THE BIG READ: Our slave past
Thursday, 8 February 2007

Issue 122, February 8, 2007: Late last year, the federal Senate handed down its findings from an inquiry into the stolen wages issue. But the report’s long-overdue completion sparked the sort of political response you might expect from a Senate inquiry into navel lint. CHRIS GRAHAM explores one of the biggest Indigenous issues facing this country and why, as a nation, we seem so scared to face it.

December is a tough month to get the attention of the Australian people. But last December was even tougher than usual. Notwithstanding the impending retirement from cricket of Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath, Kim Beazley was in the final death throes of his ALP leadership battle with Kevin Rudd.

It was a big month for news.

While these media frenzies continued, on the last sitting day of 2006 the federal Senate quietly handed down a lengthy report into the lost and stolen wages and savings scandal.

It followed a whirlwind inquiry by the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee, which had spent a day each in Brisbane, Sydney, Perth and Canberra taking oral evidence from Aboriginal victims.

The final report – entitled Unfinished Business: Indigenous stolen wages – runs to 160 pages and was completed within a month, a marathon effort considering how much information had been gathered (in addition to the oral evidence, it attracted 129 written submissions).

It is by far the most complete and concerted effort yet undertaken to get to the bottom of the stolen wages scandal at a national level.

The report lays bare the massive moral and financial debt owed to Aboriginal people by this nation, a fact not lost on the participating senators from both major political parties, the Greens and the creators of the inquiry, the Democrats.

“The committee has received compelling evidence that governments systematically withheld and mismanaged Indigenous wages and entitlements over decades,” the committee reported. “In addition, there is evidence of Indigenous people being underpaid or not paid at all for their work.

“These practices were implemented from the late 19th century onwards and, in some cases, were still in place in the 1980s.”

A recurring feature of the recommendations of the report – of which there are six – is a call to the federal and state governments for more research into the stolen wages issue.

“The committee recommends that the Commonwealth government provide funding in the next budget to the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies to conduct a national oral history and archival project in relation to Indigenous stolen wages.”

The inquiry also recommended that the “Commonwealth Government in relation to the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory, and the state governments of South Australia, Tasmania and Victoria urgently consult with Indigenous people in relation to the stolen wages issue and conduct preliminary research of their archival material.”

In addition to this, the West Australian government is specifically targeted in the recommendations – the Senate inquiry found WA has a compelling and urgent case to answer. It also called on the Queensland government to abandon the current course of its compensation offer, which has been widely condemned by Indigenous and non-Indigenous leaders.

“Indigenous people have been seriously disadvantaged by these practices across generations. Many of those affected are now elderly and in poor health.

“It is therefore imperative that governments take immediate action to address these injustices.

“It would be an abrogation of moral responsibility to delay any further, particularly with the knowledge that the age and infirmity of the Indigenous people affected by these practices limit their capacity to pursue claims.”

Yet ‘abrogation of responsibility’ appears to be exactly the path the federal and state governments are heading.

NIT sought comment from every state government (with the exception of NSW) about what they would do given the recommendations of the Inquiry.

No government, save for Tasmania, responded.

“There is no evidence of wages of Aboriginal workers being withheld or stolen in Tasmania,” replied Michelle O’Byrne, the Tasmanian minister for Community Development, which takes in Indigenous affairs.

“However, if the Tasmanian Aboriginal community has any concerns regarding this matter it should contact my office.”

For the record, the Senate inquiry doesn’t quite share O’Byrne’s optimism – while the report acknowledges Tasmania was the only state or territory not to introduce a ‘Protection Act’ to govern the lives of Aboriginal people, the Senate committee still recommends Tasmania properly investigate the issue.

Also for the record, O’Byrne’s electorate office number is (03) 6336 2685.

The lack of enthusiasm to own up to – or even to investigate – the past theft of vast sums of Aboriginal monies came as no surprise to those already familiar with the Senate inquiry process.

Most governments ignored that too.

“The committee did not receive submissions from the Western Australian, South Australian, Tasmanian or Victorian Governments,” the inquiry noted, although Tasmania and Victoria both wrote to say they wouldn’t be participating.

“The committee believes that state governments would have been able to provide valuable assistance to the inquiry and is disappointed that these governments did not participate.”

Even the federal government came in for a serve.

“The committee acknowledges that representatives from FaCSIA [the Department of Family and Community Services and Indigenous Affairs] did appear before the committee.

