Stolen wages: truth and justice


It seems as a nation we have grown so used to government dishonesty and injustice that we just shrug our collective shoulders.  Our government imprisons indefinitely women and children known to have committed no crime, it continues to promote an international invasion whose justification has proved to be false.  But the bulk of the population don’t seem to care, happily sedated by the scandals of people who earn millions role-playing for TV and film, or the scandals of the non-people whose roles they play, or perhaps the latest cricketing crisis about 15 degrees of separation.

There are of course many who are deeply disturbed by the lies and injustices perpetrated by governments in our names.  Our voices might not reverse this mendacity but we can proclaim a refusal to play along with the con.  We can say, for what it’s worth, not in my name.  There is always a choice, having learned the facts, not to be duped by the rhetoric.

During the last decade an issue has been slowly emerging out of the archival depths.  The media, with its sophisticated sense of the public interest, has flicked it a glance and declared it a non-event, nothing new, old history.  Governments, as we shall see, are more than happy with that classification.  The issue – which has ramifications far wider than it’s financial focus – has become known as the Stolen Wages, a term that encompasses Aboriginal wages and other entitlements commandeered by governments during most of the twentieth century.  Today I’ve been asked to speak about my involvement in the fight for Stolen Wages, the practicalities of research and the implications for action, and how that might relate to your field in archives and records management.


I started Uni as a mature-age student intending to feed my appetite for knowledge.  Griffith Uni in Queensland was still young in the mid 1980s – weren’t we all! – and there were no courses on Australian history or race relations.  But for a number of reasons, mostly centered on my fascination for the forensic inquiries of French philosopher Michel Foucault and his theories of power, I chose as my PhD project the administration of Aboriginal Queenslanders – a topic I knew nothing about.  I wanted to look at the machinery of power – what drove it, what sustained it, who wrote the manuals, who tinkered with it, how did modifications impact on older working parts, did the machinery do what they said it was doing, that sort of thing.  I wanted to stand inside the bureaucracy and write about who did what and why, and measure the internal workings against the external rhetoric.  To do this, of course, I had to read the records.  And so began my ‘other’ life.

The main problem for an outsider in accessing records is that you have to know what to ask for.  And if you’re doing a sweeping investigation of a new field this includes just about everything.  When I finally got access to restricted government records in February 1991 Queensland State Archives was in a highly nervous state.   One year earlier, in sensational circumstances, the state archivist had been party to destruction of official records at the request of the Goss Labor government, records which apparently were also sought in relation to legal claims.1  The fall-out was intense, and still festers.

So the prospect of a PhD student beavering away through dozens of sensitive files triggered alarm bells.  Who would know if there was material I shouldn’t see?  To protect the archivist’s professional integrity, someone in authority would have to vet every file before I saw it and his/her costs would not come out of archive’s budget.  An additional difficulty for me was the time constraints on archives’ staff producing hundreds of files on request and photocopying where required.  On the other hand I had the option of a desk and a photocopier in the department’s city office.  If my requests for particular files were lodged through the department’s records section, then archives’ staff had no responsibility over who accessed them in the department’s offices.  We had a solution.

I started in the city trawling through a mountain of unsorted boxes in a windowless basement storeroom while I pondered the question of knowing what to ask for.  This fell into my hands before long, albeit in an outdated and partial version, and I was soon submitting lists for twenty or so boxes of files, signed off by departmental staff, processed through their records section, and a few weeks later, trundled down Charlotte Street on a trolley for off-loading around my rapidly disappearing desk.  I soon had one list at archives and a follow-up list already processing through the records section, while I attacked what had just arrived – an effective production line that served me well for fifteen months.

I had no idea what I was looking for, so I wanted to read everything: what happened to children, working women, rural employment, running the missions, conditions on the settlements, budgeting problems, why federal health professionals impacted on the state’s monopoly controls while the anthropologists were frozen out, how effective a well-wielded pencil in a preliminary report could give just the opposite impression in the official version, bureaucrats versus ministers, premiers versus prime ministers, rhetoric versus reality.  This was added to reams of research from church holdings, early archival documents and dozens of secondary texts.  Somewhere in mid-1992, with the bench, desk and floor of my room buried under mounds of paper, I realised I had to make a start on the writing.


A major concern for all researchers is accurate identification of sources.  For me this concern bordered on fear.  I followed example and put my bundles in date order with the latest on top and the file number written on that.  I put coloured card on the front of every bundle and over several months wrote on that a brief summary of every document in it.  I filed these in boxes in broad categories – employment, each mission or settlement, health, education, state-church and state-federal etc – and stacked the boxes chronologically.  I never had time – still haven’t – to do any sort of digital database, although I promise you I dream of it frequently!

