Work and wages – National Perspectives


During most of the twentieth century, in every Australian state and territory, one group of people has been subjected to physical confinement and bureaucratic supervision on a scale otherwise applied only to the criminally culpable or the mentally deficient.  Yet in almost every case these people had committed no crime.  Without due process and without right of appeal they, and too often their children and grandchildren, were sentenced in perpetuity.  For most people escape from this internment was conditional on walking away from family, country and culture.  This was your reality if you were of Aboriginal descent.

There are many people today – our prime minister among them – who argue that this no longer matters; that this is old history; that it was a long time ago and an era of different values; that we should not criticise well-intentioned policies implemented by well-intentioned men.

Well I have news for people who hold this claim.  This is not old history: in many states these policies of control and confinement continued into the 1970s.  And even by the standard of different values, those who wielded their powers behind the scenes to achieve their minor and major objectives knew that the terrible human toll of malnutrition, sickness, destitution and preventable deaths belied their public declarations of ‘benevolent protection’.

Why are governments still getting away with this myth?  Because so few of us know about their carefully crafted decisions so scrupulously recorded on an embarrassment of files.  It is time that the agencies which introduced and maintained this massive social experiment were questioned on its failed outcomes.  Because it is governments which institutionalised poverty, hunger, destitution, sickness and death to a degree literally unheard of in our ‘free’ country; it is governments which charted their failures and hid those records from the public; it is governments which must now be made accountable for the deeds of their office – deeds whose cost haunts and shames our nation today.

Tonight I thought I would speak briefly of how I come now to spend my time and energy speaking about the evidence regarding Queensland’s administration, and then I’ll turn to policies nationally.  What I’m hoping is that it will assist some of you today to realise what you might find on files here, how to search for it, and the implications of what you will discover.

I first attended university in Queensland in 1984 as a terrified mature-age student who hadn’t written an essay or researched an assignment in 25 years.  Five years later I chose to investigate Aboriginal administration in Queensland for my PhD thesis because I knew nothing whatsoever about it, and I was less than convinced by the rhetoric of politicians and the attitudes of the media.  I knew Aboriginal people had been subjected to extraordinary controls from around 1900 to the 1970s in Queensland, and I wanted to understand what it was like to be trapped in this system.  In compiling my work I soon realised that this massive social experiment should never have been implemented; it should never have been maintained over multiple decades given the vast evidence of abject and deadly failure throughout its duration.

So let me briefly sketch the system in Queensland.  Between 1897 and 1971 the Queensland government enacted laws so it could declare any person of Aboriginal descent a ward of state, confine them to a mission or settlement reserve, control their work, wages and savings, take control of their children.  In establishing and maintaining this regime of controls the government became legally accountable for the health and wellbeing of every Aboriginal child and adult in its care; it had a legal duty always to act in their best interests.

Under this system around half the state’s Aboriginal population was detained on government reserves, many for generations.  Here they lost all rights and responsibilities over the lives of themselves and their children who were commonly taken from them and confined in dormitories.  People who escaped to search for work or freedom were routinely hunted by police and forcibly returned, often to imprisonment on bread and water.

So what did I learn from the files about what it was like to be trapped in this ‘protection’ regime?  We’ll look first at the realities of this ‘duty of care’, and then at the controls over labour and wages. Government refusal ever to adequately fund missions and settlements made life precarious for the thousands of people removed ‘for their own good’ into government ‘care and protection’.  In the 1930s on the government settlement of Palm Island the death rate was over 6%, with most of the ill and elderly slowly starving to death.  Rations at the hospital were so meagre that the matron illegally took money from patients’ bank accounts to buy food.  A visiting doctor reported that most babies who were not breast fed died from malnutrition; his demands that rations be trebled and fruit juice provided to children were rejected by the superintendent as too costly.

