When I started my doctoral thesis in 1990, I chose to investigate an issue I knew nothing about: how successive Queensland governments controlled the lives of Aboriginal people. I focussed my attention on the powers of government, the policies of their bureaucracies, the impacts of their administrators. Why was it, I pondered, that a suffocating regime of controls operating for more than 70 years had produced such appalling outcomes for those trapped in its machinery. I spent six months accumulating evidence from church and historical archives, and eighteen months trawling through thousands of letters and reports amassed by the Queensland government, an unprecedented open access awarded me by Professor Marcia Langton, then briefly part of the Queensland government’s land legislation department.
Tonight I’d like to share with you some of my findings, and the repercussions of my research. I’ll touch on three areas: government claims that Aboriginal children and families were removed and controlled ‘for their own good’; the false proposition that Aboriginal poverty is largely an outcome of a cultural failure to adapt to our capitalist system of work and wages; and our continuing efforts to reveal the truths of the past and to win justice for almost a century of government malpractice. Please keep in mind that what you will hear tonight is evidence located on official Queensland files. We now know similar practices and abuses prevailed across our nation.
To my first point: Did forced removals to missions and settlements improve the lives of Aboriginal people? The files for Queensland show that from the beginning these institutions were places of grinding poverty, derelict housing, lethally inadequate diet, unsafe drinking water, arbitrary punishment, and incompetent schooling. Indeed into the late 1950s the government breached its own laws mandating a standard education for every Queensland child. The government streamed far greater funding to its three settlements, although it knew missions had insufficient resources to bridge the gap. So conditions at the government’s showpiece institution, Cherbourg, reveal the ‘best’ of official care and protection. Here in the 1930s they crammed 100 girls into a locked, barred, and unlit room for ten hours a night, sleeping seven or eight together on mattresses on the floor with only one blanket each for warmth. In 1941 dormitory life was described by officials as dreary beyond imagination, a deadening routine which ruined any benefits of schooling, which ended at grade four. At Doomadgee mission, even in the 1950s, a health specialist wrote that girls were kept in virtual slavery, locked up at night behind barbed wire after working on the farm all day. Describing the effects as pernicious, she said: ‘It is completely futile and artificial and unnatural to enclose, or rather encage, women, and expect any sort of normal psychological balance on their release’.
Let me give you just a few snapshots of life under compulsory government ‘protection’. Medical reports for Palm Island in the 1930s reveal a death rate of over six per cent and said most of the ill and elderly were slowly starving to death. Rations for hospital patients were so deficient the matron took money from their savings accounts, without their knowledge, to buy food. Doctors reported that most of the babies who were not breast fed died of malnutrition. In the 1940s at Yarrabah mission malnutrition was so bad elders were dying and adults were too weak to work, and the drinking water was commonly unsafe for human consumption. In the 1950s at Cherbourg dozens of families still lived in leaking tin shacks with coconut-frond walls, the ‘better’ tin and timber huts were unlined and housed up to 19 people, and were blamed for deaths of babies from heat exposure. There was no water to these new houses for food preparation or washing of hands. Disease was rife. In the 1960s a medical survey showed most homes still lacked running water, safe sanitation and basic household goods. Malnutrition across these government communities was the key factor in 50 per cent of deaths of babies and toddlers, and in 85 per cent of children under four years. On Palm Island in the 1970s doctors blamed massive infection loads on the overcrowded and substandard living conditions; surveys showed few homes had fridges, cupboards, chairs, tables or beds. In the 1980s, families on the government-run communities of Pormpurraw and Palm Island were living in houses that were officially condemned, because no other shelter was available. It was around this time that the Queensland government handed control of these blighted communities to the Aboriginal Councils, who have struggled ever since to reverse almost a century of institutionalised neglect.
I want to turn now to Aboriginal employment. Contrary to the longstanding ‘whitewash’ of Aboriginal labour from our economic history, in most states Aboriginal labour has been absolutely crucial to our development as a nation. In Queensland, an 1899 survey listed over 2000 permanent workers south of Rockhampton. By 1907 there were more than 3000 contracted Aboriginal workers across the state, nudging 4000 in the pastoral industry alone by 1920, rising to 4500 in the early 1930s and 5000 in the mid 1960s. Keep in mind also that government-sanctioned child labour was common in Queensland into the late 1950s.
