Bearing Witness: personal, historical and legal implications of revealing the records
of Aboriginal administrations
There is little dispute that the original landholders of this nation have been marginalised in our history, subtracted from our economy, isolated from our society, sidelined from political processes. One of the world’s richest cultures, although without written records as we perceive them, even the voices of Indigenous people were stifled by those who assumed the power to speak of and for them.
I think it’s a wonderful irony that it is the written records of the ‘guardians’, amassed in frightening detail through decades of the most meticulous surveillance, that are now bearing witness to the thousands of lives previously submerged in our national consciousness. These records are testament to those long-lost voices which might finally be heard, calling us to account for our past, our present and our future. How we deal now with this resource and this responsibility is of immense importance to our delayed coming of age as a nation. So significant do I regard this issue, and so extensive its implications, that I barely know where to start in speaking of it today.
I suppose as the first person to comprehensively study file holdings in Queensland, I should sketch in my background. In 1989 I chose to focus my PhD thesis on Aboriginal administration in Queensland precisely because I suspected that political claims and media spin were less than the whole story. At that time little was known about how the machinery of government operated to control Indigenous Queenslanders throughout the twentieth century. And even less was known about how this system was experienced by those who endured it.
It took me two years of phoning and writing to get access to records controlled by the Aboriginal department. In the meantime I spent months extracting information from files available at state archives, and months copying correspondence from Anglican and Presbyterian holdings. But nothing prepared me for what I faced at the Charlotte Street offices of the department: a windowless basement full of largely uncoordinated material in boxes whose minimal labelling often did not match the material therein, a compactus elsewhere whose similar chaos turned out to include an assortment of files whose rightful restoration to state archives was delayed by declarations that they had already been returned, and several huge cartons of paperwork which I assumed comprised the ‘file these’ holdings; there was also a mountain of information already stored at archives but largely unexamined. In this context it is not surprising that policy makers at the time admitted no-one really knew what their predecessors had been doing.
In the last ten years, however, the staff have done a monumental job: files have been properly identified and catalogued on databases, access policy streamlined, and much previously restricted information is available for selective or public scrutiny. Most importantly, there is now an active policy to enable and assist Indigenous people to investigate for themselves the documents compiled on their families, communities, and country. I don’t know how you handle these matters in other States, but here in Queensland, in 1990, a lady seeking information about her grandmother had to sit in an open-plan room while an officious white male declared in a booming voice for all to hear, that her grannie had been ‘a bit of a naughty girl’ in her youth. My sense of shame and anger has never left me. That moment made me realise that if the operations which generated these records were inhumane, then the continued retention and misrepresentation of the evidence is a replication of that abuse.
The removal of thousands of Aboriginal children from their families, the incarceration of thousands of Aboriginal families in government institutions and remote reserves, is the biggest social experiment in our history. Here in Queensland, into the 1970s, any person of Aboriginal heritage could be declared a ward of state, losing all rights over their own and their children’s lives. A network of police protectors monitored your domestic life and controlled your employment, generating masses of information which was consolidated into files kept on every individual. But there was no way of knowing what was written about you, and these files remained secret into the 1990s.
The catastrophic effects at a personal level have only seeped into public awareness since the Bringing Them Home Report in 1997. An estimated 2300 children were institutionalised in Queensland alone, as well as countless families isolated from their relatives, often for life, and thousands more – children as well as adults – also effectively ‘taken’ from their families as contracted labour. These records are a stark reminder to today’s reader that the terror of the children was matched by the anguish of those left behind. One grief-stricken father wrote to the chief protector in 1907 from Deebing Creek mission, pleading for the return of his young son who had been indentured to a man in Sydney: ‘The boy ought not to have been taken away without our sanction … We have lost one girl through this kind of work, and therefore have had enough. Although black in colour, our hearts go after our boys and girls, as naturally as the whites.’ The authorities rebuked the parents for attempting to frustrate the child’s best interests, and advised the mission superintendent to discourage correspondence between parents and child. That damaging silence could now be softened somewhat if descendants could read that exchange.
It is in reading the records of the time that we realise how frequently those powers to remove people individually, but also in groups, were exercised for political expediency. In 1913, for instance, more than 60 people were taken from around Kuranda in north Queensland because they were starving and destitute – or so it says in the department’s Annual Report. The records however give quite a different story: local police said food was plentiful, ten men were in employment, and 49 of the group were described as strong. So who benefited? The fledgling Mona Mona mission which had, to that point, failed to retain any families for its farming and building programs, and which the government was determined to promote. Within a year the mission was crippled by drought, and for all of its history lack of funding has underwritten substandard conditions and massive infection loads for its unwilling residents.
