-scale theft by the Queensland government of the wages and income support payments that Aboriginal people were clearly legally entitled to. To give the Queensland government a small degree of credit, it has in recent years endeavoured to address the issue by providing reparations. In 2002, the Indigenous Wages and Savings Reparations Project was established, which provides eligible claimants with a lump sum of $2,000 or $4,000 plus an apology in parliament. In order to receive that payment, individuals have to relinquish any legal rights they may have under the various so-called protection acts that were in place in Queensland between 1897 and 1984.
This is not just a matter of racial discrimination or unfair treatment of Indigenous people, although it certainly is that. It is an issue of basic wages justice and basic rights under workplace and industrial laws. At a time when the community is debating potentially very significant changes to industrial relations laws, it is important to note this very serious breach of basic workplace justice that still remains unresolved in Queensland. Whilst there has been a small reparation offered by the Queensland government, it is quite clear—the facts are on the public record—that it is far less than what many people would be legally entitled to. It also applies only to people who are still living; it does not apply to the descendants of people who were unlawfully not paid or prevented from accessing their wages and other entitlements.
It is estimated that up to 60 per cent of workers’ wages went into a general trust account, 10 per cent went into the Aboriginal Welfare Fund, and approximately 30 per cent was given to Indigenous people.
This is an area where there is still clearly injustice that needs to be redressed, and the Queensland government— whilst it should be noted it has done something— has clearly not done enough. The Queensland Labor Party’s own policy adopted at their state conference specifically required full and proper reparation of all entitlements. To fail to do so and to simply buy people off, in effect, with less than they are entitled to, and to give them an apology only if they agree to sign away their future legal rights to anything else they may be entitled to, is showing pretty poor faith. In many respects, this issue is also about showing basic respect for what is a clear-cut case of injustice.
There are ongoing efforts by many people to try to get full justice for people who are entitled to reparations. There are related issues of large numbers of Indigenous people in Queensland who were underpaid consistently for many years and who were unlawfully underpaid from the time of the federal Racial Discrimination Act coming into force in 1975. There are many cases where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were paid significantly less than other people doing exactly the same job. Those are clear-cut cases of racial discrimination, as has been found by the courts. This is an area where there are still unresolved injustices.
It costs the state government money to make proper reparations to people, but clearly it is money that people are entitled to. It is not acceptable for Queenslanders to have money taken from them unlawfully—
Wednesday, 5 October 2005 SENATE 97
whether it is Aboriginal people or anybody else—by any government; and it is not acceptable for them to be unlawfully underpaid and then for future governments to say: ‘Sorry about that. That is the way things were back then, and it is a bit of a shame. We might give you a little bit of money to make ourselves feel better.’ We are talking about many thousands of Indigenous people. We are also almost certainly talking about very dodgy bookkeeping on the part of the government—which is fairly ironic, given that Indigenous organisations are often attacked for inadequate corporate governance.
Research that Dr Kidd has done in going into some of these files shows that there were regular warnings from auditors and regular warnings of fraud in the way that money was taken from Aboriginal people and basically put sideways into other people’s pockets. There were warnings that the so-called thumbprint system was corrupted and that there was a risk of widespread fraud and inappropriate use of power over people by having control of their money.
I should also say that this issue really only came to light because somebody started looking into it. If it had not been for concerted efforts to follow through and start digging out the truth, it may well have never been properly revealed. I think there is a growing case to be made for similar examinations in other states. There is already recognition in New South Wales that the previous so-called Aborigines Protection Board—which had power over the earnings, savings and entitlements of many Aboriginal people—had money placed in trust accounts, and it is suggested that there are many potential claimants who deserve to have their lawful entitlements paid back to them. There is some work being done on trying to work out the best scheme for that in New South Wales. An Aboriginal trust fund reparations scheme was established by the state government towards the end of last year, and we need to make sure that that is adequate.
There is initial evidence that the practice of withholding moneys in trusts and other separate accounts occurred in a reasonably widespread way in Victoria. There is certainly evidence in South Australia, where the controls were similar to those in New South Wales, that Aboriginal people who were apprenticed out to work had controls on their wages and savings regulated by government and there was evidence of widespread fraud by employers.
In Western Australia, initial research by a Western Australian academic, Anna Haeblich, shows that WA modelled its controls on Queensland legislation, and there are about 5,000 potential claimants alive today who may be entitled to receive moneys that they were always entitled to. Every state is different. In the Northern Territory, which for a long time came under direct federal control, the situation is different again.
There is a growing argument that there needs to be an overall examination of the extent of this disgraceful injustice, which extends back over many decades, to try to get to the truth. I think that, in many ways, acknowledgement that injustice was done is more important than the money. There needs to be reparation where possible and there certainly needs to be a recognition of the extent of this clear-cut example of racial injustice and workplace injustice.