‘One of the Great Scandals of Australia’s History’
‘One of the Great Scandals of Australia’s History’. In 2006 Mr John von Doussa, Federal Court judge and then president of Australia’s Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, used this phrase when he launched my book Trustees on Trial; a book that documents the litany of misappropriation, misuse and loss of moneys earned by Aboriginal Queenslanders but controlled by the government. We need to know these facts, he said, in order to understand continuing Aboriginal resentment and frustration over their Stolen Wages. Those words were said four years ago. Yet the fight for justice is undiminished.
Tonight, as a way of introducing you to the field of Stolen Wages, I thought I’d share with you some of my journey from complete ignorance of Aboriginal issues to passionate advocate for justice.
Many people assume I have always had a social justice conscience, perhaps a history of left-wing causes and street marching. But in truth I came from small business and family duties to Brisbane’s Griffith University as one of a group of terrified mature age students in 1984. Griffith then had no faculties of Australian studies or history, and I took a wide range of humanities courses. My favourite, now unfortunately often scorned, was the philosophy of Michel Foucault whose ability to bring to a topic an entirely unexpected range of primary evidence enabled him to turn our received wisdom on its head. Whether it was the history of sexuality (not liberation, he argued, but increasing saturation), or the history of prisons (from externalised torture to internalised surveillance), or the history of medicine or the field of mental illness, I found his utter perversity in overturning our comfortable sense of triumphalist progression intellectually exciting. Blame my Irish heritage.
When it came to choosing a PhD project, in my mind I was looking for something that had been historically charted as a progression from the bad old days to the more enlightened present; something I could ‘do a Foucault on’: ask unimagined questions, give space to new voices, build an entirely different framework of understanding. So I chose a field I knew nothing about, but one I thought was important. How exactly had governments in Queensland controlled Aboriginal people during the twentieth century? I was quite sure I didn’t want to just ‘turn the eggtimer’, as I see it in my mind. I didn’t just want to reverse our ‘white’ history to add in the untold ‘Aboriginal’ dimension. Rather I wanted to focus on the basic practicalities of why and how Queensland governments controlled thousands of Aboriginal people through to the 1970s.
The first hurdle – more like a castle wall really – was to get access to the government files. For two years I wrote letters to the department, suggesting that a non-politicised history of this very complex issue was long overdue. For two years I spiked the ‘we’re considering your proposal’ responses, meanwhile spending months at state Archives researching the early material that is openly available, and months more reading mission correspondence of the Presbyterian and Anglican churches. Suddenly, after the happy coincidence of meeting new department head Marcia Langton at a history conference, I had a letter in my hand authorising me to see any files that might be relevant to my project, except, of course, Cabinet documents of the last thirty years. For eighteen months, working in the department, I shared a very cosy relationship with their photocopier.
At home I spent months more summarising every letter of every file, working in periods of around two decades, listening to the voices, teasing out the power dynamics, exposing the hopes and prejudices. I wanted to focus on the machinery of government: what were the problems as they saw them at particular stages of time, how did they conceptualise possible paths of action, how did they determine their policies, how exactly and with what success did they implement those policies, how did they respond to perverse outcomes, what lies did they tell and what facts did they hide to justify what they had decided to do. I wore a particular pair of Foucault spectacles: one lens watching for evidence of what he called the ‘eternal optimism’ of government, that is their whole mentality and implementation of reformative intentions; the other lens identifying the ‘congenital failure’ of government, that is the unworkable complexity of power bases and conflicting fields that underwrite inevitably bungled policies. Pink batts come to mind, I think.
Tonight I’d like to focus on two aspects of the eternal optimism and congenital failure of the ‘protection’ regime: the impact on people’s lives, and the impact on people’s finances. Impacts that are intertwined of course, but by teasing out the separate dimensions I hope you will better absorb the disturbing realities, and, hopefully, think to yourself how you would have coped then, and how you would feel now.
Western governments around the world removed ‘problem’ people from the community long before Aboriginal laws were enacted in Queensland in 1897. Plague victims, criminals, inebriates, the mentally ill and even for a while the poor, were institutionalised. Setting up government settlements and church missions, enacting laws so that ‘problem’ Aborigines could be removed and confined there, was consistent with this approach. Around Australia at the start of the nineteenth century, most states and the Territory followed this policy.
