No White Dreamtime Story

They say it is the winners who write the history.  Probably this is nowhere so true as in Australia, where the dominant culture not only did almost all the writing until the last twenty years or so, but also controlled the narratives and claimed all the achievements.  Even today, few stop to consider that the last 200 years, which has been dominated by the European newcomers, pales in comparison with guardianship of the original occupants which has continued for around 60,000 years.

As whites we are finally awakening from our stupor of ignorance and denial to accept our unhappy past, an acceptance without which we cannot move honestly into the future.  This should be a cathartic moment in history; a moment of truth, a moment to release the pains of the past and move confidently to the promise of the future.  Why then, is their so much confusion, so much division, so much denial?

Many Australians have a very limited knowledge of our history, a limitation which compromises our view of the reconciliation process.  This is to be expected.  After all, our attitudes and opinions can only derive from our experiences and our knowledge.  And when it comes to information about inter-racial relations, about how Aboriginal lives have been ordered and controlled by governments, most Australians have only the official story to guide them.    Aboriginal Australians have been all-but excluded from our history, their voices shut out by the so-called ‘protection’ policies, their actions translated through closely controlled media statements.  It is not surprising, then, that the average Australian knows so little of the truth.

During the last 30 years or so we have learned there is irrefutable evidence that Australia was not peacefully settled, that the thousands of original inhabitants bitterly contested white occupation of their lands, that senseless and needless atrocities were inflicted not only in heated clashes but on families living quietly in camps or out getting food.  These facts, although common knowledge in the nineteenth century, were omitted from the histories of the twentieth.

But it is not only our sense of national history that is challenged; our sense of ourselves as pioneering achievers in the land of the ‘fair go’ is now shown to be a distortion.  We now discover that thousands of Aboriginal Australians were crucial to our nation’s development although their labour was not acknowledged.  And we are finding out that thousands more who were spirited away ‘for their own good’ were condemned to unpaid and underpaid servitude, starvation and neglect, preventible illnesses and unnecessary deaths.

Even so, millions of Australians still judge what they are seeing and hearing by their old beliefs, expounding the language of separatism, stuck in the mindset of a backward race, a well-intentioned state, a puzzling cultural contradiction.  And this interpretation is assiduously cultivated by our governments.  It paints continuing Aboriginal poverty and social distress as accidental anomalies of Aboriginal culture: an inability to compress thousands of years of civilisation into 200 years of contact, disinterest in planning for the future, a failure to commit to regular schooling and regular work. In other words, deficiencies in Aboriginal people which seem to undermine all the best philanthropic intentions, which leave us waiting, exasperated, for them to catch up.  This is the official government story today: why should we be sorry for something we didn’t do?

But destitution and devastated health are not racial anomalies.  They are socially constructed.  They result  when families are deprived of access to the basic necessities of life – safe water, sufficient food, adequate shelter, standard education, meaningful employment and wages, and an active role in the fabric of society.  Although many white families also suffer social deprivation through accident or misfortune the critical difference is that Aboriginal families, until very recently, were not allowed to run their own lives like other Australians.  Against their will, at the turn of last century this power was taken over by state governments.  Around Australia networks of regulations controlled where people lived and worked, care of children and access to income.  Not only did governments make themselves responsible for this whole range of private and social conditions but they specifically denied Aboriginal individuals the right to exercise this responsibility for themselves.  Indeed those who were too assertive, those who sought to evade the regulations and run their own lives were punished for doing so.

Today’s official determination linking allegedly ‘well-intentioned’ past policies to the ‘generous’ funding of the present is a strategy which neatly cancels out the crucial period in between.  It masks this massive, disastrous, social experiment under the cloak of philanthropy.  It prevents us from asking why, and exactly how, governments around Australia created the worst social conditions ever endured by any sector of the Australian population.

According to the federal submission on Stolen Generations, interventions and controls were well-intentioned and essentially lawful.  We therefore deduce that these were the improved conditions supplied for Aborigines removed from general society on the grounds that they were failing to care for themselves and their children.  Given that at any time governments could release Aboriginal families into the general community, given that at all times it was governments which set up and maintained and endlessly reported on these conditions, it is to be assumed that what you are about to learn is what governments saw as the preferred option, their best practice, in the care of Aborigines under their control.

Let’s briefly survey conditions provided for Aboriginal wards under these ‘well-intentioned’ policies.  Let’s start with the children.  From earliest times Aboriginal children, like white children, have been subject to removal into state care.  But while white children came under the attention of legislation from 1865 if they were neglected or in moral danger, an Aboriginal child was vulnerable to removal on no other grounds than having an Aboriginal mother.