In the 1940s at Yarrabah mission the elders were dying and many others were too weak to work because of malnutrition and illness; all patients sent to Cairns hospital were registered as badly malnourished.  Testing showed that drinking water was unsafe for human consumption; and it was said that defective sanitation ‘would lead to prosecution’ in any other circumstances.  Yet the government refused the increased funding necessary for improvements.  At the government’s showpiece institution, Cherbourg, many families were still living in leaking tin shacks with coconut-frond walls in the 1950s.  The ‘better’ – although unlined – two-room huts held up to 19 people and the doctor cited heat exposure as the cause of several infant deaths.  Houses lacked water for food preparation or even to wash hands.  It was worse on church missions where the government grant was less than $8.50 per person per week in today’s value.  Despite pleading that the food allocation was less than 50 cents per day – insufficient to meet the official ration quota – requests for funding increases were refused.

A 1960s medical survey of conditions on missions and settlements revealed that malnutrition was the key factor in deaths of 50% of children under three and 85% of children under four; and half of all neonatal deaths and 47% of all deaths under sixteen years were from gastroenteritis or pneumonia, or both.

In the 1970s at Palm Island there were 165 homes for 1300 people – most lacked fridges, cupboards or beds, and the store routinely ran out of milk and fresh food.  The substandard living conditions were blamed for the massive infection loads of inmates.  During a deadly epidemic of gastroenteritis and salmonella caused by malnutrition, the clinic registered 75% of child outpatients as severely underweight.  Parents petitioned parliament saying they could not feed their families on 58% of the basic wage.  In the 1980s, when the government handed control of communities to Aboriginal councils, houses at Woorabinda still had wood stoves and cold water, with the majority described as in ‘dire need of repair’; families at Pormpurraw and Palm Island were still living in condemned houses because nothing else was available.

This information is from a range of files: correspondence and reports on missions and settlements and, especially from the Presbyterian archives, dozens of boxes of letters written by mission superintendents over the years; head office letters relating to budgets and expenditure; doctors’ monthly reports; health department inspections – particularly after health scandals hit the media; reports by hygiene officers; and annual reports from the institutions to the department and from the department to parliament.  Similar documentary sources would have accumulated in every state – whether they have survived, whether you can get access, is, of course, another story, and I think Andrew Wilson and Tom Gara will have valuable information on that question.  With regard to research in this field, I have found that the greater your variety of sources, the richer the tapestry you can weave – and in that I include detail and depth, colour and contrast, and, most importantly, perspective.


Let me now turn to the labour and wages system, since this is the focus of legal actions in Queensland today, and also will be the subject of a national Report presently being developed. From 1904 workers’ wages went directly to the police protector apart from ‘pocket money’ – varying between 15%-75% – retained by the employer for distribution during the work period.  The government was warned constantly – right through to the mid-1960s – that its system failed to ensure pocket money was ever correctly paid.

Many men, women and children from the settlements were contracted out to labour on pastoral properties or as domestic servants for 51 weeks out of 52.  Girls reaching puberty were routinely dispatched.  During a scandal in the 1930s about sexual assaults of these children the government decided it would be too costly – both in lost wages and in increased maintenance funding – to alter the policy.  Most families in rural areas were also subjected to the government’s labour contracts – in the late 1950s the department admitted, confidentially, that child labour was still common.

From 1910 the government took levies from wages of workers based on reserves, and from 1919 from wages of all other workers.  From that date until the late 1960s, despite being more highly valued than their white counterparts, pastoral workers were contracted out at 66% the white wage, although records show actual payments were often less than half that amount.  All labour on missions and settlements was done by Aboriginal workers who worked full-time in return for meagre rations; the few prized workers were given a couple of shillings a week.  Forced labour contracting continued until the late 1960s, and controls over wages into the 1970s, although for years after, many people were too demoralized to request freedom from financial management.  As people got to see their bank books after decades of labour and intercepted wages, many found to their horror that little or nothing remained.

It was not until 1968 that the Queensland government introduced a wage economy on its reserves, setting initial payments at 50% the state’s minimum wage.   In 1979, with the wage parity at 72%, legal advice obtained by the government in the face of a union-backed challenge stated that the government was breaking state and federal law in underpaying its Aboriginal employees.  Nevertheless, on several occasions in the early 1980s, the Queensland Cabinet discussed, and continued, its illegal conduct.  It was only when Aboriginal councils gained control of communities from late 1986 that legal wage rates were paid, although the government refused to provide for this in the wages budget.  Indeed since 1982, when Cabinet registered its refusal to budget for wage increases, costs were met through mass sackings of workers – over 1500 in the decade to 1985 – with consequent massive shortfalls in building and maintenance programs; on several occasions essential services were threatened.  High level bureaucrats warned this attrition would increase alcoholism, violence and community upheaval – and then they stood by and watched it happen.

