I do feel very honoured to be asked to speak at this function tonight. It’s a pleasure to assist those who work unstintingly towards achieving an honourable resolution to our sorry denial of land rights, and to bringing all Australians together in understanding the truths of the past, so that we can move together, with honesty, into the next century.
When I first started researching the activities of Queensland’s Aboriginal department I had several aims: to acquire for myself a knowledge of government operations, particularly during this century; to do a thorough job in accessing the widest possible range of information; and to come up with new ways of understanding the rationale behind this exhaustive net of controls and how they were exercised. I didn’t want just an investigation at the level of government practices; I wanted insights into how these practices impacted on Aboriginal lives. I kept thinking, in another life this could have been me, how would I have coped?
I have to admit I did not think beyond the completion of the project. I never thought of the wider ramifications of this personal quest for understanding: that others were also hungry for knowledge so they could make their own judgements rather than just accept official assertions; that my detailed account might be the basis not only for further research but also for those seeking to mount legal actions for past malpractices.
It is true that the last 8 years have been an extraordinarily busy and difficult time for me; they have also been an amazing learning experience. Like countless other white people, I am horrified at how late it was in life that I came to learn the terrible realities endured by Aboriginal families at the hands of governments. And this knowledge is very confronting: because I’m one of the millions of Australians who have never gone hungry, I have never been cast adrift from my family, I have always had a roof over my head, a warm bed, my wages in my hand to spend on my needs.
So when people compliment me on my work and perseverance, I know that my self-inflicted trials are nothing compared with those whose life experiences form the context of my writings. It has been by choice that I struggle to convert a mass of bureaucratic information into digestible portions, to reveal both the pitiless framework of controls and the trauma endured by those dragged into this system. In contrast, the people whose lives are so painfully etched on the documents were, of course, deprived, almost always, of their choice. And they were also deprived, effectively, of a voice in their own, and their children’s, lives. So this is a perspective which never leaves me: To spend your time in comfort, pursuing by choice an intellectual challenge, is no comparison.
Now I cannot claim to speak adequately for those whose struggle I have not myself experienced. But I can do my best to honour that struggle by alerting others to its reality.
I thought tonight I would tell you a story. All the facts are true. It’s the story of a little girl. I thought I would call it – Pauline’s story.
Pauline’s earliest memories go back to some time in the 1930s, when she was about 5 years old. She lived with her mother, older brother and sister, and a whole lot of family in north Queensland. Her father was German; she never knew his name. All her family lived in the Aboriginal way in a little humpy. Her mum taught her right language and customs; and all the children learned how to get bush tucker.
One day the police rode in and told the mothers all the half-caste kids were going to be sent to Palm Island the next day. They told her mother if she ran away they would shoot her. All the mothers were terrified. They killed a goanna and mixed its blood with ashes and smeared it on the children to make them look darker. It didn’t work. Next day they were rounded up and put on the train, and then on the boat to Palm Island. Pauline cried as she remembered the screaming and wailing of her relatives. She never saw them again.
Although her mother had been taken with her, Pauline was separated from her and put in the girls’ dormitory with her sister. Life in the dormitory was hard and cruel. The matron hit you with a big stick if you did anything wrong: if you didn’t do what you were told, if you wet your bed, if you didn’t do your work, if you tried to talk to your family through the wire fence. For weeks Pauline cried herself to sleep every night.
She had only been there a few months when the matron spoke to her. She said she would keep Pauline as her own daughter and teach her how to be a good girl – good at cleaning and cooking and looking after the matron’s baby. Pauline remembers with pride that she was “one of the family”. She ate and slept at the matron’s house; but she ate by herself in the kitchen, and slept on a sapling and bag bed in the laundry. Until she was ten she can only remember cleaning and working and minding the children. She was given no schooling and feels shame that, as an old lady today, she does not know how to read and write. One day she was told her mother had died.
When the matron left Palm Island, Pauline was put back in the dormitory to look after the smaller children. Here she worked from 7 in the morning until 7 at night, and then was locked up with about 200 other girls. There were not enough beds and Pauline remembers sleeping three to a bed, head to foot, on a filthy sheet and a single blanket; they were often very cold. There were no lights in the dormitory, only one lantern. There was nothing to do for the 12 hours, just look out through the wire. Occasionally the new matron would come and they would sing songs. Sometimes the bigger girls would run away during the day. When they were caught they were made to wear bag dresses and sweep the streets with a broom made of bladey grass. Many had their heads shaved so everyone could see their shame.
Every second weekend Pauline was allowed out to stay with her aunties and cousins in an earth-floor shack made of timber and sheet iron. They also slept several to a bed, and cooked over an outside fire using jam tins for pots and bowls. Pauline never got any pay for her work in the dormitory, which continued until she was about 15.