“Nonetheless, the committee is disappointed that FaCSIA has not pursued the issue of stolen wages, instead adopting a more reactive approach.

“The committee notes that FaCSIA did not provide a formal submission to the committee. However, FaCSIA did provide limited information on Commonwealth legislation.”

The word ‘limited’ is perhaps an understatement – FaCSIA’s ‘submission’ was two brief letters to the Senate committee, one telling the inquiry FaCSIA knew virtually nothing about stolen wages, and the second telling the inquiry it preferred not to comment on specific matters because… it knew virtually nothing about stolen wages.

So why won’t governments take the issue seriously? Why has the Labor Party not acted to force governments in power to tackle the issue? Why don’t the Liberals exploit the ALP on an issue that could potentially plague all state Labor premiers?

And why doesn’t the media leap on the story? How can the Australian Wheat Board scandal capture the imagination of a nation, but a story about thousands of real ‘Aussie battlers’ who’d been ‘ripped off by the system’ go virtually untouched?

The answer lies in the fact that Australians have ‘better things to worry about’. And ironically, that’s what created the stolen wages scandal in the first place.

The key might also lie in the ‘s’ word – slavery. Because essentially, that’s what the stolen wages issue is all about.

But don’t just take our word for it.

One of the central themes in Keith Windschuttle’s controversial book, A Fabrication of Aboriginal History, is that left-leaning historians have tried to re-write history by putting words into the mouths (and actions into the hands) of past settlers and officials.

Windschuttle argues, for example, that people alive in the 1800’s are best qualified to commentate on the events of that era.

That perhaps goes some way to explaining why conservatives like Windschuttle haven’t weighed into the debate around stolen wages – over the course of the last two centuries, there have been a host of people inside and outside Australia who were prepared to call ‘a spade a spade’ when it came to Australia’s treatment of black workers.

Submissions to the Senate inquiry are literally littered with historical references from credible figures of history accusing Australia of slavery.

The submission to the inquiry by historian Dr Ros Kidd, unarguably the nation’s leading expert on stolen wages, is by far the most detailed.

Dr Kidd writes: “Recommendations for a minimum five shilling monthly wage (in Western Australian in the early 1900s) were successfully opposed by pastoralists, leading one parliamentarian to describe the current system as ‘another name for slavery’.”

A few years later, in South Australia, an Aboriginal protector was also in no doubt what to call it.

“Under the South Australian Aborigines Act (1911) the government empowered police to inspect workers and their conditions, but it did not introduce licenses as for the Northern Territory nor did it provide for minimum wages, leading the protector at Innamincka to comment, “I think it is about time that slavery is put a stop to among the natives of Australia”.”

And there’s this, from the Chief Protector in the Northern Territory: “In the absence of employment protection in South Australia the Northern Territory Chief Protector Herbert Basedow said in 1927 that pastoral workers “are kept in a servitude that is nothing short of slavery”.

Dr Kidd’s submission was by no means the only one to the inquiry to touch on the issue of slavery.

Dr Fiona Skyring from the Aboriginal Legal Service of Western Australia also provided a lengthy submission, including this excerpt: “The Chief Protector said in 1925 that many Aboriginal people in Western Australia lived in a state of semi-slavery. It was openly acknowledged that many Aboriginal workers, throughout much of the 20th century, were not paid any money at all… that system was not only known by the state government but also supported by the state government.”

Dr Thalia Anthony, a lecturer in law at the University of Sydney told the Senate inquiry that: “It could be argued that the Commonwealth government violated its obligations under international law. Relevant conventions of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, which Australia has ratified, include [the] Slavery Convention 1926, which Australia ratified at the time and then again in 1953 when the Convention was amended. Article 2(b) stipulates that contracting parties shall endeavour ‘to bring about, progressively and as soon as possible, the complete abolition of slavery in all its forms’.”

But it’s a 29-page submission from Monash University law lecturer Stephen Gray, on behalf of the respected Castan Centre for Human Rights Law, that really nails the issue of slavery.

In his submission, Gray uses the word 109 times. Whatever side of the political fence you sit, it makes for compelling reading.

“…’Slavery’ did not merely become a criminal offence when the Commonwealth enacted new laws on the issue in 1999,” Gray writes.

“Slavery was outlawed in the British Empire, including Australia, by 1833. From the 1860s, religious and humanitarian bodies began to invoke “charges of chattel bondage and slavery” to describe aspects of north Australian conditions for Aboriginal labour.