In 1996 seven Palm Island workers, led by elder Mr Kitchener Bligh, finally brought the government to account for its under award wages policy in a Human Rights Commission Inquiry which found the government had ‘deliberately, knowingly and intentionally’ underpaid these workers on account of their race, and proposed payment of $7000 to each claimant.  The coalition government of the day spurned the findings but capitulated when action was started in the Federal Court.  The subsequent Labor government, having futilely fought and lost several further actions, made $25 million available to pay out each person employed since the 1975 commonwealth Racial Discrimination Act – I believe costs for this are already over the $30 million mark.

Following my evidence for the Palm Island case I have worked for several years to compile evidence on the wider mismanagement of Aboriginal wages and savings, a campaign now known as the Stolen Wages.  This evidence is compelling: failure to safeguard pocket money payments despite decades of warnings; failure to combat police fraud and refusal to implement auditors’ recommendation to allow workers to see their financial records; seizure of bank interest by the government; spending of unemployment levies to maintain reserves and on capital works; seizure of trust monies during the depression and failure to cease improper dealings despite consistent warnings from auditors; failure to pass to beneficiaries monies held from deceased estates; interception of child endowment and its misapplication to cover department responsibilities and also, on more than one occasion, for capital works; misuse and negligent accounting on the Aboriginal Welfare Fund during its 50-year history.  The government was still operating on this Fund in the early 1990s; around $8 million remains which the government is desperate to disburse.  It expresses frustration that ‘Aboriginal people’ can’t make up their minds as to how this will be done; in fact, of course, people suspect if the Fund had been honestly used and competently maintained there should be several hundred million dollars for distribution and they want a full investigation before the Fund is dissolved.

The Stolen Wages – the amount of money which was wrongly taken or lost from Aboriginal earnings and enterprise – is likewise a ballpark figure, a figure which quantifies Aboriginal poverty today: their own money, which the state used for its own benefit.  Faced with mounting legal actions the Beattie Labor government has offered – ‘in the spirit of reconciliation’ as he puts it – a pool of $55.4 million in payments of $2000 or $4000 to each claimant, conditional on them signing away all legal rights to pursue justice on any aspect of this appalling regime of controls.  We are currently fighting to have this indemnity retracted.  People are actually not seeking large amounts, but they do want an honest settlement which acknowledges the value of their work and the pain of their deprivation.

Does this work have relevance to people in other states?  Here I have to admit I am out of my depth, so I’m hoping you’ll be charitable and concede that the gaps in my all-too-potted summaries represent challenges for researchers to exploit.  It would seem, and indeed bureaucrats frequently boasted, that Queensland had the tightest controls over wages and savings of any state or territory – a boast I fervently hope is now coming back to haunt them – but I think probably Western Australia, particularly in the south, had similar controls. While I am not sure if there were ‘protective’ procedures in place to monitor adult wages and savings in southern states, direct control of labour and wages certainly occurred – through the pitiless system of apprenticing out the thousands of children seized as wards of state.  Here the southern states came into their own, rounding up lighter skinned children for training in Homes and dormitories, and forcibly closing mission stations and evicting tenants to sink or swim in the wider community.  Here, their marginalisation from employment and accommodation entrenched the poverty and destitution which made them targets of State Childrens department zeal to ‘rescue’ their children for a ‘better’, ‘whiter’, life.  In most states, into the second half of the twentieth century, Aboriginal children could be banned from schools at the request of local school boards; and lack of schooling was another trigger for child removal.  Until 1972 in fact, New South Wales schools could refuse to enrol Aboriginal children and could segregate their classrooms.

Laws in Western Australia provided for labour contracts from 1886, but these were not compulsory and made no mention of cash wages.  From 1874 any Aboriginal child could be institutionalised and apprenticed to work from age 12 to 21, although after 1886 they were sent out even younger.  From 1905 the chief protector was guardian of all children under 16 years, and after 1909 his permission was not needed to take children under 8 from their parents.  Between 1915 and 1920 over 500 people, that is one-quarter of the population in southern Western Australia, were removed to missions and stations from where children could be sent out to work.