Her elder sister, Netta, after a couple of years in the dormitory and four hours’ lessons a day at the school, had already been sent away to work. Soon after she turned 14 she had been called into the office with a few other girls and told they had to go to work on the stations. The girls were frightened and crying but the superintendent just said that’s where you’re going, and told them to sign the work agreements. They were given one change of clothes, some shoes and a little money and put on the boat to Townsville. The police met the boat and put them in the watchhouse overnight. There were drunks and foul-mouthed men and her sister was terrified. Next day the police put her on a train for Cloncurry.
Netta told Pauline there were no other youngsters on the property and no Aboriginal people to talk to. She was well treated but the work was hard – from 5am until after all the supper was cleared away and dishes washed around 9.30pm, 7 days a week. She had to light the stove, scrub floors, prepare meals, clean the house, mind 3 little children, do washing and ironing and work around the yard. Every few months she would be given a few shillings when they went in to town. Other than that she never saw any money. For six years Netta was sent out to work on different pastoral stations, and was allowed only two weeks on Palm Island each year as a holiday. Even after her little boy was born, after the boss’s son had persuaded her to have sex, she was still sent out to work with her baby, but at a cheaper rate of pay. When her baby was four, Netta was put back in the dormitory for 6 months, but then she married a Palm Island man and was allowed to stay in the village. They never let her have the money she earned; for a while the superintendent gave her a docket to buy some extra rations from the store, until one day he said there was no money left.
We know now that the government took direct control of all the wages of those in employment, except for a little pocket money which was supposed to be regularly paid, but in fact was never properly checked. We know that wages went to the local police, nominated as protectors of Aboriginals, who were supposed to make sure workers were not cheated of their money when they made purchases. But this system, in reality, simply deprived workers of their earnings: permission was needed, and frequently refused, to make even the smallest purchase. The records show widespread fraud and embezzlement by the police themselves, facilitated by the government’s refusal to allow people to see their own bankbooks. And this system continued until the late 1960s. The records show the government withheld the greater portion of workers’ earnings, building up a huge stockpile of wealth which was then profitably invested – in public utilities and rural hospitals – to bring in revenue to offset outlays on administration. By the 1960s the government was sitting on £987,000 of Aboriginal money, that’s almost $17 million today, while those whose earnings and labour had generated this bonanza were still living and dying in poverty.
But we’ll return to our story. It was around 1950 that Pauline was married to a boy she had spoken to a few times on the occasional day when the dormitory girls were allowed to sit in Mango avenue, under police guard, and talk to selected young men. Mango avenue was where the white staff lived and it was out of bounds to Palm Islanders. Once girls reached their teens they could not even go down to the store or to church without a police escort. Although Pauline quite liked Bill she was a bit dismayed when the matron told her she was going to be married to him in a mass wedding ceremony with 6 other dormitory girls.
After she was married Pauline still worked every day in the dormitory. She was pregnant with her second child when her first son turned 5 and was put in the boys’ dormitory. She used to go to the showers near the boys’ dormitory and wave to him through the wire. Mostly he was waiting there for her. Many evenings and weekends the matron used to ring her bell and Pauline would have to go and serve dinner to her visitors or sometimes just carve the roast. She never got any extra money for this, just 6/- each week for pocket money.
After a couple of years she started work in the hospital laundry and was paid £2 or £3 a fortnight (that’s $50 today). Now she had her children with her, but life was very hard. Mostly they had to survive on rations – so many scoops of rice, tea, sugar and washing soap. Everyone was always hungry: the men went fishing after work to feed their families, and Pauline was grateful she had never forgotten what her mother taught her about bush food. Once a year they were given a set of clothes. Not much return for 2 full-time workers.
At first Pauline and Bill lived in a sapling and palm-frond hut with earthen floors and boards for a bed, but then moved into a bush timber hut with a cement floor and tin roof. But when it rained the water ran inches deep through the house and Pauline kept the children on the bed to keep them dry. She was terrified that if the matron came and saw the water she would take the children away, saying she was not looking after her house and her family. So Pauline spent all the time sweeping frantically to take the water out.
Bill had been working on the island since he was 14. For several years he helped fell the trees and cart the logs to the mill, and then they put him to work clearing the airstrip and carving a road round the craggy hill back to the settlement. He never got any pay for this. It was only after he married, when he was working in the boatshed 5 days a week, doing carpentry, metalwork and general maintenance, that he got a wage. By the late 1960s he was paid $21 a fortnight (about $153 today).