During the first few decades of the twentieth century anyone in Queensland of Aboriginal descent could be subject to direct government control: no reason was given and no right of appeal. Official rhetoric, and no doubt the conviction of many of those in power, was that they were rescuing Aboriginal families from hunger and disease, and protecting them from abuse and exploitation by the occupying Europeans. The first chief protector did point out that it was illegal to hunt Aboriginal people from the vast areas of non-freehold land; and abuse and exploitation of Aboriginal workers, who numbered around 2000 in the early twentieth century, should have been dealt with under existing state laws. But rather than upset townspeople and pastoralists by enforcing those laws, the government enacted its ‘protection’ policy of removing Aboriginal families to missions and settlements. From there it was but a short step to invoking the removal categories (will not work, immoral behaviour, associates with troublemakers, failure to care for children), whenever it was politically expedient to remove an Aboriginal group from the edge of town where they had been banished by local by-laws. Very few voices linked the forcible expulsion of Aboriginal people from the waterways and fertile lands that had sustained them for millennia, and the known exploitation of Aboriginal labour, to the engineered impoverishment that so offended white sensibilities.
I’ll turn first to the ‘removals’ as they were termed; the fifty-per cent of Aboriginal Queenslanders who were arrested by their protectors the police, and transported to compulsory confinement on church missions or state run settlements.
Let me paint you a picture. If I were an Aboriginal child in rural Queensland between the 1920s and 1960s then it is likely my mother and my brothers and sisters would have been taken from our families and homes and sent to live on a government settlement. It is likely our father would have been sent away on a compulsory one-year work contract, and the police might have argued there was no-one looking after the family. It is likely our mother might have been working several days a week minding children and cleaning houses, but it is also likely there was barely enough food and clothing, because the police intercepted and controlled her wages; it is likely we lived in a poor shack on a country reserve with no amenities, because the law excluded us from renting a house. We wouldn’t know why the police deported us to a place we had never heard of.
So I might have arrived at this strange settlement with my mother and siblings where, from the age of five, I would have been taken from my mother and confined in a dormitory with dozens of other kids from all over the state, many speaking only their own language, all in shock, all bewildered. Until the age of about fourteen my life would consist of a few hours basic teaching in English and arithmetic, and training in washing, scrubbing, cooking and sewing. On some missions this was a life sentence from which marriage alone provided escape.
The files show that from the beginning the settlements and missions were places of grinding poverty, derelict housing, lethally inadequate diet, unsafe drinking water, arbitrary punishment, and incompetent schooling. Indeed into the late 1950s the government breached its own laws mandating a standard education for every Queensland child. The government streamed far greater funding to its three settlements, although it knew missions had insufficient resources to bridge the gap. So conditions at the government’s showpiece institution, Cherbourg, reveal the ‘best’ of official care and protection. Here in the 1930s they crammed 100 girls into a locked, barred, and unlit room for ten hours a night, sleeping seven or eight together on mattresses on the floor with only one blanket each for warmth. In 1941 dormitory life was described by officials as dreary beyond imagination, a deadening routine which ruined any benefits of schooling, which ended at grade four. At Doomadgee mission, even in the 1950s, a health specialist wrote that girls were kept in virtual slavery; locked up at night behind barbed wire after working on the farm all day. ‘It is completely futile and artificial and unnatural to enclose, or rather encage, women, and expect any sort of normal psychological balance on their release’, she said, describing the effects of such institutionalisation as pernicious.
Girls and unattached women were incarcerated because of their sexuality. Once they reached puberty – otherwise categorised by authorities as ‘marriageable age’ – it was government policy, although not followed by the missions, to remove the problem by contracting the girls out to work. Young girls, who had never left the community and never spoken to a white person except in trembling deference to officials, were given a spare set of clothes, some shoes and a small suitcase, and sent hundreds of miles to work as servants on remote properties where there might be no other Aboriginal faces to sustain them.