I think that this all-too-common discrepancy between fact and public rhetoric has far more significant implications in the field of Aboriginal affairs than any other arena of governance. First, because the dictatorial and monopoly powers of Native Affairs or Aboriginal Affairs departments enabled breaches, abuses and negligence to endure almost unchallenged over decades. Second, because of the almost totalitarian suffocation and distortion of Indigenous agency and potential. Third, because the quarantining of file evidence into the present permits a continuation of political and historical misrepresentations, allowing so many of today’s spokespersons and politicians – who have never read the evidence – not only to remain fixated in the rhetoric of past agendas, but to persuade so many of the public that other paradigms are perverse.
So they still argue that forced relocation of children and families to reserves and institutions was done with the best intentions and as a ‘protective’ strategy, thereby coralling dissent into the twin dead-ends of statistics (how many thousands of removals makes a generation) and semantics (why a philanthropist is not a racist). I see these rhetorical strategies as diversions intended to preclude critical examination of the outcomes of those interventions. Indeed the worst social conditions imaginable continue today on communities which were controlled by governments until less than two decades ago and among those who have been permanently dispossessed by government decree. Quarantining of the evidence endorses the orthodoxy that these circumstances characterise some insoluble Indigenous problem, whereas we are now learning from the records that starvation, sickness, substandard conditions, under-education, impoverishment and despondency have been the common experience in every decade for almost all of those taken into government control ‘for their own good’. It is the records which demonstrate that these circumstances are indicative of government management – or more commonly mismanagement – of Aboriginal affairs portfolios for almost one hundred years.
For example, the department’s Annual Report for 1919 states that the high influenza death toll at the Barambah was due largely to the ‘sheer superstitious fright’ of many of the ‘natives’. It does not mention that most of the 600 people in this government settlement still lived in bark gunyahs which iced over inside during winter, that infectious patients were treated in an open-sided shed, that dormitory children slept on the ground on a single blanket, that many suffered from the vitamin-deficiency disease of beri-beri and that the doctor rarely visited.
And this massaging of the facts, this patronising rhetoric, has implications far beyond the events of the time. Because not only does it seemingly corroborate the philanthropic rationale of people then who didn’t want the facts to puncture their potency as ‘protectors of the less fortunate’ and people today who remain determined to capitalise on that Teflon stance, but it also demeans and diminishes those who were forced to endure it. It is the winners who have dictated the terms and constructed the public records. Access to those records which have not yet been made public, or only partially so, will allow the statements of thousands of other voices to be heard and considered. Not only will this provide an overdue corrective to our ‘whitewashed’ history, but it will be immensely important to Indigenous pride and Indigenous agency for today and for the future.
A more recent example is the 1983 press release where the department director informed us that eleven workers at the Yarrabah community, despite ‘rejecting their former positions’, had been reinstated in their jobs because they had obviously ‘not realised the significance of their actions’. And how many readers nodded sagely over their morning cereal at the wisdom and fatherly indulgence of this powerful bureaucrat. Only recently did access to file evidence reveal the real sequence of events: the workers went on strike demanding legally-due award wages, the director ordered they be stood down, the Industrial Court demanded their reinstatement and ordered the department to double rates to match the minimum wage. But in an environment, only twenty years ago, of practically closed communities, it was the government spin which was carried by the media. As is still so often the case today.
I did think, before I actually had to put text to the title I submitted a fortnight ago, that this talk could be sectioned into personal, historical and legal. But of course it can’t. The correspondence and reports of Indigenous administration are always either directly generated by private lives or impact upon those lives at an intensity most of us, thankfully, have never endured. And everything that happened, perhaps most significantly because so much was withheld or misrepresented to us, is now more than ever a part of our historical learning curve. Those incidents I have already mentioned must give you pause to rethink what you thought you ‘knew’ about Indigenous capacity, about bureaucratic power, and about government probity.
I’d like now to say a few things about native title research, and again, I can only speak from personal experience. It offends my sense of logic that governments which exercised so enthusiastically their power to remove people from their own landscape across generations, and sought to wipe out cultural transmission through proscription, punishment and pedagogy, should now say that they will only confer recognition of links to country on those who somehow prevailed despite this punitive eradication campaign. It offends my sense of judicial impartiality that those who are so vehemently fighting to deny recognition – the governments who are defending themselves against native title claims – retain control of all the records which claimants must request in their search for supportive evidence. This makes the process of legal ‘discovery’ a fraught field. Because in general – given the closure which has pertained almost to date – it is only government officers who even know what those records are and what they might contain, so claimants are relying on employees of the government to produce the evidence which can then be used against it.
Leaving aside the integrity, the aptitude, the skill of those officers – and I have only the highest regard for people I have dealt with here in Queensland – there remains the fact that if governments choose not to adequately resource these research and records sections, then claimants are severely disadvantaged in their capacity to access available evidence and therefore suffer a severely diminished probability of success in their native title claims. This inequity is magnified when we consider that governments have accumulated data for their own exclusive use for around two hundred years, and that most of the ‘native title’ funding dollars are expended on government defence of claims and in resourcing the Native Title Tribunal: only a fraction is available for the legal, and as importantly for the evidentiary, knowledge to support native title claims.
