Talk to students of Brigidine College
At your age I had no idea who I was or what I wanted to do. Fifty years later and I still have the same questions. But I think that’s life’s great adventure. For most of us here, anything at all is possible.
Mind you, a lot of life has a way of happening to you when you’re not really looking. I don’t quite know how it happened that I went from being a schoolgirl at a Melbourne ladies’ college to running a strawberry farm in Queensland with no machinery, no running water, three children under four and a stupid goat that ate the children’s clothes instead of the clover. We had to hoe, weed and plant by hand, and nights were spent packing fruit, vegies and flowers for the market. We were hopeless farmers but I loved it absolutely – bare feet, sunshine, birds and bush. Whenever we could afford it I bought a book – science, psychology, biographies, history.
Then we built and ran squash courts at Capalaba. Worked 100 hours a week starting at 6am with the cleaning. I did the early nights, finishing at 11pm. We ate in shifts so one of us could feed the kids and supervise homework. After a few years we got out of that rat-race and opened an art gallery. We were back in the bush with the birds, and also koalas, snakes, big scrub pythons, and possums that danced the tango on the roof each night. And huge bush spiders. Do you know what’s worse than a large hairy spider on the bedroom wall at night? Not being able to find it in the morning!
When I was 40 my husband declared it was time I went to Uni. I was terrified. I was hopeless at casual conversation, had no idea what school-leavers talked about, and hadn’t written an essay for 25 years. But the idea was frighteningly tempting. What are your post-school career qualifications? said the form. Hmmm. Amazingly I was accepted by Griffith University to do Humanities. I didn’t even know what ‘Humanities’ was. But I figured, that’s what I’m going to learn.
I chose as many different subjects as I could just to find out what they were about. I decided to say something – anything – to whoever I was standing beside as we waited inevitably in corridors and outside lecture rooms, and found most of the kids were more nervous than I was. I always had a million questions to ask in seminars and tutorials and nearly burst a boiler trying not to hog the time. But there were always these looong silences and I’d have to speak out rather than lose the chance. I did feel better when the other students later told me they only started understanding topics when I waded with my queries.
I did Honours, took a year off, and then started a PhD. I knew this would take about four years, and had to open up a completely new dimension in a field. Because I knew nothing at all about the history of Aboriginal people in Queensland, and because this was a big news issue at the time, I chose this as my topic. I knew that until the early 1970s Aboriginal people were largely missing from Australian histories, which mostly spoke of explorers, pioneers, and the development of towns, roads, railways etc. Deadly dull! But historians of the late 1970s and 1980s had gone back to the government records and early letters and books, and wrote about the complexity of Aboriginal culture, about how Aboriginal people had resisted white occupation of their lands, and how governments had deliberately kept them out of our society and out of our economic development.
I decided to do something different again. Rather than ‘adding in’ the Aboriginal dimension to our history since white settlement, I wanted to look at exactly why and how governments around Australia had controlled thousands of Aboriginal people from the 1890s to the 1980s. I wanted to look at the letters and reports of the men running the system, to find out what they were thinking and what they were doing. I wanted to find out if what they did behind the scenes matched what they told the public.
I spent two years reading everything I could find. Books and articles in the libraries, and hundreds of letters and reports by the churches that ran the missions and by the Queensland government itself. I’m often asked why the government allowed me to see all their files. Two answers. One, they had no idea what dynamite was in them. And two, I think they figured a boring middle-aged woman wouldn’t write anything interesting. They won’t make that mistake again!
There were so many things that didn’t make sense. Why would a government force thousands of Aboriginal people to stay on remote settlements? If it was to improve Aboriginal lives, why were there so many stories about the terrible conditions? Why did the government send so many people to work on farms and cattle stations? Why are the families who lived through this system so poor today? At the time when the Queensland government passed a law in the 1890s so that it could take control of any Aboriginal person, it is true life for many Aboriginal families was very difficult. Most were not allowed to live in the towns, many workers were cheated of their wages, and families rarely had enough food or good shelter. This is why the government sent thousands of Aboriginal people to live on remote settlements. I couldn’t help wondering how would it feel to be punished for things outside your control, by being sent away for life from the place you call home, and from your friends and relatives. And this is what happened. Then I found out that life on these settlements was little better, because the government did not provide enough funds for food, shelter or medical care. Often food ran out and people were sent to live in the bush. Often water ran out and people had to drink from waterholes where dogs and chooks paddled. These facts are written in the letters of the times.