If these unwilling domestic servants fell pregnant they were returned to the settlements and then re-employed, leaving their babies in the dormitories or on occasions taking the infant with them, their wages reduced accordingly. Conceding the girls’ ‘moral welfare’ was important, the chief protector nonetheless decided in 1934 their welfare was not worth $86,000 a year in lost wages plus $28,000 in costs to keep them on the settlements. So the government, which arrested and confined girls on the grounds of securing their safety, continued its lucrative trade in Aboriginal domestics into the 1970s.
Let me give you just a few snapshots of life under compulsory government ‘protection’. In the 1930s at Palm Island reports show the death rate was over six per cent and most of the ill and elderly were slowly starving to death. Rations for hospital patients were so deficient the matron took money from their savings accounts, without their knowledge, to buy food. Most of the babies who were not breast fed died of malnutrition. In the 1940s at Yarrabah mission malnutrition was so bad elders were dying and adults were too weak to work, and the drinking water was unsafe for human consumption. In the 1950s at Cherbourg dozens of families still lived in leaking tin shacks with coconut-frond walls, the ‘better’ tin and timber huts were unlined and housed up to 19 people, and were blamed for deaths of babies from heat exposure. There was no water to these houses for food preparation or washing of hands. Disease was rife. In the 1960s a medical survey showed malnutrition across the communities was the key factor in 50 per cent of deaths of babies and toddlers, and in 85 per cent of children under four years.
This information is all on the government’s own records. So it is clear that the authorities charged with securing the welfare of people it had deported to these institutions were well aware people sickened and died, but the government refused to provide the funds necessary to maintain basic conditions. Meanwhile the rhetoric – then and now – is to blame inmates for community dysfunction. Indeed regulations in the mid-1940s introduced a raft of disciplinary measures. Complaint was deemed an offence against ‘good order’ on the reserve and people who spoke out were jailed or simply transferred to other reserves away from their families. Hygiene inspectors were appointed to police homes and surroundings, ‘dirty and untidy’ families were brought under closer surveillance and subjected to surprise inspections.
These measures clearly show the intensification of personal surveillance. Taken out of context you might say they were a reasonable response to communities characterised by disease and malnutrition. And this echoes the government line today. But what this personal attack conceals, of course, is the deadly environments created and maintained by government refusal to provide standard living conditions. In the 1950s, at the height of this personal surveillance, a doctor reported from Cherbourg that conditions were so bad it was a miracle babies survived infancy and childhood; a miracle they didn’t suffocate as people slept four and more to a bed; a miracle they survived their diet of damper and syrup three meals a day; a miracle they survived the unwashed filthy bedding, leaking and overflowing toilets, dirt encrusted kitchens. After an inspection, the Director General of the Health wrote scathingly that no-one could learn hygienic habits if no basic facilities were available to them; in the 1960s most homes still lacked running water, safe sanitation and basic household goods. On Palm Island in the 1970s doctors blamed massive infection loads on the overcrowded and substandard living conditions; surveys showed few homes had fridges, cupboards, chairs, tables or beds. In the 1980s, families on the government-run communities of Pormpurraw and Palm Island were living in houses that were officially condemned, because no other shelter was available; and many families at Woorabinda still depended on wood stoves and had no hot water. It was around this time that the Queensland government handed control of these blighted communities to the Aboriginal Councils, who have struggled ever since to reverse almost a century of institutionalised neglect.
I want to turn now to Aboriginal employment. The common belief is that settlements in Queensland were closed institutions, tightly excluding Aboriginal people from the wider community. But the government had no intention of supporting thousands of people on the reserves; nor could it afford – economically or electorally – to exclude such a vast, cheap, malleable workforce from the state’s development. Contrary to the longstanding ‘whitewash’ of Aboriginal labour from our economic history, Aboriginal labour has been absolutely crucial to our development as a nation. By the mid 1880s over 1000 Aborigines were already in permanent work in Queensland, mostly in rural areas where white labour was scarce. A government survey in 1899 listed over 2000 permanent workers south of Rockhampton. By 1907 there were more than 3000 contracted Aboriginal workers across the state, nudging 4000 in the pastoral industry alone by 1920, rising to 4500 in the early 1930s and 5000 in the mid 1960s.
