The requirement for accountability
When I started my research in 1990 I had no idea how governments in Queensland had controlled the lives of Aboriginal people. That’s why I chose the question as the subject of my doctoral thesis. I am appalled by what I have learned over the last 15 years as my investigations continue.
How must it feel to be contracted out to work, for 12 months at a time, separated from your family and community, sent as a servant to a family of strangers who might treat you badly, and no-one to keep you company or hear your pleas for help. Under the system run by Queensland governments until 1970, this was the plight of tens of thousands of men, women – and children. Yes child labour was still common in the pastoral industry in the late 1950s, although authorities knew of widespread injuries.
Over the decades authorities send people out to work, including young girls, and they have no idea what conditions these workers have to endure, because, as the files state so often, no officials make regular inspections. They send young girls to work on remote properties despite multiple instances of sexual and physical abuse. As a mother and grandmother, it makes my blood run cold imagining my children, even my adult children, trapped in such a system.
From the beginning of the twentieth century the Queensland government sent Aboriginal people out to work in their thousands. And because they said – and I’m sure this sounds familiar – that Aboriginal people were somehow incapable of managing their finances competently, the government gave itself the power to manage those finances for them. This included setting a price on their work, always at a discount despite knowledge that Aboriginal labour was at a premium in many pastoral areas and also in the domestic sphere as white servants took up more lucrative factory and retail jobs.
Very few Aboriginal people would have known they were being sold short. They were not told what wage they were contracted for. They were not told how much ‘pocket money’ their employer was supposed to pay them during their contract term, nor how much the government demanded the employer pay direct to their control. But the government knew, because it was warned year after year, decade after decade, that workers were in all likelihood not getting their pocket money. As late as the mid-1960s, when this flawed system was almost at an end, auditors said there was still no way of knowing whether Aboriginal workers ever got this cash portion of their wage.
As a worker it was hard and humiliating to get money from the police protectors who controlled your savings. For many the trip to the police station took hours, or might even by a once-a-month visit to town; yet police could declare they were too busy to process a request to withdraw money. Or, more likely, could refuse such a request – the files are full of such refusals, even for people with relatively large bank accounts.
The system of using police protectors untrained in financial and clerical work was fraught with risk. The government knew this, but it made good economic sense given police were not paid for their duties as protectors. The files are full of criticisms of account-keeping irregularities, questionable thumb printing (the main validation of withdrawals for many decades), and there are many, many instances of dubious practices – such as keeping a batch of unused withdrawals already thumbprinted and witnessed. But the government continued this system until around 1970.
In 1933, as a measure to reduce police fraud according to the government, all Aboriginal savings were centralised in one account at head office. Immediately the government sidelined around $15million (today) into investments to raise revenue for Treasury, leaving only 20% of savings available to those whose money it was. Investing the major portion of Aboriginal savings was a lucrative practice which continued into the 1970s.
The government also took money from private savings without the knowledge or consent of account holders. It imposed levies towards the cost of running missions and settlements; it imposed levies towards an unemployment relief fund; and it put monies due to absconders or deceased workers into a separate trust fund, ostensibly for distribution to descendants but often applied for other purposes. It took money out of the accounts of people in country areas to subsidise the cost of buildings and amenities on local reserves. In 1943 it set up the Aboriginal Welfare Fund, which absorbed the earlier levies and also the profits from community enterprises. Time after time auditors, and even directors complained the Welfare Fund was being used to pay for items rightly the responsibility of government. The government was still using this fund in 1993.
The government also intercepted workers compensation, inheritances, child endowment and pensions. In 1953 it had stockpiled over $400,000 (today) of child endowment funds just for Palm Island mothers at a time when epidemiological studies revealed malnutrition as the key factor in deaths of 50 per cent of children under three and 85 per cent of children under four. Concerned that the commonwealth might discover the stockpile authorities decided to spend the money on construction. When baby welfare funds suffered budget cuts of two-thirds in 1959 settlement superintendents were told to meet the deficit of around $55,000 from the child endowment accounts.
