This book has one story to tell, but it is an important story about Aboriginal people in the state of Queensland from 1897 until the 1990s. (1) The story Kidd documents is that the trustees who had a fiduciary duty to protect and preserve the interests of their Aboriginal changes did not in fact do their duty very satisfactorily, but diverted wage money and other Aboriginal resources to projects of their choosing or in some cases simply pocketed it for themselves. For non-Australians and for some younger Australians it is important to remember that while all Aboriginal persons were regarded in the popular mind as non-citizens and as wards of the state, their status in the six states before Federation in 1901 was more complex. However, they were under severe restraints, of one sort or another, in all six jurisdictions. They lived in a state of ‘coerced dependency’ as Kidd puts it (p.72). In Queensland, Aboriginal persons were required to live where they were assigned, could not travel without permission (even if they did happen to have the money to do so), had to work where they were sent and had no rights to negotiate working conditions. In some cases they were required to work up to 32 hours a week without pay: ‘… year after year more and more men, women and children were contracted involuntarily to locations where there was no protection against labour exploitation, sexual or physical assault’ (p.63).
The wage that their work earned was not given to them at the end of a week or month, but was banked for them in accounts which they could not see or inspect, and so the balances were not known to them. If an Aboriginal person wished to spend small amounts of money (‘pocket money’, as it was called) they had to ask their employer or their minder for it, and, if granted, the money was withdrawn from their account. However, they could not view their account or the results of the transactions. In 1939, in order to avoid occasions for gross rorts, Queensland legislated that these transactions (both withdrawals and deposits) be recorded in a book signed or thumb-printed by the Aboriginal account holders and then countersigned by those responsible for passing over these small sums to them. Records never seem to have been checked for accuracy, audited or perhaps even looked at. Transactions about ‘pocket money’ is not the main issue of the book, however. Pictures in the book’s centre (following p.84) showing men, women and children telling their story of lost wages are concise examples of what happened to many individuals, but that is only the tip of the iceberg: Kidd is investigating wages that were due on paper to Aboriginal employees who were working as stockmen, boatmen, roadworkers, as maids, or laundresses. These sums could be large, being the result of twenty or thirty years of labour, but, when it became possible in 1972 to collect them, the bank balances seemed much less than was expected or had entirely disappeared leaving their accounts empty.
What happened to these lost wages is the theme of this book following the Queensland Aboriginal and Islander Legal Services Secretariat (QAILSS) investigations in 1997. Kidd’s study (which is independent of the QAILSS report) is the result of her doctoral thesis (1994) and later research in which she tracks down where wage money and other resources went in the period from 1897 to the 1990s. She looks at private employers, the missions, the stations where work was done and where wages went missing or were not recorded. She looks both before and after the award wages system went into effect in 1975. We are led by Kidd through an elaborate bureaucratic maze of organisations set up ostensibly with the intention of relieving, preserving and benefiting Aboriginal and ‘half-castes’, but which were in fact often taking that money and the bank interest normally acquired, and diverting it into projects of marginal value for Aboriginal peoples themselves. Accounts were raided, she shows, from the Aboriginal Preservation and Protection funds set up in 1902, the Aboriginal Provident Fund established 1919 (its monies were transferred to the Aboriginal welfare Fund in 1943/4), the Queensland Aboriginal Account in 1933. They were used by Queensland/ers to start training farms and businesses, to support infrastructure, to cover financial shortfalls in a department, to pay government bills that should have been handled by normal consolidated revenue and to pay for housing and salaries of public servants. Grants provided by the federal government for child endowment (in 1941) (2) unemployment, pensions (in 1959), as well as the usual federal grants for education and health were used to reduce the state budget normally spent on those objects. Over the years the trust funds were drained of money that could have been put to the needs of Indigenous Queenslanders. In 1960, despite evidence of substandard conditions and imperilled health, the government diverted half the settlement trust funds into its investment portfolio; despite many warnings and concerns expressed in reports to government agencies during this time that Aboriginal housing was being neglected, and health care and nutrition for children was below minimum standards. All of this activity by government or quasi-government agencies was undertaken without consultation with their Indigenous clients or even their knowledge.
Kidd argues that this activity was illegal as well as wrong because the trustees (i.e. Queensland government officials) had a fiduciary obligation to manage their trust funds for the benefit of the beneficiaries of the trusts. They had ‘… a duty of reasonable care–the care which an ordinary man of business would take’ (p.131). In Australia, unlike the United States and Canada, the obligation of a trust is limited solely to financial considerations and, in consequence, this book limits its concern to trying to uncover financial losses sustained by Aboriginal people and Aboriginal communities, but she notes that there were other non-tangible losses as well. Even if one did a full day’s work side-by-side with other adult Australians, one was regarded as a child, and some of that general disregard, no doubt, rubbed off on many an individual Aboriginal man or woman. But these latter losses cannot be considered for compensation under Australian law, although a legal case could probably be made in Canada or in the United States.
This book is well written, well indexed and gives useful summaries of the relevant Queensland laws and regulations (1865-1990). It cites a list of cases from United States and Canadian Courts and makes comparisons with North American practice respecting Indigenous peoples that, Kidd finds, was more forward looking than Australia’s. In all, a valuable book to be read and to kept on one’s shelf as well making a good start for pursuing research on this topic in the other states and territories.
(1.) In 1897 the Queensland Parliament introduced The Aboriginal Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act, which set up a surveillance network which lasted for the next 80 years (Kidd p.26).
(2.) The dates in brackets indicate the year when the events happened.
Dr John Hilary Martin. Review of Trustees on Trial, Australian Aboriginal Studies, September 2007.