A major objective of the ‘protection’ regime from its inception was to control this vital Aboriginal labour resource. To this end the government acted as employment broker, setting the wage and location for the year-long contracts, the euphemistically termed ‘agreements’ that no Aboriginal man, woman or child, could refuse without punishment. Did this system protect the Aboriginal workforce from exploitation and abuse?
From the earliest days the government knew it did not, as the files show. Initially there were no limits on how many hours were worked, how hard the labour, how bad the treatment, provision of food and living quarters. Minimum conditions were only introduced in 1919, but the government appointed no official inspectors, despite constant evidence of assaults and abuses. In 1921 the chief protector admitted shelter for many Aboriginal workers was ‘worse than they would provide for their pet horse, motor-car or prize cattle’; in 1936 on one station families were forced to live in the open with no protection from the rain or cold winds; in the 1940s it was reported most employers in the Gulf area thought ‘anything is good enough for a nigger’ and that survival was ‘just bare existence’; in 1959 one group of stock workers were housed in an open shed without any bedding, light or table and paid only tobacco and matches each week for their work. All these things the government knew, because all these things are on file at head office. Yet time after time, anyone who stood up for their rights or absconded to seek better paid work or visit their family, was hunted down by police and either returned in handcuffs to their employer or banished to Palm Island as punishment. It was only in 1956, after the system had run for 60 years, that the government instructed industrial inspectors to include Aboriginal employees in their tours of rural areas. Even then, as the records show, abuses continued – sexual assaults, wet living quarters, rough handling, beatings with chains, lack of water and cooking facilities, toilet pans emptied near sleeping sheds, and widespread hookworm and ill health, especially among children.
I want now to consider the range of financial abuses – institutionalised by the government itself. From 1901 the government set a minimum monthly wage for Aboriginal workers – equivalent to about $23 today. It assumed the right, through its network of police protectors, to retain or sell Aboriginal property. Wage rates listed in 1904 included children under 12 years; indeed government-sanctioned child labour was still common in the late 1950s. As early as 1914 government correspondence confirmed that Aboriginal workers were often regarded as more reliable and superior stockriders and bushmen than their white counterparts, yet the government sold them to the pastoral industry for around 3 per cent the white rate. In the early 1930s, when white rural labour was described as ‘often useless’ and Aboriginal labour as ‘indispensable’, the government sold Aboriginal workers at around 40 per cent the award rate for more than a decade. As always, workers were responsible for maintaining their families on this fractional wage; failure to do so could trigger their removal to a reserve.
In 1956 a department survey confirmed the pastoral industry was entirely dependent on Aboriginal workers, particularly in remote areas where white stockmen were rare. The inspector said the entrenched mentality was to pay ‘as little as possible for Aboriginal workers’, while ‘white men of markedly less ability and industry receive higher wages and better living conditions than Aboriginals who are better workmen’. These crucial workers were contracted by government officials at only 70 per cent the award rate. The ‘equal pay’ judgement of 1966 barely worried the Queensland system: workers under state control were termed ‘trainees’ and still sold at a discount, although most had decades of skill and experience. Only after 1972 were workers free to choose their own employment and demand the legal wage.
So exactly what happened to this meagre pay? For the whole of its 70-year contracted labour system the government gave employers the right to pay into workers’ hands between 30-80 per cent of their wage. But the government never bothered to secure this payment despite warnings from both protectors and auditors that workers were routinely cheated of this ‘pocket money’. An internal inquiry in 1932 said it could be ‘reasonably assumed’ that workers didn’t get this money. In a 1943 survey of pocket money payments protectors said the whole system was a farce and a direct profit to employers; in the 1956 survey protectors described the system as useless, futile and out of control with workers ‘entirely at the mercy’ of employers who simply doctored the books. Did the government step in to protect workers’ hard-earned wage? No. It was ‘too costly’, it said, to implement auditor’s suggestions that pocket money books be checked at head office. In the mid 1960s auditors again condemned the government’s continued lack of control of pocket money payments. In the 60 years to 1968 records show that successive governments knew the Aboriginal workers it controlled were being cheated of potentially 50 per cent of their wage.