And because conditions were so bad on the settlements, because so many children were sickly, the government took them from their parents and kept them in dormitories behind wire fences. Children have written about how they waited for the chance to be able to wave to their mother through the fence. Were the dormitories better than living at home? I will quote from one report: ‘the dormitory walls are literally alive with bugs … beds, bed clothing, pillows and mattresses are all infested … all pillows are filthy because the previous matron withheld pillowslips to save washing.’ Dormitory children were given only a little schooling in reading and writing; mostly they were trained to be servants. Up until the 1930s children under ten were sent to remote farms to work as servants; they were flogged if they tried to escape. After the 1930s the minimum age was fourteen. In those days, and with no idea of outside life (no newspapers, radios, books or TV in these places), I guess a girl of 14 probably was as unknowing as a child of eight is today. Many girls have written about being put on the train for a journey of several days, locked in police stations overnight, with no idea where you were going or what would happen to you. Some girls went to good families who treated them fairly; most had terrible experiences including 20-hour working days, and physical and sexual abuse. One old lady I spoke to remembered being chained under the house like a dog whenever her bosses when out shopping or visiting. Servants were allowed one week’s holiday a year. I was ashamed to learn this was happening when I was at school and even into the 1970s when we worked on our farm. In some families grandmothers, mothers and daughters all suffered many years of work before they were allowed to live as a family. And as I read about these awful lives, and how they were sent back out to work year after year, I kept asking myself, ‘What if this had been me? How would I have coped? How would it feel to have no right to how you lived your own life?’ These people and their experiences were very real to me, and remain so today.
The government’s own letters and reports showed clearly it had not used its controls to ‘protect’ Aboriginal people. It failed to care for the thousands of people forced to live on its reserves. It continued to send children out to work when its letters over a fifty-year period clearly showed they were in danger. And it continued to send boys and men to work on the cattle stations when it knew they were not paid enough wages, that they were routinely overworked, and that mistreatment was common. Why on earth would it do this? Two main reasons, I think. Firstly, by sending so many people from the settlements out to work, the government had fewer people to provide for. Indeed after a scandal in the 1930s about the sexual abuse of girl servants, government officials said it would cost too much if the girls stayed on the settlements with their families. The second reason was that the government made an awful lot of money from this controlled workforce. Right from the beginning the government stated that Aboriginal people were hopeless with money, and it demanded all wages be paid to officials, usually the local police sergeant, so the money would be safe. But what I found out, and what the government knew all along, was that this money wasn’t safe. Not only did many police cheat people by making out false receipts and withdrawal forms, but the government itself was wrongly using the special funds set up from the thousands of small savings accounts. The government also took money from child endowment and pensions, and from the inheritances that were supposed to go to the children when parents died. These missing monies are often called the Stolen Wages. I couldn’t imagine how awful it must be to be told you are poor today because you are lazy, when you know you worked all your life but someone else took your money.
I laid all this information out in my PhD thesis, and in a book The Way We Civilise. I thought that when others knew the truth about what had been happening, things would change for Aboriginal people. Perhaps they would be compensated for their missing money, and I would start on some different adventure in life. But in 1996 when I gave this evidence to a Human Rights Commission Inquiry into how the government cheated workers by not paying full wages on the settlements, the government threatened to sue me. I realised it would probably continue to lie about the past, that we would have to fight to get justice. And because I was the one who had all this knowledge and information, it was up to me to help in this fight.
Many years after the HREOC wages case, the government finally paid $7000 to each worker it had cheated, but in some cases it knew people had lost many times that amount. A few years ago, when the government realised thousands of people were going to sue for money lost from their savings accounts and pensions, it again offered a small payment, but only if people agreed never to bring legal action against it for the rest of their missing money.
I feel really angry that the government is so contemptuous of what is has put Aboriginal people through in losing and misusing millions of dollars of their money. I know that if any bank had treated its customers so badly it would be forced to pay back every dollar, plus extra for the pain and hurt. Although there is now a mountain of evidence against the government, lawyers tell me there has never been a case in Australia where people have sued the government for their missing money like this. They say the courts would be unlikely to judge government actions like those of a bank. But I heard there was a similar case in the United States where people from many Indian tribes had their money controlled by the government which then lost and stole it. In 2002 the US courts found the government guilty and demanded massive compensation, although – not surprisingly – the government is still stalling. I thought if I could bring to Australia the lady who started this case we would get a lot of media attention for the Stolen Wages, and perhaps get the lawyers thinking differently about the possibilities. By the time I organised her visit in 2007, I had completed a new book looking at her case and also other court judgements about missing and stolen money. I used this legal information to talk about how the Queensland government had mishandled the money of Aboriginal people. We did get a lot of publicity and interest, but it is proving very difficult to get a case started. For any of you who want to know more, about the general history or about the wages fight, just google my name and you’ll find plenty of articles on my website.
I’m not sure where to go next in this fight for justice. I really believe no government in Australia will make any decent sort of settlement for all this money what went missing, unless they are forced by the courts to do so. A court case would also bring massive media attention. And with TV cameras and newspapers printing the sensational details every day, thousands of viewers would finally understand what life has been like for so many Aboriginal families. And for many Aboriginal people, our total lack of understanding is almost as painful to bear as the hard lives they led.
You wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve questioned what I am doing. Not being part of this fight for justice; but being there at all. Many times – even today – it seems totally unreal that I am asked to speak out in front of people, on radio or TV, or the Senate Inquiry into Stolen Wages. I still find it unnerving. But I do know that the information is true, and I believe it is my job to speak out accurately and passionately about what I know has happened to people just like myself. My journey through life has been an exciting challenge. And the best part is – I have no idea what will happen next.