Even before the pensions were made available to Aboriginal people the government was discussing in 1959 how it could divert these welfare payments to revenue; they applied to handle the bulk payments, passing on only one-third to pensioners, and cut annual grants to missions to reflect the pension income. In 1960 the director told superintendents over $500,000 of pensions ‘goes direct to Revenue’. And when the compulsory wage levy into the Welfare Fund was dropped after 1966, the government began to merge child endowment income through the Welfare Fund. Endowment was paid into this Fund as late as 1984.
After 1975, when federal Racial Discrimination legislation made it illegal to underpay workers on the basis of their race, the Queensland government continued to underpay its Aboriginal employees despite top level legal advice confirming this was unlawful. The policy of paying illegally low wages continued until 1986, when Aboriginal community councils took over community administration and paid the legal rate. By simply calculating the wage differential against the number of community employees in that eleven-year period, it seems that the Queensland government saved itself over $180 million. Ultimately, after adverse findings in a 1996 HREOC Inquiry and commencement of litigation in the federal court, the government offered $7000 compensation to each affected employee, although it held files showing many were owed several times this amount. The final payout was $40 million; a tidy profit to the government of more than three times that figure.
It was only right at the end of this appalling saga of financial deprivation that Aboriginal people were finally given bank books to check money going in and out of their accounts. But these books recorded only the balance left in accounts at 1968, showing nothing of what had happened prior to that time. Many people were shocked at how little was there despite decades of work and decades of financial denial. Those who protested then, and now, were told the government has lost many of the files and can rarely give a full account of what happened to their money. Can you imagine any other financial institution brushing off aggrieved clients using incompetence as an excuse?
Was Queensland the only state to run such a system? The answer is no. I’m just compiling an investigation of states and territories around Australia and, once again, I am deeply disturbed by what I discover. Governments gave themselves the right to control Aboriginal labour, wages and property as early as 1871 in Victoria, 1898 in NSW, 1905 in Western Australia, 1911 in South Australia and 1911 in the Northern Territory. Right across Australia Aboriginal labour was described as essential to the pastoral industries from the first years of white settlement into the late 1960s in many areas. Yet most controlled workers never received even a minimum wage in the Kimberley and only a pittance in the Northern Territory, in other states they were contracted at cheaper rates than white pastoral workers. Where wages were set, government files show authorities knew cheating was common with many stockmen deprived of any cash payment because it was said to be absorbed through exorbitantly priced food, tobacco and clothing at station stores. In several states large lump sums of private savings were simply and regularly declared ‘unclaimed’ and transferred to Treasury.
For probably 100 years child labour was a key component of Aboriginal policy and a key financial resource through the control of wages. For many decades hundreds of Aboriginal children were indentured to labour as servants, some from as young as 6 years of age. There was no-one to protect their interests, as government files frequently reveal. Whether children were controlled only to the age of 21 years, or, as in Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory, controlled also as adults, it was the governments which took direct control of their wages, and it appears it was a common experience that governments failed to return that money to the workers; and failed even to keep proper records of the money they were handling.
Federal child endowment, payable since mid 1941, was an absolute financial bonanza to the states and territories, most of which promptly applied to act as agents for bulk payments, to ensure mothers didn’t spend the money to the detriment of the child. What then can be said of the millions of dollars which was retained in government hands to be used for capital works and vehicles as happened in Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory. The first two states, and likely the Northern Territory also, promptly reduced state subsidies to reflect the income from federal funds.
This misuse of endowment, granted specifically to enhance the health and well being of children in need, effectively enhanced the well being of consolidated revenue even while the files record the abysmal destitution, substandard conditions, malnutrition, sickness and high mortality of those whose money it rightfully was. A survey in 1937 in NSW showed the Protection Board controlled over 70 per cent of all endowment yet many mothers received nothing. It appears endowment was used to build sub-standard homes which the Board then rented or sold to Aboriginal families. Missions and pastoral stations in the Northern Territory and Western Australia also banked a fortune each quarter, yet it appears no-one put in place a secure system to make sure the money was paid to the mothers. In 1950 the director stated that missions in Western Australia were dependent on endowment income for their financial survival. Pensions from the 1960s were similarly exploited. So we’re not talking a few rotten eggs here. I would argue this misuse of welfare payments was systemic, identifiable, and never rectified.