It was in writing the cover cards that I began to get a sense of what had been going on, with particular focus on the twentieth century.  My aim was to stand inside the material and reveal its full complexity.  Taking time periods of around thirty years, I teased out the mix of concepts, agencies, agendas, legal possibilities etc which were brought to bear on Aboriginal lives.  The finished thesis ran to just over 700 pages grounded in over 2000 footnotes and took about eighteen months to write.

I had uncovered some dynamite material relating to Cabinet discussions in the 1970s and 1980s.  It revealed the government discussed on several occasions that it was breaking state and federal law in under paying its Aboriginal employees.  Many times I pondered whether or not to include this material, knowing the thirty-year embargo on documents used in Cabinet.  Yet this evidence was crucial to showing how the government wilfully cheated the people, damaged the communities and misled the public since the early 1980s.  If I left the stuff out then I was part of the lie and I would know I had compromised my thesis and myself.  So in it went.  It was several months before the department thought to request a copy of my thesis, a condition of my research access.  I took it in, had a cup of coffee and a chat with the head boffin, went home and waited for the fallout – which didn’t come.

That summarises the practicalities of research.  Now I’d like to look at some of the implications for action.  It is my view that twentieth century records controlled by variously-titled Aboriginal Affairs departments are unlike other government archives.  They are in a class of their own.  I see three reasons for this.  First, the departments had power of life and death over thousands of people for many decades purely on the grounds of their race.  Second, in some states, Queensland in particular, the departments operated virtually as closed dictatorships outside the purview even of accountable co-departments (I’m thinking here of health, education, housing, policing and justice – all run by Queensland’s Aboriginal department for much of the century).  Third, the departments jealously guarded the flow of information.  Without access to the records, even today, we know only what they choose to tell us.

We know the outcome of this century of total control over Aboriginal lives – we are all shamed by current conditions and statistics.  Not only do official files explain how this came about, but this evidence is, for thousands of Aboriginal people, the only written record of what was done to themselves and their families.  It gives material context to their private narratives.  And insomuch as particular files chart matters pertaining to an individual, that evidence charts also official interventions in their lives, labour and finances.  And files which reveal internal government machinations impacting on people’s lives as individuals should now be available in the interests of those affected by them.  Yet governments blockade these records forcefully, as you will see.

The problem for Australian governments today, of course, is that they like the old story of  well-meaning bureaucrats, rescued children, benevolent institutions, the guiding hand firm but fair.  Not only is this a comforting perspective of national mythology and a gratifying endorsement of white integrity, but it also boycotts the A word.  You know the one: A for accountability.  Times were tough, we all meant well, and no-one’s to blame for continuing wretchedness.

Governments insinuate present dereliction and despair is some unfortunate byproduct of a culture clash; whereas the files show it’s a consequence of carefully crafted and deliberately implemented policies.  Governments imply Aboriginal poverty derives from a failure to engage robustly in the wider economy; whereas the files show millions of dollars which belonged to Aboriginal workers and families has never been accounted for by the departments which controlled private finances for most of the twentieth century.

The problem of holding key information is that you are immediately implicated; you have the option to make a difference.  Beyond completing the thesis I had no such worthy intention, but I was drawn into action by government denials of what I knew to be the truth as evidenced on their own files.  The last eight years have been an alarming lesson in what governments will do to defend their version of the evidence.  Here I’ll briefly sketch the dynamics.

In 1996 I offered to act as expert witness in a Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission inquiry into claims by seven people from Palm Island that the Queensland government had under paid their wages as employees on a reserve community.  This longstanding practice the government knew to be illegal after passage of the federal Racial Discrimination Act in 1975.  As I said earlier, Cabinet had discussed this several times.  Under the protocols of discovery, plaintiff’s lawyers should be given all relevant documents by the government for which, from my thesis, it knew every file location.  It seems not one of these crucial documents was provided, although I later learned the plaintiffs’ solicitor was shown a room full of files and told he could help himself.

When Crown Law saw the document copies I had produced to substantiate my Affidavit, they wrote that I could be sued for damages if I submitted them, although such duress contravened the HREOC Act.  A huge argument developed around Crown Law’s determination to keep key evidence from the Inquiry, an argument it ultimately lost.  I wasn’t sued, although I was certainly intimidated.  And within days of the hearing Crown Law demanded I hand over every document in my possession on any matter relating to Aboriginal administration.  This I refused to do.  I believed the government would likely withhold vital evidence in future legal actions; this would pervert the course of justice.

