Symposium – University of Queensland
Today I want to give you some historical background, so that as doctors in the making you have some understanding of the experiences of Aboriginal Queenslanders. This is a short talk – if you want more information you can go to my books which are all in your libraries here.
When I began my PhD in 1990, I wanted to understand why life for so many Aboriginal people was mired in poverty, despair and destruction. If this was the outcome after over 70 years of suffocating government controls, why not look at how governments had operated to produce such conditions? I spent three years investigating government correspondence and it is those primary documents that continue to inform my writings. What I know, what I say today, was written and known by government agents.
In 1897 the Queensland government passed the Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act, a law that allowed it to take control of everyone of Aboriginal descent – where they lived, who they might marry, their work, their wages, their savings, their children – every aspect of their lives. These powers continued until the early 1970s. A network of police as ‘protectors’ were empowered to keep under supervision all local families, and banish anyone to a mission or government settlement where they might be confined for life – there was no requirement to prove an allegation and no right of appeal. The Aboriginal department, in its various names, operated almost as a closed regime, controlling education, housing, health, policing, justice, access to individuals and communities. What we were told, even through the 1980s, was predominately the spin of government.
Children were the major focus of removal policy. But what happened then? What happened to these allegedly ‘rescued’ children in these allegedly remedial institutions? Having taken from parents the legal position of guardian, governments had a legal obligation to provide food, shelter, education, health care, and moral and physical protection, to the standard deemed appropriate in the white community. We need to ask if this was the case.
For over 70 years Aboriginal children were confined in dormitories on the missions and settlements, even when their families lived in the same community. Governments funded these children at far less per capita than white children in care: this entrenched near starvation, endemic sickness and death. A few snapshots from the records. The new Woorabinda settlement opened in 1927 in a frost area without dormitory shelter or beds: children slept on the ground in a bark lean-to and had to eat their food with their hands. The waterholes had dried up, sanitation was described as ‘deplorable’, and influenza and gastric illnesses were rife. In 1934 at the government’s show-piece Cherbourg settlement, over 100 girls were locked nightly for ten hours in an unlit building where, and I quote, the walls were ‘literally alive with bugs … beds, bed clothing, pillows and mattresses all infested…’ In the 1940s the settlement store had no vegetables, nor fresh or condensed milk.
The church-run missions got only 60 per cent per capita funding compared to government settlements. In 1936 the Yarrabah mission could not feed the inmates. Dormitory meals were listed as dry bread and black tea for breakfast and dinner, soup of shin bones and onions with dry bread for lunch; no green vegetables or butter and no milk except a ration of 600 ml per day for babies under 18 months; there were 16 deaths within ten months, seven of them children. The doctor said the ‘totally inadequate’ diet was the cause of endemic gastro-intestinal diseases. The government threatened to reduce funding if the mission didn’t fix the problems. In the 1950s a TB specialist said dormitories were ‘pernicious’ in their effects: ‘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’. Her protest went unheeded.
The key plank to Queensland’s ‘protection’ regime was enforced labour, including of children. It was illegal for anyone ‘under the Act’ to work except on a government-arranged contract and most of the wage was paid to the government agent, generally the local police protector. In the early years children from as young as eight and nine were contracted to work for 51 weeks out of 52; young girls from the settlements were routinely sent to remote rural properties: the department’s Annual Reports constantly lament that they can’t fill the demand for girls ‘just out of school’. Yet the department knew the girls were in danger, they failed to check their conditions and treatment, and they filed, year after year, notifications of physical and sexual abuses. Babies were delivered back on the community before young mothers were sent back into the workforce, at a cheaper rate if the baby went too. After a scandal in the mid 1930s the department weighed the safety of indentured girls against the double financial penalty of retaining them on the settlement – loss of their wages and cost of maintenance. Girls were still sent to remote properties in the late 1960s.