A major objective of the ‘protection’ regime from its inception was to control this vital Aboriginal labour resource. To this end the government acted as employment broker, setting the wage and location for the year-long contracts, the euphemistically termed ‘agreements’ that no Aboriginal man, woman or child, could refuse without punishment. Initially there were no limits on how many hours were worked, how hard the labour, how bad the treatment, provision of food and living quarters. Minimum conditions were only introduced in 1919, but the government appointed no official inspectors, despite constant evidence of assaults and abuses. In 1921 the chief protector admitted shelter for many Aboriginal workers was ‘worse than they would provide for their pet horse, motor-car or prize cattle’; in the 1940s it was reported most employers in the Gulf area thought ‘anything is good enough for a nigger’ and that survival was ‘just bare existence’; in 1959 one group of stock workers were housed in an open shed without any bedding, light or table and paid only tobacco and matches each week for their work. All these things the government knew, because all these things are on file at head office. Yet time after time, anyone who stood up for their rights or absconded to seek better paid work or visit their family, was hunted down by police and either returned in handcuffs to their employer or banished to Palm Island as punishment. It was only in 1956, after the system had run for 60 years, that the government instructed industrial inspectors to include Aboriginal employees in their tours of rural areas. Even then, as the records show, abuses continued – sexual assaults, wet living quarters, rough handling, beatings with chains, lack of water and cooking facilities.
I want now to consider the range of financial abuses – institutionalised by the government itself. From 1901 the government set a minimum monthly wage for Aboriginal workers – equivalent to about $23 today. In 1914 the government sold these workers to the pastoral industry for around 3 per cent the white rate, at a time when official reports said that Aboriginal workers were often regarded as more reliable and superior stockriders and bushmen than their white counterparts. In the early 1930s, when white rural labour was described as ‘often useless’ and Aboriginal labour as ‘indispensable’, the government sold Aboriginal workers at around 40 per cent the award rate for more than a decade. In 1956 a department survey confirmed Queensland’s pastoral industry was entirely dependent on Aboriginal workers, particularly in remote areas where white stockmen were rare. Despite this, the inspector said that the entrenched mentality was to pay ‘as little as possible for Aboriginal workers’, abetted by the government which set Aboriginal wages at only 70 per cent the award rate. Consequently, he wrote, ‘white men of markedly less ability and industry receive higher wages and better living conditions than Aboriginals who are better workmen’. The ‘equal pay’ judgement of 1966 barely worried the Queensland system: workers under state control were labelled ‘trainees’ and still sold at a discount, although most had decades of skill and experience. As always, workers were responsible for maintaining their families on this fractional wage; failure to do so could trigger their removal to a reserve. Only after 1972 were workers free to choose their own employment and demand the legal wage.
So exactly what happened to their meagre pay? Records show that for the whole of its 70-year contracted labour system the government knew that workers were routinely cheated of the 30-80 per cent of wages paid as ‘pocket money’. An internal inquiry in 1932 said it could be ‘reasonably assumed’ that workers didn’t get this money; police protectors said in a 1943 survey that the pocket money system was a farce and a direct profit to employers. In a 1956 survey police said the system was useless, futile and out of control with workers ‘entirely at the mercy’ of employers who simply doctored the books. Yet the government said it was ‘too costly’ to have pocket money books checked at head office. This avenue of known fraud was never fixed.