By this time Pauline and Bill had 6 children. Life was a terrible struggle. During the 1970s when new commonwealth houses were built with tap water and electricity, they couldn’t afford the rent. Although Bill was now working in the mill and Pauline worked part-time cleaning the hostel there were many times when everyone went to bed hungry. Wages got better during the late 1970s but then suddenly Bill was sacked along with many others. All the building and maintenance gangs were slashed, houses deteriorated, and few new homes were completed. In the early 1980s Pauline’s sister and her family had to move in with them, and with 4 of their own children and two grandchildren also at home there was much tension. Records of the time show an average of 12 people to each small 3-bedroom house on the island, and 99 people for every one waged worker.
Like many other men with no work, Bill was now drinking heavily and there were many fights. Often the women and children hid away with other relations just to escape the trouble. Finally Pauline told Bill he would have to stay away; she was better off without him on a pension than having him drink his dole money and beat them up. It broke her heart to send him away but she was tired of being frightened and worried for herself and her family. There were many men and women who lost their way – and their lives – to alcohol and despair.
This, very briefly, has been the story of Pauline. Although, I will admit, Pauline is a fictional character, all of the evidence you have heard is all too real, culled from the experiences of real people, whose lives are a recording of real pain, of deprivation, of humiliation.
How different it could have been. What if Pauline had not been taken away to Palm Island, deprived of her freedom, trapped in a cycle of poverty? She may have been one of the thousands of people of Aboriginal descent who were never made wards of state, who went to ordinary school and got jobs and had access to their own money. What if she had been given proper schooling on Palm Island and been trained as a nurse, an unfulfilled dream? How different life would have been if she and Bill had been paid the same wage as white workers, if she and Bill had been allowed to spend the rewards of their labour on their home and their family, instead of struggling in poverty and destitution while the government added their money into the bulging trust funds, or economised by underpaying them.
Many people today say that to acknowledge this pain is to wallow unnecessarily in guilt. But when governments claim the moral high ground for so-called “well-intentioned” practices of the past they are in fact invoking a collective social amnesia. They are hoping that a century of poverty, hunger, sickness, despair, under-education and under- or non-employment will continue to be blamed on those who were trapped, unwillingly, in the most comprehensive regime of controls ever imposed in this country. But surely the body which controlled all aspects of Aboriginal lives for all of this century must be questioned as to why its guardianship created and sustained the worst outcomes on all social indicators for those unhappy “wards of state”? Guardianship which continued until only a decade ago here in Queensland cannot be masked as a “well-intentioned” policy of the past.
Acknowledging the truth of the past has nothing to do with self-defeating guilt. It is about living honestly in the present. We must all know the whole truth of how governments have operated to dictate the possibilities and limitations of Aboriginal lives. We must ask why children who were removed from families and homelands “for their own protection” were then institutionalised in dormitories which were well known as health risks, were fed rations which were well known as medically inadequate, were given schooling which was well known as substandard, were encaged and suffered shameful punishments merely for acting like the children they were. We must ask why young teenagers were sent to remote properties as cheap labour when for decades official records showed the physical and sexual dangers they were prey to. We must ask why people who worked all their lives were deprived of the bulk of their savings, and why they were then somehow blamed for living in overcrowded poverty. What other agency of “care” would be allowed to walk away from 80 years of failure in its duty? And insist that those whose lives were so dreadfully damaged have no right to question their judgement, that they are vindictive in exposing the scandals, that they are ungracious to seek an apology.
There are workers today who have legal actions underway to regain their missing savings, or to be paid money wrongfully withheld by the government which always illegally underpaid Aboriginal employees on the communities. Other actions are in train to expose the whole of the government’s mishandling of trust funds, of accumulated savings, of pensions and child endowment. We know trust funds were spent on development projects on missions and settlements, we know the bulk of private savings was withheld to raise revenue for the department, we know child endowment was diverted to capital works, we know only a small portion of pensions was passed on to the elderly, to widows, to invalids. We know the government sacked 1500 workers between the mid-1970s and the mid-1980s in full knowledge of the devastation to housing and community amenities, brought frequently to crisis point, and in full knowledge of the devastation to the social fabric – they even discussed the inevitable increase in violence and alcoholism this policy would cause. We know the government did this out of a bloody-minded determination not to put a single cent towards paying its Aboriginal workers the legal wage.
So when we hear talk of “extra” money going to Aboriginal communities today, of “positive discrimination” in funding to address appalling health and housing and living conditions endured in so many Aboriginal communities, be well aware that this money is not “for Aborigines”. It is to redress deficiencies in government management. It is to redress money withheld – both through intention and through negligence – during a century of government control.
As whites, we should feel angry that we have been kept ignorant for so long. We should now demand accountability and justice. We should all stand together and say, Never again. Above all, we should remember that anyone of us, in another time and another place, might have been this Pauline.