National Sorry Day – 1999
First of all I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this country, and say that I feel honoured to be asked to address you on this, the last National Sorry Day of the century.
Now, more than ever before, it is essential that we understand the experiences of indigenous people in Australia. It is because few people have this knowledge, that so many are confused, some even resentful, about the whole ideal of being sorry, of making apologies. I might have been one of those people myself, except that my work, in recent times, has opened my eyes to another dimension of history, another dimension of the human condition.
The theme of this Sorry Day is the Journey of Healing. I have been asked to share with you my own journey of understanding. It began ten years ago, when, as a middle-aged, middle-class white woman, I needed to choose a topic for my five-year PhD project. I was deeply aware of my ignorance when it came to Aboriginal affairs, and the erratic statements of the press and politicians only added to my confusion. So I chose to study Aboriginal affairs in Queensland.
Most of my research was spent analysing thousands of official documents, ranging from the middle of last century to only a few years ago. What I read, what I began to understand, was a horrifying, unbelievable story of abuse and repression, of negligence and unnecessary deaths, of forced labour and unpaid wages, of deprivation and institutionalised poverty. Much of this sorry circumstance, far too much of this sorry circumstance, directly resulted from actions of the police, the bureaucrats and the politicians who said they were ‘protecting’ the indigenous people of Queensland.
Did you know that from 1865 any Aboriginal child could be taken from their family, for no other reason that the child had an Aboriginal mother? Did you know that from 1897 almost every Aboriginal person in Queensland could be declared a ward of state and banished to a reserve? For no other reason than their Aboriginality? The one exception was mixed-race men, provided they severed all contact with their Aboriginal relatives. People were separated from their families, separated from their country, separated from society – only because they were of Aboriginal background. They lost all the rights which the rest of us take for granted – to choose where we live and work, to keep our earnings for the benefit of our family, to receive standard education and standard medical care, to keep our children with us and share with them our language and culture, teach them their heritage, strengthen them with love.
Until the 1970s, here in Queensland, Aboriginal children were routinely taken from the parents and locked into dormitories, Aboriginal teenagers were sent to work in remote areas for a year at a time, Aboriginal adults were locked into compulsory work contracts and the government took their wages: if you were lucky, if you asked nicely, the local policeman might allow you a little to spend. But from the earliest days police fraud on Aboriginal savings was prevalent, even when dockets had to be thumb printed and witnessed. Over more than 70 years of financial control, despite countless examples of fraud, theft, and irregularities, the government refused to let Aboriginal people see any record of what was happening to their money.
This is not so surprising. Because without Aboriginal knowledge and consent, the government was taking their savings: there was a levy of 5% and 10% to help run the missions and settlements, there was another levy as an insurance against drought and sickness, although only a fraction was paid out to the workers each year. During the depression years, the government took the equivalent of over $5 million of Aboriginal Trust monies to cover budget deficits, money that was never repaid. It took money out of workers’ accounts to pay for fencing and improvements on country reserves; it took money out of invalids’ accounts for medical treatment on Fantome Island, when the rest of the population was treated free in state hospitals; it took the child endowment monies, allowing mothers only a fraction of their entitlement. So while infant mortality at Palm Island was 15 times the state’s average, the government was using these child endowment funds for capital works on the mainland.
Under this system, while Aboriginal families were living, and dying, in abject poverty around Queensland, their earnings grew to unbelievable levels. By the early 1930s Aboriginal savings were the equivalent today of nearly $14 million: how much hardship and sickness could have been eliminated if Aboriginal families had kept their own earnings to spend on their own needs? But the government decided to keep over $12 million to invest for valuable revenue, leaving only a small amount to cover daily transactions. No wonder so many workers were refused permission to make withdrawals. No wonder so many families continued in destitution. By the late 1960s, while governments publicly questioned the failure of many Aboriginal families to ‘improve’ their social standing, the Queensland government was keeping for itself the equivalent of around $20 million as a revenue-producing nest egg.
Life for the hundreds of families interned on missions and settlements was a horrifying struggle. From the earliest days Aboriginal needs, Aboriginal lives, were valued at only a fraction of whites. As late as 1938 the head of Aboriginal administration in Queensland conceded the government regarded Aboriginal children as less important than white children. This might go some way to explaining why, despite laws stating that all children must be offered a full education, Aboriginal wards of state were denied this: until the 1950s trained teachers were rare, schools were often rundown unlit structures, furniture and books were usually discarded from white schools, classes were overcrowded and rarely went past grade four level. High schools and accredited trade training were unheard of.
Records show that the government knew of these appalling conditions on communities, but refused ever to provide sufficient funds for basic physical needs. Inmates have died, year after year, from diseases caused by malnutrition, overcrowding, unsafe water, faulty sanitation. After each fatal outbreak internal reports also often criticised the scandalous state of medical attention and hospital amenities. This was always hidden from the public. Even into the 1970s, the blame was put on Aboriginal incompetence. Or the eating of green mangoes.
Missions and settlements, the Aboriginal communities of today, were built and run on compulsory, unpaid, Aboriginal labour. Apart from a few key tradesmen, workers got only some lousy rations for their effort. In the late 1940s a ganger on Palm Island got 5/- a fortnight, that’s about $12.60 today, only 3% of the basic wage. And in 1957, when seven men went on strike over starvation pay, the wage was around $37 today. The men were arrested at gunpoint and deported. By 1978, according to a letter by Joh Bjelke-Petersen, the Queensland government was underpaying its Aboriginal workers by over $10 million each year in today’s terms relative to minimum wages, or nearly twice that relative to award wages. In the 1980s, in full knowledge that it was breaking state and federal law, the Queensland government was still paying its Aboriginal employees only 72% the basic wage. Today’s government still has not agreed to pay all the wages which it knows are owing. And enormous sums of taxpayers’ money is being allocated to deny Aboriginal claims of official malpractice and misappropriation.
To save money during the 1970s and 1980s the government sacked hundreds of workers; fewer houses were built or repaired; overcrowding became critical because families could not afford to pay rent; essential services were barely maintained. Community violence and alcoholism increased with poverty and despair. Yet these exact outcomes were predicted years earlier by bureaucrats and politicians, who decided to hold to their hard line economies while the communities under their control fell apart.
For a hundred years the Queensland government has controlled every aspect of Aboriginal lives, running secret files on every Aboriginal person, growing rich from Aboriginal poverty. The situation of Aboriginal people today is the direct outcome of government controls. And these controls continued to the present.
So this has been my journey of understanding. How do I feel now that I know these things? I feel angry that the government created and sustained such appalling conditions for Aboriginal families, and continues to lie about it; I feel resentful that their actions were hidden from public knowledge; I feel sorry that children, mothers, uncles, grandparents had to suffer such untold hardship over so many years.
So for all those who reject the concept of Sorry Day, I say that this sorrow is not about guilt; its about compassion.