Launch of ‘Trustees on Trial’: Sydney
Thank you. I would like to thank the Sydney branch of ANTaR National for organising a launch here for my book, and Gilbert and Tobin for their generosity in hosting the event. My thanks also to Griffith University’s Center for Public Culture and Ideas for their generous support, including a six-month research fellowship and co-sponsoring the visit by Dr Elouise Cobell to tell us about the US class action to retrieve missing Indian money. My warm thanks also to the staff at Aboriginal Studies Press – in particular director Rhonda Black and her deputy Gabby Lhuede. I have benefited greatly from their imagination and professionalism, but also from their friendship, honesty and humour in helping me translate a grand vision into a finished book.
I am privileged indeed to have Danny Gilbert speak about my book tonight. In true researcher form I googled his name on the net and printed out his speech to final year law students in 2004. Like so many of my documents it now suffers fluoro disease – that’s the one where a nice clean printed sheet breaks out in a rash of fluoro blotches and the haphazard stitching of many scribbled notes. Like Danny I am also convinced that we must tell our history again and again until it becomes immersed in the fabric of Australian consciousness, as he so eloquently put it.
As someone who was, until only 15 years ago, your average ignoramus, enjoying the benefits of the Lucky Country but blissfully blind to the terrible cost paid by those largely excluded from its progress, I firmly believe that we cannot grow as a nation until we acknowledge the festering truth of our past. I am ashamed that those who supposedly speak for our nation compound the awful deeds in our past and the continuing obscenity of disempowerment and marginalisation, by lying about it now. And I feel incredibly frustrated that they lie so hypocritically, with such callous opportunism, for such worthless political gain. How shamefully we are diminished as a nation when our attorney general, the supposed keeper of law and justice, so cavalierly stokes the flames of racism by suggesting native title might prevent us from sunning our bloated white bellies on the beaches of Perth.
It’s that old journalism adage, isn’t it – never let the truth get in the way of a good story, or, as is so often the case today, don’t let the truth get in the way of scoring cheap political points. Like premier Peter Beattie saying how generous he was in giving a maximum of $4000 to Aboriginal people who had lost possibly decades of their earnings under government management; indeed he said it was impossible to say how much workers were owed. In the same year his government offered $50,000 to 200 under-performing teachers so they could take retraining. Gives a whole new perspective on ‘generous’ doesn’t it? In the interim, despite constant approaches by Aboriginal members of the Stolen Wages Working Group, the government has refused to reconsider its insulting offer.
For some years now I have focused on the financial aspects of government management, initially to equate the government’s knowledge of losses by negligence, fraud and misappropriation, with the consequential poverty endured by the very people it was mandated to ‘protect’. I thought perhaps governments could less easily distort the realities of misappropriating trust funds for their own purposes, of ignoring countless auditors’ warnings to fix an easily defrauded system, of watching children sicken and die while they diverted child endowment to capital works. Surely, I reasoned, any institution which presided knowingly and deliberately over such an abuse of lives and process, should be held accountable.
The difficulty, it seems, lies in the massive discretionary powers enjoyed by governments who controlled Aboriginal lives. So I set out to understand sufficient national and international law to argue for accountability in the context of the Queensland evidence. My hope for Trustees on Trial is that it might offer a strategy to force our governments to be held accountable in our courts of law, to settle this sorry saga on just terms which do not cheat people of their rights, not just for Queensland, but for other states and the Northern Territory which also indentured people to work, compiled trust accounts from their earnings, allowed endowment to be misapplied, and never accounted for their conduct. Due in large part to the efforts of Senator Andrew Bartlett we now have a Senate Committee of Inquiry which will explore how these practices impacted nationally.
I do not make this journey on my own. Many were already fighting for justice when I lived in ignorance, and the experiences of thousands more guide me through this vast historical landscape. Some might think the voices of the past are not heard except in the memories of their families and friends; but for me the realities of their lives speak from countless letters and reports. It is this human dimension which is crucial to understanding this incredible, immense, appalling social experiment where a handful of men gave themselves the power to control people’s lives for most of the 20th century – and wielded that power with such disastrous effect. The past and present voices of those whose lives were controlled demand that we confront those who still lie about the past, that we insist the truth be proclaimed, that we force those who wield the power to be accountable for their words and their actions.
The adults and small children I read about, forced to live and work in environments of physical and sexual abuses, of starvation rations and lousy conditions – these sufferers might be any one of us here, in another time and another place. We are all human, we all feel pain and shock in enduring such hardships or in learning of them. I believe that in knowing these things now we can choose either to turn our backs and walk away, or to link arms and say we will walk together on a journey to bring truth to our national history.