Aboriginal children sent to homes and orphanages were subsidised at a lower rate than white children.  And in 1900 the head of Aboriginal protection in southern Queensland stated it would be even cheaper to send such children to Aboriginal reserves where the cost would be only one-quarter as much as for a white orphanage child.  We now know many ‘removed’ Aboriginal children were neither neglected nor orphans, of course.  Children of domestic servants were routinely placed in homes or dormitories, their mothers contracted back into the workforce and money docked from their wages towards the children’s keep.  Lighter skinned children were at all times, even into the 1970s, especially vulnerable to confiscation by white authorities.

Although Queensland’s education Acts had, since the mid-nineteenth century, stipulated that every child must be given standard schooling, officers of the government in charge of Aboriginal welfare did not abide by this law.  This breach was pointed out by the chief protector in 1904, yet for another 50 years Queensland governments knowingly and deliberately continued this deprivation.  It was not uncommon for rural children to be left as cheap labour on pastoral stations in direct breach of laws requiring schooling for all youngsters.  On missions and settlements children were picked out as servants for white staff;  some were never even taught to read and write.

On its reserves the government failed to provide qualified teachers, it failed to provide classrooms, it failed to provide desks and chairs, writing pads, text books, teaching aids.  Perhaps I should qualify those statements:  they did provide some furniture and equipment – the discarded goods from white state schools.

It was not until the education department took control in the late 1950s that classes went beyond grade four.  Even so, on all communities overcrowded housing, lack of study space and the absence of electric lighting at home effectively prevented most Aboriginal children from progressing even in the minimal schooling they received.  Generations of Aboriginal adults have been condemned to menial work and poverty through the decision of the state to flout its own education Acts requiring standard education for all children.

Before and after the few hours schooling all dormitory children endured hours of work.  To refuse was to be punished, to answer back was to suffer the public humiliation of a shaven head and a hessian bag dress.  Many boys and girls were sexually interfered with.  There was no-one to turn to.  No-one to hear you crying at night.

But dormitory children had to endure much more than ill-treatment.  Merely to survive the appalling conditions was a matter of luck, and hundreds did not.  Food was minimal and all but inedible, water commonly unsafe for human use, bedding and clothing dangerously deficient.  At Barambah in 1918 dormitory children were sleeping on the bare ground in an open sided shed with only one blanket each.  The diet was so meagre and they had so few clothes they suffered endemic skin disease.  When Woorabinda started in 1926 after four years’ planning there was no money for beds or buildings.  Dormitory children moved from Taroom slept on the ground in a bark and iron shed without mattresses during three icy winters, they sat on the ground and ate their food with their hands because there was no cutlery; the waterholes dried up, there were no sanitation facilities, and many inmates succumbed to influenza.  On the same settlement in the 1940s, when so-called ‘surplus’ vegetables were being distributed to white institutions, children and adults were dying because of lack of food, milk distribution was only 10% the minimum requirement, almost 40 babies and children died in a six-month period from hookworm debilitation; and the government had been warned the previous year, but had taken no action.

At Cherbourg during this period children’s cots and mattresses were described as filthy and crawling with cockroaches.  The dormitory was a two-storey wooden structure in which inmates were barred and locked for ten hours a night with a few kerosene lamps.  It was reported to be a death trap and structurally unsound, but no action was taken for more than a decade.  At Palm Island the dormitories were so overcrowded that the beds were only a few inches apart and shared by two or three children, prime conditions for transmission of tuberculosis.  In the mid-1950s dormitory children were routinely forced to take cold showers each morning even when frost was on the ground, and sent to school shivering and with wet hair; colds and sickness were rife.  These conditions, in these state institutions, would have prompted the removal of children on the grounds of health risk and neglect if they had occurred in a family home.

Shall we turn attention now to the homes, to the living conditions which the government provided for the thousands of families they removed from general society?  Again, a few brief snapshots will set the scene.  Barambah in 1918: 600 people living in bark gunyahs which leaked rain and iced over, on the inside, in winter, one blanket per person and no beds or furniture, uncovered latrines germinating typhoid and malaria.  Palm Island 1941: families drinking from creekholes where dogs and fowl paddled, deplorable sanitation, lack of milk and no vegetables available for four months.  Cherbourg 1947: huts filthy and desperately overcrowded with four and more people to a bed, babies at risk of suffocation, very few cupboards, dishes or cooking utensils, neither milk nor fresh produce to be had at the store, condensed milk similarly unavailable. Palm Island 1950: all houses grossly overcrowded, and behind the main road were shacks and hovels comprising a few sheets of iron and earth floors.