But pocket money is only the first point of government culpability regarding Stolen Wages. From the beginning of the twentieth century, to ‘protect’ Aboriginal earnings from cunning Europeans and Aboriginal incapacity, the government directed that Aboriginal wages be paid direct to police protectors who were authorised to exercise benign oversight over Aboriginal access to this hard-earned money – you had to go cap in hand and ‘request’ permission to withdraw money from your own savings, permission that was frequently, and arbitrarily, denied. And for nearly 70 years the government refused to let people see any record of dealings on their accounts.
The government knew from the start that its agents the police protectors were often incompetent and fraudsters, yet it continued this system. As early as 1904, and again in the 1920s, it introduced a thumb print system to reduce rampant frauds. It didn’t work. A public service inquiry in 1922 revealed absolutely no supervision of the 8000 rural savings accounts and said police practices were so unreliable it was essential workers be allowed to appeal dealings on their accounts. The government rejected the recommendation. In 1932 another internal inquiry found that ‘the opportunity for fraud existed to a greater degree than with any other Governmental accounts’. The chief protector again admitted there were no real controls over official dealings on private accounts, and again rejected the recommendation that workers be allowed to see what was happening to their money.
In 1933 the government did take action. In order to minimise police fraud, it said, it would centralise the bulk of the rural savings accounts in Brisbane for closer scrutiny. However the files show us the main aim of this plan. Centralisation of savings accounts gave the government the opportunity to sideline around 80 per cent of these savings – over $12 million today – in investments, and pocket the interest bonus for itself. And for the next 30 plus years, only about 20 per cent of their savings was available at any one time to the workers. No wonder so many workers were refused permission to access their own savings.
Apart from government officials, only a sequence of internal investigators and annual auditors knew what the government was doing with these private Aboriginal monies. But their comments remained in-house, and the government continued its dubious practices. A trust fund set up in 1904 to receive monies owing to, or saved by, missing or deceased workers for distribution to their families was consistently raided to cover government costs. As was a second trust fund set up in 1919 by taxing all Aboriginal savings for an unemployment relief fund. In the decade from 1925, including the harsh Depression times, the government simply transferred to itself over $930,000 (today) from Aboriginal savings accounts and over $3.5 million from the two Trust funds – money that has never been repaid. Vast sums from Commonwealth child endowment, paid to Aboriginal mothers after 1941, was also transferred into state revenue, by giving only a fraction to settlement mothers and by reducing grants to the missions by the amount of incoming endowment. From 1960, invalid, aged and widows pensions were simply ‘diverted to revenue’ (their term), bringing a bonanza of over $500,000 (today) in 1960, rising to almost $750,000 by 1964. Meanwhile the people whose entitlement this was, the people whose lives were intended to be improved by the pensions, struggled and died in poverty. When Aboriginal people in Queensland finally got control of their lives and their finances in the early 1970s, many found to their horror that their new bank books showed pitiful balances despite decades of work and financial privation. Those who queried head office were told that files have been lost or destroyed, so it was impossible to verify their accounts. In December last year the Bligh government again used this line.
These are a small sample of my discoveries as I teased out the machinery of government. The ‘eternal optimism’ is demonstrated by the sweet-sounding rhetoric of protection and benign paternalism – we’ll take you to settlements and look after you; we’ll control employment and wages so you are not exploited… The ‘congenital failure’ of the regime to actually protect the interests of those trapped in it, clearly had as much to do with government greed and the corruption of power, as from the unwieldy fields in which it operated.
I suppose I assumed that modern times were different. That the exposure of the ongoing costs to Aboriginal families of this blighted historical past would prompt today’s governments to acknowledge the failures of their predecessors. Surely there would have been political mileage in that? How wrong I was.
In 1996 I offered to tell what I knew to a Human Rights Commission hearing into the government’s payment of under award wages to its employees on Palm Island. Aboriginal workers on all government communities were always underpaid of course, but after the 1975 Racial Discrimination Act such underpayment was, as the government at the time well knew, illegal. When the government realised I had documents to back up my evidence they said I could be sued for damages if I presented it. I don’t know about you, but I always believed it was illegal to threaten a witness. I did feel threatened, but not half as much as I felt angry – angry that the government would lie today to cover the lies of the past, angry that it’s denial of the truth perpetuated a hundred years of racial discrimination. And I thought: not if I can help it. And so began my participation in the fight for justice.