So how do we find out what happened to this money. As I mentioned, I hope in a few months to complete a National Report which looks at controls of Aboriginal labour, wages and trust money around Australia. Of necessity, since I have only finite brain-power, this relies on work already done by others in several key texts, or on more intensive research undertaken in NSW for the current reparations process. We really need intensive research into primary files in each state and territory; my work here in Queensland shows just what can be uncovered.
To understand the dimensions of these ‘protection’ strategies, to understand the vast sums of money never publicly accounted for, is surely the starting point. It is a beginning in the rewriting of our history to re-instate Aboriginal labour to its central position in our development as a nation, which for so long depended on the success of the pastoral sector and thereby on the Aboriginal workforce. And it is a beginning in overturning those prejudicial assumptions that Aboriginal poverty and despair today are based in a historical failure to participate in the labour market and/or a ‘cultural’ inability as financial managers. Aboriginal people during the twentieth century have earned millions of dollars which they never got a chance to apply for their own benefit. And much of that money seems to be missing. Governments took the role of financial managers; it is governments which must now be called to account. But how do we do this?
This is the task I set myself in my latest book, which will be published in September. I have called it Trustees on Trial, and it undertakes a close analysis of the spectrum of financial controls here in Queensland, an analysis which is mediated through national and international case law regarding the duty of governments to discharge their discretionary powers over the interests and assets of Indigenous peoples. By studying the transition, particularly in Canada and the United States, whereby courts moved from a position which accepted the rights of governments to administer Indigenous peoples without accountability to an external agency such as the courts, to the position today in those two countries where the courts hold governments to the same accountability standards as any other financial organisation, we can cast the Queensland experience in a new perspective. A more specifically legal perspective.
If, as I argue, the Queensland government has an enforceable fiduciary duty to Aboriginal people taken under its ‘protection’, then the Queensland government has a duty to be fully accountable for its financial dealings. This legal accountability incorporates a proscription on using trust monies for its own gain, a proscription on mixing trust monies with its own, and an obligation to produce full records of its dealings on all trust monies. Failure to find records is not an excuse; it is an instance of breach of trust. Where the government is unable to demonstrate an identifiable audit trail, that money cannot be deemed to have been paid. In short, the boot is on the other foot. It would no longer be up to an individual to produce a document showing fraud on their account, assuming the government can find such a document for them. It would be up to the government to demonstrate that it’s management matches the standard demanded of all financial institutions.
And that takes me smoothly to the last point I’d like to raise today. A key case in Trustees on Trial is the massive US class action which commenced in 1996 and continues today. In this case five Native American plaintiffs asserted that the government was trustee of their funds and therefore owed them a detailed accounting of its handling of their money. The judge agreed: in a 1999 judgement he ordered the government to account for every cent it had held in trust since 1887. This of course the government cannot do. It has fought a long and unedifying battle to deny this obligation, and has been found in contempt of court on more than one occasion. Most recently, it has asserted that the $100 million cost of fixing its deplorable accounting system should be charged against the Indian money it holds in trust!
We could learn much from the long struggle of the claimants, who number 500,000 and include deceased account holders. So in October this year we will bring the lead plaintiff, Elouise Cobell, to Australia, a visit organised by QPILCH (Queensland Public Interest Law Clearing House) who provide pro bono advice, including to Aboriginal people wanting to discuss their legal options. Elouise and I will share a platform in Brisbane, along with Tiga Bayles, chairman of Murri Radio. We will discuss the realities of government trust management of Indigenous money, and the unremitting struggle for justice. We’ll also be travelling to Sydney and Melbourne.
So there is plenty we can do. Our premier might have assumed, by offering $4000 for Stolen Wages or $7000 of under-award wages, that this would bring resolution. In my view he assumed wrong. There is no financial institution in Australia, having presided over decades of lost files, disputed accounts, official reprimands for misuse of trust funds, a swathe of critical audit reports, and failure to implement recommended security measures; – no financial institution would think it could get away with losing millions of dollars for thousands of clients and assume a $4000 payment is sufficient reparation. I cannot believe that our government would think this is good enough for its Aboriginal client.
There is nothing Aboriginal about an authority taking your money and losing it. Every person whose money is held in trust is due a full accounting for every cent of that money. We must stand together in this struggle for justice. We must tell our government loud and clear that we will not condone it. If we disapprove of the way this government is behaving on our behalves, we must say so. There should be no colour bar to justice.