Palm Island 1973: another deadly gastroenteritis epidemic;  vegetables, fruit, milk and bread available at the store only twice weekly and sold out within hours, no refrigeration, few stoves, few utensils, malnutrition so severe that 75% of child outpatients were severely underweight and were described as looking like ‘starving Biafrans’.  The council called for federal assistance, the state government refused to allow it.  Woorabinda 1984: 3 bedroom houses holding up to 21 people, 81% of homes overcrowded, most in dire need of repair, serviced by cold water and wood stoves which blackened interiors and caused chest problems in tenants.

This appalling litany of criminal negligence clearly reveals the entrenched and deadly pattern of deprivation and disease.  Studies in the late 1960s measure the depth of this perversion on these government communities.  Stillbirth at more than 4 times that of white babies, premature baby deaths the same, deaths under one year of age more than 6 times the white rate, and toddlers under 4 over 13 times.  The key factor in the deaths of 50% of children under 3 and 85% of children under 4 was malnutrition.  This single, preventible, and surely most easily resolved deficiency underlay chronic ear and chest infections, lowered resistance and impaired school performance.  Half of all newborn deaths and 47% of all deaths under 16 years was from gastroenteritis and/or pneumonia.  These illness are caused by defective living conditions, conditions which are described again and again on official files during almost a century of government control which continued into the 1980s.  Now, in the year 2000, these disgraceful statistics are only marginally better.  They would not have continued for six months in any remote white town.

And in the meantime governments fostered the view, in white minds, that such conditions occurred despite magnanimous funding, that good results were thwarted by Aboriginal lethargy.  Yet records reveal that Aborigines on missions and settlements have laboured for a century in conditions of virtual slavery, consigned initially to forced labour without pay, and condemned in the latter decades of the twentieth century to forced labour for illegally low wages.

The government in Queensland, for ninety years, has built these state communities through the exploitation of a captive work force.  A work force maintained, as they well knew, in conditions of abject destitution.  The government in Queensland, for seventy years, consigned men, women, and children as cut rate labour to pastoralists and graziers, and deprived them of their pitiful earnings.  Official failure to enforce mandatory standards of work and conditions condemned workers and their families to horrendous hardship.  To give an example from the gulf country in 1936:  “The camp is very poor being on a flat about half a mile from the river, with an odd bush here and there, they have no gunyahs or wind breaks of any kind, and just lay out in the open…it is a disgrace.”  In 1959 a pastoralist called on police to hunt down and return two absconding workers.  It later transpired they were housed in an iron shed with anted floor, no windows, an opening but no door, no bunks, blankets or light at night.  Their only ‘pay’ for 12 months was two ounces of tobacco and two packets of matches a week.

In fact these men, and thousands more caught in the government’s financial master-plan, were actually earning a wage set at 66% the white rate.  But they saw little or none of it.  Because it went directly to government control.  The beneficiaries of such ‘management’ are easily identified.  In 1932, when all workers’ savings were centralised in Brisbane, the total pool was a massive $15.5 million (in today’s value), and the state promptly committed 85% of this to revenue-raising investments, while those whose money it was were frequently refused permission to spend even trivial amounts.  People were refused information about their savings balances; those families in the gulf may have had hundreds of pounds to their names but in government hands.  And successive internal inquiries condemned widespread fraud and misappropriation by employers, by the police ‘protectors’ who handled individual withdrawals, and by the department itself.

Files show that millions of dollars was taken from savings and Trust funds during the depression years, to cover administrative expenses and capital works, and never paid back.  Year after year government auditors protested at the negligent and illegal handling of Aboriginal monies: in the late 1930s and early 1940s it was estimated Treasury was benefitting by almost $1million a year.  Child endowment was garnisheed by the government from the 1940s, as were pensions from the 1960s.  The profit margin at settlement stores was set at 40%, sucking hundreds of thousands of dollars annually from people who were literally dying of the diseases of poverty.  In the early 1950s around $11.25 million (today’s value) was tied up in investments; and from 1956 the department offered this massive nest egg for lucrative expansion projects in regional white hospitals.  In 1969, during debate regarding the relinquishing of savings accounts to the men and women themselves – at that time totalling over $12.75 million – the department calculated the state would lose investment revenue of around $10 million and could be exposed to a further $28 million in relief and maintenance costs.  That’s a saving to the state of $38 million in that year alone sucked out of the Aboriginal community’s earnings and savings.  Now we begin to understand why conditions were so dire.