Based on that evidence, the HREOC found that the government had ‘intentionally, deliberately and knowingly’ underpaid six of the seven Palm Island claimants and recommended compensation of $7000 each. The Borbidge Coalition government refused to pay, even though, as we now know, its own files showed the claimants were owed between $8500 and $21,000. Only after action commenced in the Federal Court in early 1997 did the Borbidge government capitulate and pay the $7000. Faced with hundreds of other similarly underpaid workers, in 1999 the Beattie Labor government offered the grand sum of $25 million to pay $7000 to all ex-employees for underpayment from 1975 until Aboriginal councils took over and paid full legal wages in the mid 1980s. Like its predecessor, the Beattie government also kept secret the evidence on its files: records show that it had already settled 22 actions out of court, one for $4000 (where the records listed underpayment of almost four times that amount), and 21 for $7000 (where the records show underpayment ranged of between $13,000 and $27,000). We can be sure this evidence was kept secret from those who settled for a fraction of this documented entitlement. This is in my view a fraud, a fraud facilitated by again demanding claimants sign away their rights to further legal action in total ignorance of documentary evidence of their working lives. How can this be informed consent? How can it possibly be legally binding?
Fewer than half the potential claimants took the $7000, and although ultimately almost $40 million was paid out, this equated to less than one quarter of the government’s illegal profit from deliberately underpaying community workers. Which other group of workers, defrauded for a decade of their rightful wage, would the government try to buy off with a lump sum of $7000 each? In fact in 2004 two ex-workers refused the $7000, instead suing the government for $100,000 in compensation for under award wages; this case was settled out of court. And two communities that took the government to court after being refused access to the $7000, won their case on appeal in 2006, and secured individual payouts calculated according to personal wage records. Many received over $20,000, one was four times that much. Hundreds of others who rejected the $7000 payout continue their fight for wages owing.
In the last segment of this talk I’d like to share with you the fight for justice for the Stolen Wages – that is the wages, savings, child endowment, pensions and inheritances lost during 70 years of government mismanagement. In May 2002 Peter Beattie admitted there were 4000 potential litigants waiting to sue the government; he offered compensation of $55.6 million which he said was ‘generous’, despite acknowledging my own research indicated around $500 million is in question. Beattie’s ‘generous’ sum amounted to a maximum $4000 per person, thousands of deceased account holders were simply disqualified, and again the government demanded claimants sign away their legal rights, knowing full well that most had no knowledge of their financial position, knowledge generated and still controlled by the government.
I guess it was this continued bloody-minded denial of accountability for the wealth of evidence I had exposed, that set me working in around 2004 to figure out how we could get the bastards into court on the sharp end of a strong case of breach of trust. I am absolutely convinced that it is the government that should be in the dock and on the defence, not an individual trying to provide cast-iron evidence of fraud on his or her account, evidence which the government may have lost or destroyed. I am inspired by the case of Elouise Cobell, an enterprising woman of the Blackfeet tribe of Montana, who brought action against the US government in 1996 for losing and misusing not only the funds of thousands of individual Indian men and women, but destroying evidence of that maladministration. In 1999 the US courts found in favour of the Cobell claim, which comprises half a million living and deceased claimants and unpaid royalty payments for oil, mineral and grazing leases on Indian land. In December last year the Obama administration announced it will settle this class action, in a package worth over $A4 billion.
However there is a major hurdle for such a case in Australia. Since the 1930s courts in the US and Canada have declared that, in managing the enterprises on Indian reserves and individual bank accounts, those governments were legal trustees of those Indian interests with full legal obligations. In Australia, in contrast, the legal consensus was that our courts would be ‘reluctant’ to make such a judgement. It seems our courts hold that since the people empowered the governments to implement their wide-ranging ‘protection’ schemes, then it is not the courts’ role to interfere with how governments carried out this mandate. Judgements in Stolen Generations cases seem to bear this out. But I think it will be much harder to argue ‘benign intent’ in misusing and losing private finances, than in removing children from their parents.