Successful lobbying by pastoralists rendered the 1905 Aborigines Act mute on labour and cash wages although by 1915 department file cards often included employment details, and part of the wages of younger wards went into Trust accounts, money which most never saw again. Wages were commonly paid south of the Pilbara from around 1915, but in the Kimberleys, despite an Aboriginal labour force of over 2000 in the 1930s, wages there were not fixed by law until 1967.  Statutory removals by the Welfare Board continued until 1954 but guardianship was not revoked until 1963 when Board controls over Aboriginal earnings and property also ceased.

Development of the Northern Territory was similarly dependent on unpaid Aboriginal labour, and although the 1910 Act allowed for payment of wages into a trust account via the police or the protector there was no compulsion for cash payment.  When the commonwealth took control in 1910 a new Ordinance stated all wages must be paid in cash, but calls for a minimum wage were dismissed out of hand and many pastoralists paid no cash wages for another 30 years.  A Report in 1928 slated this convention, noting also that rations were frequently withheld as punishment and there was much starvation and sickness; in this context it is horrifying to note that the convention of pastoralists distributing rations for the commonwealth continued until 1966.

Between 1910 and 1957 the Northern Territory chief protector was legal guardian of all Aboriginal children under 18 years; children were sent to town compounds and government stations and then apprenticed out.  While apprenticed boys were free from 18 years of age, after 1918 unmarried girls and women were controlled till death and could be sent to work for no wages and had no rights over their own children. By the 1930s, when workers were still paid in rations or by ‘value’ through the station stores, most boys on pastoral stations were retained for labour but girls were exiled to church missions or state Homes for employment training.  For town-based workers, 40% of the wages went directly to Trust accounts and after 1934 individual bank accounts could be opened for balances greater than ₤2.  In 1948 the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission refused an application to bring Aboriginal workers under the pastoral award because it would ‘interfere’ with arrangements between pastoralists and the Northern Territory administration.  Removals of children, now from as young as three months, continued post-war, and from 1953 the director of welfare was guardian of all wards and controlled their property.  Cheap labour continued in the pastoral industry into the 1970s.

The Indigenous populations of South Australia, New South Wales and Victoria were much fewer and white expansion into rural areas more complete, bringing with it closer oversight by policing and administrative agencies.  The relative lawlessness of the remote regions of Western Australia, Northern Territory and Queensland, tied as it was to limitations of finances and personnel, was not so marked in southern states.  Wage and employment discrimination occurred through the ‘equality’ of the marketplace rather than by decree.  So that while legally workers could claim the going rate of pay and conditions, in practice they had to accept what they could get.

From 1890 policy in New South Wales was to remove ‘half-caste’ children by ‘persuasion and threats’ and by 1909 the Aboriginal Protection Board controlled over 300 children and could apprentice them from 14 years of age, controlling their wages and banking.  From 1914 the Board directed that from age 14 all boys on government stations be sent to work and all girls removed to training Homes before apprenticing as domestics.  Under these summary powers of removal, 1200 children were taken between 1912 and 1938, almost 80% were girls sent out to domestic service. The Australian Women’s Mirror ran an ad in a 1940 edition under the banner: ‘Try an Abo Apprentice’.  In 1936 the Board gained control of all children in the state, and any child who refused employment could be institutionalised and apprenticed out until age 21, after which, with family ties completely severed, most children had no option but to continue their servitude.  In 1961 there were still 300 wards of the Board and removals continued with little change until 1969.

In Victoria, after 1886, ‘half-caste’ children from age 13 could be apprenticed.  Parents who refused to condone this were ejected from government stations and denied rations; they were also denied mainstream welfare support, leading, inevitably to greater uptake of children on grounds of ‘neglect’.  By 1957 there were at least 68 institutions in Victoria processing Aboriginal children.  The Board’s statutory powers over children ceased in that year but it could notify police and mainstream child authorities to have children removed, effecting an increase in the uptake of Aboriginal children into state care.  In all states, as discriminatory legislation was wound down, mainstream agencies stepped in.