“While initially such charges were confined to Melanesian indenture or the ‘Kanaka traffic’, this changed in 1891 when a ‘Slave Map of Modern Australia’ was printed in the September-October edition of the British Anti-Slavery Reporter.

“This map, reprinted from the English journalist Arthur Vogan’s account of frontier relations in Queensland, showed most of central and north Queensland, the Northern Territory and coastal Western Australia as areas where “the traffic in Aboriginal labour, both children and adults, had descended into slavery conditions”.”

The map “represented colonial race relations as rampant cruelty, slavery and extermination”.

The accusations from within and outside Australia of slavery weren’t just limited to the late-1800s. They dragged well into the 20th century.

Dr Kidd notes in her submission that a 1929 Commonwealth report probing conditions in Northern Australia found the pastoral industry was “absolutely dependent on the blacks for the labour” and “most of the [farms]… would have to be abandoned” without them.

“Yet the 2,500 Aboriginal workers and 1,500 ‘camp dependants’ on the stations were forced to suffer in shelter cobbled together from waste materials, “mere kennels and most unsanitary”.

“The chief protector said contracted employment in central Australia was ‘analogous to slavery’…..”

The 1929 report Dr Kidd is referring to is called The Aboriginals and Half-Castes of Central Australia and Northern Territory.

It was commissioned by the Australian Prime Minister Stanley Melbourne Bruce in the face of ongoing criticism of Australia’s treatment of Aboriginal people.

Bruce asked then Queensland Chief Protector of Aborigines JW Bleakley, to report on Aboriginal policy in the Northern Territory.

The report upped the pressure on Australia, but Aboriginal people continued to be exploited.

By the early 1930s the British Anti-Slavery Society in London was alleging that Aboriginal people in northern Australia worked in conditions “no better than slavery”.

Dr Kidd’s submission reveals that over the next few decades, not much changed.

In 1942 the Queensland Government successfully applied to have its Aboriginal missions defined as ‘institutions’.

The reason? So it could receive bulk quarterly child endowment payments direct from the federal government, money which was supposed to go to Aboriginal mothers (like it did all over the nation to white mothers).

The Queensland government then “profited by immediately cutting grants to missions by the same amount as incoming endowment revenue”.

By the 1950s, it was still legal in Queensland to contract children under 12 years of age into work, provided you got the approval of the chief protector/director.

“The director admitted there was still ‘a fair amount’ of child labour in the pastoral industry with many suffering injuries and broken limbs. Rather than banning the practice he reminded the pastoral lobby: ‘We try to look on these people as human beings … Nobody is going to put his own child out too young and we have to think of that with these people.”

By the mid-1940s, the practice of non-payment of wages for Aboriginal workers became increasingly unsustainable (although it unarguably continued for many years in many locations, either sponsored by government or helpfully ignored).

But by and large, most employers were being forced to pay at least something to their workers.

But thanks to our famed ‘Aussie ingenuity’, our forebears found ways and means around the regulations.

Dr Rod Kidd’s submission to the inquiry reveals: “In 1947 Aboriginal workers in Darwin went on strike, demanding full wages and full access to their wages and savings. Despite further strikes in 1948, 1950 and 1951 the minister for the Interior refused to intercede in the operations of the Aboriginals Ordinance.”

It was not until 1953 that minimum wages and conditions were specified for Northern Territory pastoral workers, but the wage was one-fifth the white rate, annual leave was half, and the range of rations less than 35 percent the minimum requirements for white workers, Dr Kidd notes.

In the Northern Territory, Dr Kidd reports, there were “6000 Aboriginal people reliant on pastoral work for their survival, yet between 1959-64 not one cattle station was prosecuted for failing to comply with mandatory wages, shelter, rations and work conditions”.

“Skilled Aboriginal stockmen of many years experience were still getting only £1 plus keep in 1961, compared with £14 for their white counterparts.”

Not that the blackfellas either (a) necessarily received the money in the first place (fraud by employers and officials was widespread), or (b) got to keep it when they did actually receive money.

A standard practice throughout the nation was to charge Aboriginal people inflated prices (in some cases up to 300 percent) at local stores, including those run by station owners.

Thus Aboriginal workers and their families lost whatever they earned, and remained dependent on their employers.

“In 1965, when 51 percent of general station hands (in the Northern Territory) were paid around one-quarter the white rate and 34 percent around one-third, the director admitted only 20 stations had even attempted to meet their legal employment requirements.”

In the Territory, it all came to a head in 1966, when Vincent Lingiari lead the now famous Wave Hill walk off. At Newcastle Waters, Aboriginal workers also went out on strike.