I knew that the experts who had written about judicial ‘reluctance’ knew little if anything about Stolen Wages. I knew they were not privy to the wealth of incriminating evidence available here in Queensland. So in the three years to 2007 I researched and wrote Trustees on Trial, analysing national and international cases relating to trust law and fiduciary duties, and applying those legal prohibitions and responsibilities to the negligent and exploitative conduct of successive Queensland administrations. I wanted to convince the legal profession and the courts of the strength of a breach of trust case against the government. Let me just mention a few of the legal duties of a trustee: he must protect the trust property that he controls, he must keep proper records of accounts and provide full information to any beneficiary requesting it, he must not profit from, nor have personal interests which conflict with, the trust. You can see the connections. Loss of records is not a defence; it is a fundamental breach of trust duties.
The exploitation of Aboriginal labour, wages, savings and entitlements was not peculiar to Queensland. All state governments, and the commonwealth government in the Northern Territory between 1911 and 1978, ran contract labour systems and banking controls. In 2004 I wanted to generate a National Report with submissions from local experts, but this gradually shrank to my compiling a summary gleaned from other research work, and was published by ANTaR in 2007 as Hard Labour, Stolen Wages (available free online from their website). I think it was early in 2006 that I met Democrat senator Andrew Bartlett at a Stolen Wages strategy meeting and he suggested a Senate Inquiry should investigate Stolen Wages nationally. I have to confess I had no real confidence that it would happen, but after months of persistent lobbying by Andrew the Inquiry was launched in 2007 under the auspices of the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee. It attracted submissions from around Australia which confirmed the terrible losses suffered by those whose lives and finances were mismanaged by various governments. It makes heartbreaking reading, and is available on the Senate website. Among a range of recommendations, the Committee said the Commonwealth and state governments should allow ‘unhindered access to their archives’, and fund preliminary legal research into Stolen Wages. Predictably, all governments are in denial. My understanding is that both the Victorian and the WA government have intensively investigated their records relating to Aboriginal financial management, but refuse to make these findings available to those whose money it was.
In the aftermath of the Senate Inquiry, and facing a barrage of public condemnation and a poor uptake of only $20 million from the $55.6 million offer, in August 2008 Anna Bligh’s Labor government re-opened the scheme and increased the maximum payouts to $7000. Now the Aboriginal community has always said the whole $55.6 million should be distributed among Stolen Wages claimants, as promised by Beattie in 2004. But like all its predecessors, Anna Bligh simply ignores their wishes. Pressured into running a survey of Aboriginal opinion, which confirmed over 90 per cent wanted that distribution, the Bligh government simply dismissed the results, and declared it would tip the $20 million still unclaimed into the notoriously misused Aboriginal Welfare Fund for distribution as education scholarships; in effect using private reparations to address the illegally-instituted denial of full education for Aboriginal children during the twentieth century.
In September last year the Queensland Council of Unions launched court action for breach of trust on behalf of Conrad Yeatman whose labour and wages were controlled by government mandate from the age of 14.
In its defence, the government – unbelievably – is claiming it was not the government but the legislation which enabled Aboriginal wages to be controlled! It contemptuously dismisses truckloads of official correspondence detailing active and passive government mismanagement, and claims that records to prove Mr Yeatman’s case have been destroyed.
In my view the government is playing us for suckers by its blatant denial of what is now on public record. Throughout the twentieth century governments lied to us about their flawed guardianship of thousands of Aboriginal families: this was no benign paternalism. Governments mishandled the money of the poorest people in our nation who were forced to be utterly dependent on their integrity. Government stonewalling continues this rank injustice; their contemptuous disregard for historical accountability continues the whitewashing from our national history of the mammoth part played by Aboriginal workers, and feeds into the pernicious insinuation that Aboriginal poverty today is an outcome of a cultural aversion to work. How different would their lives have been – and those of their descendants today – if these highly valued essential workers had not been cheated of their wages. Why should they not be compensated for this institutionalised loss?
I think it is our duty – particularly those of us who were never trapped in such poverty by a government that took our children, took our money, took our lives – it is our duty to force our governments to be accountable. I believe this is, indeed, one of the great scandal’s of Australia’s history. And all of us here tonight are in a position to do something about it.