The government controlled people’s wages and savings, including intercepted child endowment and pensions, and intercepted workers compensation and inheritances. During the last 10 years I have exposed the entrenched negligence, loss and theft that characterised what is collectively known as the Stolen Wages. Here I’ll just say that for almost 50 years the government diverted around 80 per cent of private savings into investments for an interest benefit to itself, while those whose money it was lived and died in poverty, sickness and despair.
The many hundreds of settlement inmates without access to outside earnings were totally dependent on government rations. In the 1930s at Palm Island when the death rate hit over six per cent the visiting doctor reported that the ill and elderly were slowly starving to death, and most of the babies who were not breast fed died of malnutrition. Rations for hospital patients were so deficient the matron took money from their savings accounts, without their knowledge, to buy provisions. In the 1940s at Yarrabah mission malnutrition was so bad elders were dying and adults were too weak to work, the drinking water was again unsafe for human consumption, and a health inspector from Cairns said sanitation was so shoddy it would trigger prosecution if it were not a government institution. Yet the government refused to increase funding.
In the 1950s at Cherbourg dozens of families still lived in leaking tin shacks with coconut-frond walls, the ‘better’ timber and tin huts were unlined and housed up to 19 people, and were blamed for deaths of babies from heat exposure. There was no water to the houses, or for food preparation or washing of hands. Disease was rife. One doctor said conditions were so bad it was a miracle babies survived infancy and childhood; a miracle they didn’t suffocate as people slept four and more to a bed; a miracle they survived their diet of damper and syrup three meals a day; a miracle they survived the unwashed filthy bedding, leaking and overflowing toilets, dirt encrusted kitchens. In the 1960s a medical survey showed malnutrition across these government institutions was the key factor in 50 per cent of deaths of babies and toddlers, and 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. At this time the government paid its workers less than 60 per cent of the basic wage; and it knew 75 per cent of child outpatients were severely underweight. In the 1980s, families on several communities still lived in houses that were officially condemned, and many still had no hot water.
In these under-funded communities the government knew people sickened and died: the files are full of it. But the rhetoric – then and now – is to blame inmates for community dysfunction. From the mid-1940s people could be fined or imprisoned if they failed to keep their huts neat and tidy; hygiene inspectors policed homes and surroundings; ‘dirty and untidy’ families were more closely monitored. Isn’t it remarkable how closely this intensification of personal surveillance resonates with statements of today? Taken out of context you might say they were a reasonable response to communities characterised by disease and malnutrition. And this remains the government line. But what this personal attack conceals, of course, is the deadly environments created and maintained by government refusal to provide standard living conditions in these so-called ‘remedial’ institutions.
When the Queensland government handed local government powers to Aboriginal communities during the mid 1980s, records show it had cheated community workers of over $180 million by illegally underpaying them during the previous ten years; and then it stripped the communities of revenue-producing enterprises before leaving. Aboriginal councils inherited houses crowded with 20 and more people, many in derelict condition, serviced by water which often tested unfit for human consumption, blighted by unemployment of over 92 per cent specifically engineered by government as it slashed workforces to cover legal obligations to improve wages. Councils were funded to the same level as the failed department – in full knowledge that these amounts had never met meet basic needs. This was the legacy of more than 80 years monopoly management. It is a scandalous situation common across Australia where the massive infrastructure backlog on government-controlled Aboriginal communities was estimated in 1991 to be $2.5 billion.
I’ll close by reading you a few snippets from last Saturday’s Australian:
The Queensland government was warned 3 years ago that its failure to provide services for Aboriginal communities represented a serious breach of its statutory duties.
An internal Department of Communities report [on Aurukun] found hundreds of thousands of dollars – allocated to employ staff and provide justice facilities to combat youth crime – had not been spent.
Despite treasury allocations of $98,000 annually, a public intoxication program ‘is now in its fifth year of not operating.’
It is my opinion that current levels of alcoholism, violence, abuse and despair in Aboriginal communities are not surprising given this historical context of pernicious governance.
It is my conviction that until we recast this entrenched scandal as a product of government we will not be able to effect meaningful change for those thousands of individuals who have endured such suffocating mismanagement across generations.