The HREOC Commission found that the government had acted illegally in deliberately under paying its Aboriginal workers.  Subsequent compensation to eligible claimants, at $7000 per person (the rate suggested by the Commissioner), has totalled almost $50 million.  Is this a just outcome?  Not in my opinion.  First, the government knows this is a fraction of what is owed; I know it holds written advice calculating the average wage debt at $13,000, and that’s without holiday pay, sick pay, superannuation, overtime, penalty rates etc.  Second, the government will not provide all potential claimants with their financial records so most have no idea of their true entitlement.  In that context, the government’s requirement that claimants must relinquish their legal rights to full reparations is, in my view, a calculated deception which perpetuates financial dispossession.  It is a deception grounded in the government’s continuing control of all available evidence.  And the public remains oblivious to the abuse.

This same pattern of concealment and deception underlies the government’s current offer of $55.6 million to compensate for past controls of the Stolen Wages.  Launched in May 2002, this offer amounts to $4000 per person for those over 50 years old and $2000 for younger claimants – for decades of loss.  Again the government demands indemnity against legal actions, again it refuses to supply all potential claimants with their records, again most claimants thereby cannot make an informed decision, and again, the government will walk away with millions of dollars owing to those whose interests it was mandated to protect.  In fact if you happened to die before the May 2002 date, the government simply keeps your money.  Desperate though they are, many spurned the payout as an insult and a pittance; to date under half the expected claimants have responded, almost half those assessed are rejected, and less than $13 million has been paid out.2  Others are considering pro bono offers of legal support to pursue full redress.

This payout for Stolen Wages does not ‘ease the lasting pain’, as the premier claims; it is a travesty of justice.  Because this financial management, as I have shown elsewhere, was blighted by incompetent procedures, negligence, fraudulent dealings, misappropriation by government, and failure to implement recommended safeguards.  The government knows this; it holds all the incriminating evidence.  But the claimants do not: they could not even know what was happening to their private savings until the 1970s.  Because this evidence is suppressed, the premier can characterise his offer as ‘generous’ and ‘in the spirit of reconciliation’, and the largely indifferent media swallows it.  Can you imagine the perpetrators of the HIH or James Hardie scandals floating such a scheme without any public accounting?

Concealment of the evidence not only poisons our shared history but it contaminates the course of justice.  Concealment underlies government ‘spin’ that record holdings are so fragmentary that we can’t really know what has happened to the funds; it underlies government assertions that people are likely to lose legal action against it to recover their financial entitlements.  It is deeply disturbing that governments, whose unfettered powers sustained negligence and misuse of Aboriginal monies, still control the documents upon which accountability and justice depend.

All states and territories, to a greater or lesser extent, took control of private Aboriginal income and finances during much of the twentieth century.  Recently the New South Wales government, it’s hand forced by public exposure of information it had no intention of revealing, is also hiding behind the ‘incompleteness’ of its holdings.  It says it will pay out monies owing, if it can find records to substantiate the claim.  (Yes, Bob Carr has intimated other testimony might also be considered, but my bet is that Crown Law will veto payments lacking official validation.)  The New South Wales government, like Queensland, has not made any public accounting of its dealings on Aboriginal monies.  The New South Wales government, like Queensland, says records are so patchy it is all but impossible to chart how much money has gone missing during its decades as banker.  For both governments, then, those incomplete records are both a defence against full disclosure and the basis for rejecting claimants.  For both governments the mantra of ‘patchy records’ is intoned to convince the victims and the public that this is as good as it gets.  But is it?

There is no doubt that governments in most states and territories took control of Aboriginal finances – they set and received wages, ran the accounts, dictated when and what withdrawals might be made, invested bulk private monies for interest revenue, intercepted and controlled endowment, pensions, compensation, inheritances.  They fulfilled all the roles of trustees; in fact they consistently described themselves as trustees of monies they described as trust funds.

Trustees have very particular duties.  They must keep proper accounts, they must not mix beneficiaries’ funds with their own, they must not profit from their financial management, to name the most basic.  Where there is a dispute over proper management of another’s finances, the trustee must provide a full account of all dealings.  Where this cannot be done, where there are gaps in the record, there is no assumption that the money was properly disbursed.  In short, patchy records exemplify the failure of a trustee to fulfil his legal duties.

In the United States, for instance, where in 1996 the Blackfeet people of Montana sued the department of the Interior for missing and mismanaged private funds, the District Court has determined the department must account publicly for every cent since it commenced the trust funds in 1887.  The department has calculated it might owe US$4 billion to around half a million claimants, a category that includes every deceased person whose income was taken under control.  This order to provide a full historical account is currently under appeal.3

Whether or not the fight for justice in Australia is that straightforward – and certainly governments here are urgently canvassing legal opinion to avoid being defined as trustees in this sense – the fact remains that people who suffered under decades of financial controls are entitled to an independent public accounting based on the fullest range of evidence.  No financial institution with such a scandalous record would be allowed to deny it.  This evidence should not be manipulated by temporary politicians.