South Australia was founded as a ‘free’ colony in 1834 and ten years later a protector was appointed as legal guardian for every ‘half-caste’ and ‘unprotected’ Aboriginal child who could be apprenticed out from a ‘suitable’ age – usually a euphemism for under 10 years.  From 1856 to 1881 the protector’s position was inoperative and most reserves were leased to settlers; during this time kidnapping of children for servants was unchecked. From 1909 ‘neglected’ children – a definition which included sleeping in the open – were picked up under mainstream laws and trained for work.  The protector argued in 1909 that all Aboriginal children were neglected and in 1911 he was nominated legal guardian of all children and could direct their removal.  His preference was for state training institutions rather than mission dormitories.  The secretary of the State Childrens’ Council told the 1913 Royal Commission that children should be removed from birth.

The 1923 Act widened powers to process any Aboriginal child in South Australia ‘as if’ they were neglected although this was suspended a year later after vehement protests.  From 1939 it was possible to gain exemption from state controls and open a personal bank account and receive some commonwealth benefits – although this was conditional on ceasing all family contacts with non-exempt persons.  ‘Freedom’ to compete in the wider community brought increased surveillance and greater likelihood of child removals under mainstream welfare laws.  Only in 1951 did state schools in SA open to Aboriginal children.  The Boards’ guardianship of children ceased in 1963 but child removals did not decrease due to widespread poverty.

All states acted as bankers for state children, whatever their colour, and there are many former wards who declare today that they did not receive their pocket money portion during the work period, or that final balances were underpaid or unpaid on cessation of their indenture.  For these people, a search of inspection reports relative to their work locations, of ledger cards in their names, of cash books relating to their work period, of correspondence relating to their period of control, and of Trust accounts held by the Board or the department, should all produce evidence.  Also worthwhile would be general correspondence relating to policies and practices, formal inspections of the Boards or departments, and Annual Reports to parliament.

There is one other avenue where monies due to Aboriginal families have been intercepted by the states, and this is the matter of child endowment, and, in many cases, of social security benefits.  Child endowment was paid by federal governments after 1942; it was passed to the states for distribution, and proved to be a cash bonanza compared with meagre budgeting for Aboriginal needs.

In the cases of Western Australia, Northern Territory and Queensland, the word ‘rort’ springs to mind: these states cut back on their previous expenditure on rations and support, thereby using this private supplement as public revenue.  In the Northern Territory, as in Queensland, department bureaucrats planned how to divert child endowment monies to capital works which were patently state responsibilities – in the former case for construction of schools, dormitories and hospital clinics, in the latter for buildings such as a recreation hall and transit hostel.  It was only after 1960, in Victoria and New South Wales, that payments went directly to pensioners.

Although supervision of child endowment payments to families ceased in southern Western Australia by 1950, ten years later distribution of child endowment by northern pastoralists was still uncontrolled.  In 1964, according to Dr Anna Haebich, social security benefits still provided 40% of mission incomes in the Northern Territory and far exceeded state support to pastoralists acting as ration stations.  In the 1970s, the northern missions in WA were still receiving massive bulk child endowment payments.  One last point I’d like to make here, and that is that the provision of child endowment, as with the provision of better housing from the 1970s, brought with it an intensification of surveillance on mothers and families as a multiplication of agencies inspected, monitored and reported on home management skills, and this intensification brought with it an increased collection of children into the mainstream ‘welfare’ system.

The preceding brief interstate summaries are mostly drawn from two texts: Bringing Them Home, the Report of the National Inquiry into the separation of Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander children from their families, and Broken Circles, Anna Haebich’s seminal work on national removal policies.  Any inaccuracies are my own.  Even so, I hope I have opened for your attention two main streams. First, how current our history is, how seamless is the past with the present, how compelling it is to investigate and understand the process in order to understand where we are today as a nation, and as individuals within it.  And second, I hope I gave you some sense of the range of social issues which remain unfinished business in the big justice picture of fiduciary duty, and also of the specific areas of financial accountability which are open to challenge – and hopefully resolution – in the closer focus of existing trust laws.

These records belong to all of us – they are not the property of temporary politicians.  We must use them to bring truth to the history of our past, authenticity to the policies of the present, and justice in the immediate future.

Copyright Dr. Rosalind Kidd. Website development by: Ryan-Thomas Robinson