There is a further dimension to the accessing of personal data beyond the reaffirming of fractured families and the regaining of rights to country, and this is the retrieval of evidence for private or class actions against the State, particularly over missing wages and misused Trust funds. Queensland boasted the most efficient system of compulsorily contracted labour and state-controlled wages and savings and it appears Western Australia operated similar systems. New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia certainly indentured institutionalised children and retained control of their earnings until the age of twenty-one, and it appears many young adults were underpaid or deserted the system but never reclaimed their earnings. Questions have also been raised over child endowment paid by the federal governments since the early 1940s and apparently intercepted by, or with the sanction of, the States.
Perhaps more explicitly than with native title claims, legal actions to force a full accounting for decades of financial management render file evidence a contested field. As both proprietors and controllers of official files, it is disturbingly easy for governments to invoke confidentiality or public interest immunity to restrict access to the higher level financial decisions and reports which have so drastically impacted on individuals under their control. In Queensland, merely by invoking Cabinet confidentiality, truckloads of files can be closed for thirty years although never brought to direct discussion in Cabinet.
It is deeply disturbing that the agency which must defend itself against charges such as negligence or breach of Trust not only retains all the evidence but controls access to it. And a lifetime of closure, where even today very few people know what the files can offer, provides an unhealthy environment for deliberate or unintentional misrepresentation. So in 1996 we have the Borbidge government asserting in the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission that underpayment of Aboriginal employees until 1986 did not breach federal anti-discrimination legislation; yet file evidence showed governments during that period had been advised to the contrary and discussed the illegality of their policy at the highest level, not once but several times. Only when that documentation was provided to the Commission, in defiance of government attempts to exclude it, did claimants win their case.
It’s not just the financial abuse which rankles, it’s how historical distortions continue to trivialise and marginalise Indigenous experience: the government argued in the HREOC Inquiry that people were not doing real work, that they lived in a welfare setting, that for an Indigenous community, it was better to have lots of low-paid jobs. That, let’s face it, the government knew what was best for these people. In fact, as we now know, by simply deciding to ignore State and Federal law the government saved itself an estimated $180 million during the decade to 1986. Is it any wonder these communities are so impoverished?
The need for vigilance over official statements remains as urgent today as ever. The Beattie government has currently offered around 16,500 potential claimants up to $4000 each, a $55.4 million package for all those who may have suffered loss of wages and savings under previous regimes. The government claims this is a generous gesture of reconciliation, yet we know it has already spent over $1.5 million preparing to defend itself against 4000 potential litigants. Minister Judy Spence claims all funds were regularly audited, yet the files abound in constant criticisms over official misuse and negligence, often endemic over decades. She claims all private savings accounts were acquitted, yet there is abundant evidence that frauds and failure to secure due wages drastically eroded balances. The government demands an indemnity against future litigation from those who accept the $4000, yet it refuses to provide every claimant with a copy of their records. Without access to their files, how are people to make an informed decision as to their best interests? If the government is not fearful of the evidence, why is it demanding an indemnity? Without knowledge of the facts of this long-term financial scandal, how is the public to recognise political spin for what it is – an attempted low-cost closure of mismanagement which may have cost Aboriginal wards of state upwards of half a billion dollars?
Governments will continue to sell themselves and their predecessors as benefactors for those who are ‘somehow less fortunate’ than ourselves, and until the wealth of file evidence is exposed the public will continue to believe it. That file evidence clearly demonstrates there is no ‘somehow’ about Indigenous misfortune: it is the outcome of decades of marginalisation, under-resourcing, and programmed social and financial deprivation. For most of the twentieth century governments across Australia recorded that deprivation – and the fatal consequences – on thousands of documents: they knew exactly what they were doing, they knew exactly how people suffered, yet they continued.
I mentioned earlier that the continued retention and misrepresentation of these records replicates the inhumane abuse of the ‘protection’ regimes. If I thought there was any possibility of being taken seriously, I would argue here that all files relating to Indigenous administration be stored and managed by a neutral body of experts.
As a historian it is my duty to investigate and publicise the evidence so that we can properly understand our past, increasing and extending our knowledge in new conceptual dimensions despite those who seek to contain it in outmoded paradigms. For those of you in records management, it is your duty to assist access to those files without fear or favour, honouring always the privacy of individuals whose lives are etched so painfully upon them. As I have said elsewhere, these records are not the birthright of temporary politicians to conceal or control for short term advantage. These records are our history, they are our heritage, they belong to all of us. It is our duty to bear witness to past realities, freeing those long-lost voices to be heard, so that we can move honestly into our future.