Failure to produce available evidence also impacts on a more familiar battle for justice, the struggle for Aboriginal Australians to attain title to their land.  Here, it seems, the struggle is blighted not so much be wilful concealment of evidence as by wilful withholding of resources, although the effect is much the same.  For around two centuries now governments have amassed evidence of Aboriginal presence and movement, they generated files specific to Aboriginal individuals, they retain all this evidence, they control access to this evidence, they vet what will be available to the bodies who ask to sight it on behalf of claimants.  Governments are therefore morally bound to provide resources sufficient for a full appraisal of this evidence.  Anything less clearly prejudices claimants’ legal rights that judgement of native title be based on the full range of available facts, rather than on a minor portion of evidence.   This need not be an onerous task.  The provision of all relevant material to claimants within a reasonable time is restricted only by the preparedness of governments to fund staff sufficient for the task.  Most ‘native title’ funding in fact is soaked up by the Native Title Tribunal and by government opposition to claims.

In this increasingly contested field archivists and records managers hold a critical position, a position inextricably linked with the authorities which create the files.  Archives receive documents which government departments choose to store with them.  Ownership of the documents remains vested in the government which can reclaim them at will or, as was the case in Queensland in 1990, order their destruction.  Here the archivist was requested by Cabinet to destroy the documents within 24 hours, a requirement condemned as ‘political pressure’ by the Australian Society of Archivists in 1997.  Subsequent legislation4 appears not to resolve this dilemma.   Ownership of the records remains vested in the department that generated them, and which can demand their return.  Destruction depends either on the authority of the archivist or under ‘other legal authority, justification or excuse’.  This does not sound like professional independence to me.

And destruction of records is only one of a variety of tactics available to authorities who want to conceal evidence of their practices.  The records are extraordinarily vulnerable.  They are vulnerable to confiscation by authorities which demand them and may or may not return them to archives.  They are vulnerable to tampering: one crucial file I accessed in 1990 held hundreds of letters across a 30-year span, it now is registered as covering only a single insignificant year.  Perhaps this is a data-base glitch; I certainly hope so.  Records are also simply excised from their historical context: the Queensland government only has to declare a file, a box of files or a truckload of files to be of interest to Cabinet and they disappear for 30 years during which time, of course, legal actions can be adjudicated without them.  In fact Queensland’s Information Commissioner was recently highly critical of government misuse of FOI laws to avoid public scrutiny;5 he has since been removed and not replaced.

This is why I argue that records generated by variously-titled Aboriginal Affairs departments are in a class of their own.  For other sectors of government – health, prisons – there are a range of intersecting authorities and departments whose records reveal multiple perspectives of practices and policies.  This is not the case, certainly for Queensland, for the most momentous – and now contested – years of Aboriginal controls.  Archivists and record managers certainly have a role to play in preserving this evidence.  Is it possible to copy all relevant files before relinquishing them to departments that reclaim them?  Or at least summarise the material therein?  Destruction of files relating to Aboriginal lives should be a last resort.  Even the most banal – work records, travel schedules, ration vouchers – are all grist to the mill of researchers such as myself tracing the footprints of people long gone for native title claims, or footprints of people still waiting to get their money back.

Whether or not archivists can operate as truly independent gatekeepers is a moot point.  Certainly there needs to be a person or body to stand between governments and the evidence of their actions, an entity working closely with archivists but perhaps charged more specifically with ensuring that all relevant material is available to both parties in any dispute or litigation over previous government practices.

Better still, with regard to Stolen Wages, governments should fund an independent accounting of all relevant material.  People who still struggle in poverty and despair because of long-term practices which deliberately impoverished their elders are entitled to no less.  They are entitled to a re-writing of our national narrative to take account of their labour on which our development was dependent.  They are entitled to public acknowledgement that wretched community conditions were pioneered and entrenched by governments fully aware of the dreadful toll on survival, and were recently handed in that state to Aboriginal councils.  People are entitled to say, in their thousands, here is evidence to prove that we worked, we earned our pay, but someone else took our money.  This is not a story our governments want us to know, but I believe governments should no longer control what can be known.  This evidence belongs to us all, it is our heritage, disturbing though it is.  If – when – the evidence is public then justice can be done and healing can proceed.

I hope today I’ve given you some sense of why our archival records are so significant, and so vulnerable, in this field.  Please use your powers and skills to guard their integrity and ensure their availability to all appropriate individuals and agencies.  We must be ever vigilant against government dishonesty and injustice.  We need more people to stand up and say: not in my name.

1   See for background and a position paper by the Australian Society of Archivists in March 1999.

2   See for full details.  Rejection rate is running at around 40%.

3   See and

4   The Public Records Act, 2002.

5   See

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