But pocket money was only the first point of government culpability regarding Stolen Wages. From the beginning of the twentieth century, supposedly to ‘protect’ Aboriginal earnings, remaining wages were paid direct to police protectors. Workers had to ask permission to withdraw money from their own savings, permission that was frequently, and arbitrarily, denied. And for nearly 70 years the government refused to let people see any record of dealings on their accounts even though – or perhaps because – it knew from the start that its network of police protectors were often incompetent and fraudsters. For more than 20 years there was absolutely no supervision of the 8000 rural savings accounts; an internal inquiry found police practices were so unreliable it was essential workers be allowed to appeal dealings on their accounts. The government rejected the recommendation. In 1932 another internal inquiry found that ‘the opportunity for fraud existed to a greater degree than with any other Governmental accounts’. In order to minimise police fraud, so it said, in 1933 the government centralised rural savings accounts in head office. But it immediately diverted around 80 per cent of these private savings – over $12 million today – into investments, and kept the interest. For more than 30 years, only about 20 per cent of personal savings was available at any one time to the workers. No wonder so many people were refused permission to withdraw their own savings.
In addition, large sums from two special trust funds of Aboriginal earnings – one to distribute deceased workers’ savings, and another supposedly for unemployment relief – were raided constantly by the government. In the decade from 1925, including the harsh Depression times, the government simply transferred to itself over $930,000 (today) from Aboriginal savings accounts and over $3.5 million from the two Trust funds – money that has never been repaid. Vast sums from Commonwealth child endowment, paid to Aboriginal mothers after 1941, were also transferred into state revenue, by giving only a fraction to settlement mothers and by reducing state grants to the missions by the amount of incoming federal endowment. From 1960, invalid, aged and widows pensions were simply ‘diverted to revenue’ (their term), bringing a bonanza of over $500,000 (today) in 1960, rising to almost $750,000 annually by 1964. Meanwhile the people whose entitlement this was, the people whose lives were intended to be improved by the pensions, struggled and died in poverty. When Aboriginal people in Queensland finally got control of their lives and their finances in the early 1970s, many found to their horror that their new bank books showed pitiful balances despite decades of work and financial privation.
Let’s now consider more recent times. Between 1975 and 1986 the Queensland government illegally underpaid Aboriginal employees on the controlled communities; legal rates were paid only after Aboriginal councils took charge of their communities in the mid 1980s. Contemporary records reveal Cabinet knew it was in breach of both state industrial law and the federal Racial Discrimination Act. And when it realised I would submit this evidence to a 1996 HREOC hearing into these underpaid wages, the Borbidge coalition government suggested I might be sued for damages. Nonetheless, based on this evidence, the HREOC found that the government had ‘intentionally, deliberately and knowingly’ underpaid six of the seven Palm Island claimants and it recommended compensation of $7000 each. The government simply refused to pay, but capitulated when action commenced in the federal court. Faced with hundreds of other similarly underpaid workers, in 1999 the Beattie Labor government offered the grand sum of $25 million to pay $7000 to all ex-employees for underpayment between 1975 and 1986. Like its predecessor, the Beattie government kept secret the evidence on its files: records show that at the time of the $7000 offer it had already settled 22 actions out of court, one for $4000 (where the records listed underpayment of almost four times that amount), and 21 for $7000 (where the records show underpayment ranged of between $13,000 and $27,000). We can be sure this evidence was kept secret from those who settled for a fraction of this documented entitlement. Disgusted with this pittance, fewer than half the potential claimants took the $7000. Ultimately almost $40 million was paid out, but this equates to less than one quarter of the government’s illegal profit from deliberately underpaying community workers. Hundreds of workers are continuing their fight for just repayment.
Knowledge is a powerful political tool. As awareness of the magnitude of malpractice and the wealth of evidence spread among the Aboriginal community, people demanded justice on the whole range of savings and trust malpractices, collectively known as the Stolen Wages. In May 2002, acknowledging potentially thousands of claimants against it, the Beattie Labor government put up $55.6 million – but this equated to a maximum $4000 per person for possibly decades of financial deprivation. Once again, the payment was conditional on people signing away their legal rights.
By 2008, with around two-thirds of the offer unclaimed, Anna Bligh’s Labor government increased the payment to $7000 and declared any residue would be tipped into the notorious Welfare Fund and used for educational scholarships, effectively diverting private reparations to cover educational deficiencies of governments during the twentieth century. Bligh went ahead with this policy in blatant contempt of a survey where over 90 per cent of Aboriginal Queenslanders wanted all money distributed to Stolen Wages sufferers.