In addition the government hoarded the equivalent of around $20 million dollars each year by simply underpaying Aboriginal employees.  In 1972 workers were paid only 58% the basic wage, in 1980 only 72%, in 1986 only 80%.  During the 1970s and 1980s money was diverted from building programs and house maintenance, and essential services were imperilled as the government slashed 1500 workers from the payroll rather than budget the required funds even for these discounted wages, an engineered unemployment rate of 92.5 per cent.  Gross overcrowding in increasingly dilapidated buildings intensified.  In 1978 the government predicted its policy of attrition would cause massive social problems including increased alcoholism and violence, and then sat by and watched it happen.

For the whole period of government management of these communities, even into the 1980s, inmates have not been assured of adequate food and safe water.  The government has always known this – countless reports on their own files make that clear.  From the earliest days, when those removed to reserves laboured for rations of tea, flour, sugar, soap, tobacco, until the mid-1980s when Aboriginal workers on government reserves were still illegally underpaid, Aboriginal families under government control have suffered, sickened, and died in this land of plenty.

Even today countless Aboriginal families are condemned to struggle on a fraction of the income deemed necessary for all other Australian families, because bulk unemployment payments go direct to councils which redistribute them as wages, and the wage is always less than the pension.  This scheme is a leftover from the 1970s; it was a deal cut between the federal and state governments because the federal government would not pay for the running of the communities, and the state knew if full pensions were available reserve residents would not work for the lousy wage.  By spreading the dole entitlements of some to fund the running costs of the whole community, the government is continuing a pattern of wage deprivation which has destroyed countless Aboriginal lives and blighted every community.  This scheme entrenches poverty, social disruption, and unbelievable violence and abuse; it  would be unheard of in the white community.

Present destitution and social distress is the unfinished chapter in what has been the cruellest, the most shameful, story in our history.  Yes, many millions are needed to standardise these appalling conditions, but this is money long withheld, whose lack has been written in the preventible deaths of babies, children and adults over many decades.  This money has nothing to do with reconciliation.  It is not a gift from government.  It does not demonstrate ‘practical’ sympathy.  It is money owed, money withheld over a century of government management.  However many millions it takes to bring Aboriginal communities to the standard of white towns, that amount measures the degree to which Aboriginal Australians have been shortchanged by governments during a century of ‘care and protection’.  This is a debt by governments who have abused Aboriginal labour, and Aboriginal lives, to build the nation we are today.

In their official response to the Stolen Generations Inquiry prime minister John Howard and Aboriginal Affairs minister John Herron wash their official hands of any responsibility for the present destitution of Aborigines around Australia.  They want us to believe that current social distress derives from policies that were ‘not of our generation’.  But  Howard was federal treasurer in 1978 when Joh Bjelke-Petersen threatened mass sackings, and predicted massive social damage on the communities if prime minister Malcolm Fraser did not underwrite Queensland’s Aboriginal wages bill.  Surely he knew of the premier’s threat and the stated consequences of Fraser’s refusal?  Herron was president of Queensland’s liberal party in the early 1980s when Queensland’s coalition government paid its Aboriginal employees only 80% the legal wage, a practice it knew to be illegal, at the same time accumulating evidence of soaring infant mortality and child deaths from the deadly conditions on these deliberately neglected communities.  He’s a medical man; why did he not speak out?

Herron’s official submission stresses the philanthropic intent of removal policies, the necessity to bring a suffering people under government ‘care and protection’.  From files held by governments around the country we are beginning to see that this ‘care and protection’ has been miserly, deadly, implemented with deliberation and maintained, for decades, in full knowledge of the consequences.

This is not ‘a tragic and regrettable saga in Australia’s history’, as the government would have us believe.  This is no white dreamtime story.  Today’s talk has shown you that Aboriginal destitution has been underwritten by specific actions taken by identifiable men empowered to secure the welfare of wards of state.  And, since both Howard and Herron were born in the 1930s, most of what you have heard happened in their lifetimes.

It is desperately important that we Australians should be made aware of what was done in our names.  We must make sure that governments are held accountable for this disastrous social experiment. Howard says millions agree with his refusal to express official sorrow for this terrible ordeal.  I say when millions know all of our history, they will think differently.

Redcliffe Library

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