The exploitation of Aboriginal labour, wages, savings and entitlements was not peculiar to Queensland. All state governments, and the commonwealth government in the Northern Territory between 1911 and 1978, ran contract labour systems and banking controls. In 2007 I put together a National Report using research by local historians. This was published by ANTaR as Hard Labour, Stolen Wages (available free online from their website). Around this time I met then-Democrat senator Andrew Bartlett at a Stolen Wages strategy meeting, and he suggested a Senate Inquiry should investigate Stolen Wages nationally. Due to his persistence the Inquiry was launched in 2007 under the auspices of the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee, attracting submissions from around Australia, which confirmed the terrible losses suffered by those whose lives and finances were mismanaged by various governments. It makes heartbreaking reading, and is available on the Senate website. Among a range of recommendations, the Committee urged the states to fund preliminary legal research into Stolen Wages. To my knowledge none of this research has been made available to potential Aboriginal claimants. The New South Wales government set up a reparations scheme in 2005 to repay wages listed on its records as outstanding – although as far as I know, there is no enthusiasm for a full inquiry into endemic fraud and mismanagement. In Victoria, South Australia and the Northern Territory the line is ‘it didn’t happen here’. This was also Western Australia’s platform although last year it admitted its culpability, offering a maximum $2000 limited to those who lived on government reserves, to ‘bring this unfortunate matter to a conclusion’. This matter – of decades of financial deprivation, malnutrition, sickness and preventable deaths – was not ‘unfortunate’. It is the outcome in all states of deliberate policies continued in full knowledge of their deadly consequences on the most vulnerable people of our nation. A legally-engineered vulnerability, in most cases.
I am absolutely convinced that it is governments that should be in the dock and on the defence, not an individual trying to provide cast-iron evidence of fraud on his or her account, evidence which the government may claim has been lost or destroyed. In the three years to 2007 I researched and wrote Trustees on Trial, analysing national and international cases relating to trust law and fiduciary duties, and applying those legal prohibitions and responsibilities to the negligent and exploitative conduct of successive Queensland administrations. I wanted to convince the legal profession and the courts of the strength of a breach of trust case against the government. Let me just mention a few of the legal duties of a trustee: he must protect the trust property that he controls, he must keep proper records of accounts and provide full information to any beneficiary requesting it, he must not profit from, nor have personal interests which conflict with, the trust. You can see the connections. Loss of records is not a defence; it is a fundamental breach of trust duties.
In September 2009 the Queensland Council of Unions launched court action for breach of trust on behalf of Conrad Yeatman, whose labour and wages were controlled by government mandate from the age of 14. In its defence, the government claims many records are lost, and – unbelievably – that it was not the government but the legislation which enabled Aboriginal wages to be controlled. This case currently seems to be mired in the quicksand of legal procedures.
Meanwhile the elders of Queensland and their supporters continue the battle for justice for the Stolen Wages. Our latest premier declares the issue ‘finished’. We are lobbying yet another prime minister. We talk with countless politicians who agree wholeheartedly that people should be repaid money earned by their own labour or allocated as social security, but then spout the party line when it comes to the crunch. Last month we launched our Facebook page Support the Stolen Wages Elders of Queensland.
So this has been my journey of discovery, and I have shared with you how this suffocating regime of controls during the twentieth century produced such appalling outcomes. We know the men who made the decisions, the men who maintained this cruel system in full knowledge of the culpability – and at times the illegalities – of their actions. The governments they served, the governments which profited so cruelly from entrenched malpractices, must be held to account.
I do not feel personally responsible for the policies and practices of past years which wrought such a terrible price on Aboriginal lives over generations. But it is my conviction that we, today, are all responsible, if we fail to do our utmost to force those who now govern in our names to justly compensate those whose suffering continues to the present day. To paraphrase Edmund Burke: ‘All that is necessary for evil to triumph, is for good men (and women) to do nothing.’
Building Bridges 2013. Reconciliation for Western Sydney. 14 August 2013