A year later, 90 percent of Australians voted ‘Yes’ in a national referendum to include Aboriginal people as citizens. And then got back to the business of ripping off the blackfellas.

When equal wages were finally implemented in the Northern Territory, an ‘out clause’ was kept which enabled pastoralists to pay a much reduced rate to ‘slow workers’, who were young or infirm. It was routinely used to legitimize the continued under-payment of wages.

Minimum wages in the Territory in the early 1970s, including clothing, were less than half the unemployment benefit.

In Queensland, it wasn’t until a 1968 federal ruling that Aboriginal pastoral workers gained equal wages (although the slow worker clause, which was also embraced by Queensland, was also maintained).

Black government workers, however didn’t fare so well.

By the mid 1980s, the Queensland government under Joh Bjelke-Petersen was still refusing to pay black workers on government-run missions award rates.

That was despite legal advice sought by the government seven years earlier (in 1979) which explicitly stated the practice was illegal.

In 1984, Bjelke-Petersen was given a Knighthood for “services to parliamentary democracy”.

Two years later, he begrudgingly agreed to pay Aboriginal workers award rates, but not before he had sacked more than 1,500 Aboriginal workers in the previous decade, thus ensuring the inevitable wage increase would not actually cost Queenslanders any extra money.

But even into the 1990s, Australia wasn’t quite ready to end the horrendous treatment of Aboriginal workers.

In 1996, the Queensland Borbidge government refused to abide by a Human Rights Commission ruling that workers on Queensland’s Palm Island who had been underpaid during Bjelke-Petersen’s reign should be compensated.

The government only capitulated in 1997, when it faced the prospect of a complete and utter humiliation in the courts.

And speaking of humiliation…

William John Grayson is one of America’s most infamous ‘anti-abolitionists’. A South Carolina lawyer, politician, and author, Grayson argued passionately against the abolition of slave labour.

His arguments by today’s standards would probably result in him being committed for psychological evaluation.

“Slavery is the negro system of labour. He is lazy and improvident. Slavery makes all work, and it ensures homes, food and clothing for all. It permits no idleness, and it provides for sickness, infancy and old age. It allows no tramping or skulking, and it knows no pauperism,” wrote Grayson.

“If Slavery is subject to abuses, it has its advantages also. It establishes more permanent, and, therefore, kinder relations between capital and labour….

“It draws the relation closer between master and servant. It is not an engagement for days or weeks, but for life….

“I do not say that Slavery is the best system of labour, but only that it is the best, for the negro, in this country.

“Among slaves there are no trampers, idlers, smugglers, poachers, and none suffer from want.

“Every one is made to work, and no one is permitted to starve….

“The master is a Commissioner of the Poor, on every plantation, to provide food, clothing, medicine, houses, for his people.

“He is a police officer to prevent idleness, drunkenness, theft, or disorder. I do not mean by formal appointment of law, but by virtue of his relation to his slaves. There is, therefore, no starvation among slaves.”

Grayson is clearly an idiot. But what’s most striking about his comments is that after reading the Senate inquiry’s Unfinished Business, you can’t help but suspect one of America’s most renowned rednecks might be more than a little appalled at the treatment of slaves in Australia.

The level of cruelty to Aboriginal workers documented in countless submissions to the Senate inquiry – and accepted by the Senate – almost beggars belief.

Dr Kidd notes that legislation enacted in WA in 1901 “… excluded Aboriginal workers from Masters and Servants laws, extending its maximum penalty of three-months’ gaol for breach of contract to a five-year term and the option of a whipping for absconding boys and men.

“… A 1904 Royal Commission into Aboriginal administration in Western Australia found Aboriginal groups were entirely at the mercy of station management: cruelty in the “unsettled districts” was intolerable and police treatment of Aboriginal people “brutal and outrageous”.

“Although most workers were not employed on contracts it was common practice to set the police to recapture absconders, including young child servants.”

In South Australia in the 1930s, “… Dr Charles Duguid reported that cruelty against Aboriginal workers was common practice, with many “breaking in” their workers as though they were “taming wild animals”,” Dr Kidd writes.

“From Ernabella the missionary warned some pastoralists were so abusive they should be banned from employing Aboriginal labour.”

Back in the Northern Territory, “… Records show the Commonwealth government failed to intervene despite knowledge of starvation and deaths among workers and their families.

“In 1934 the government was notified that on one station ex-workers were starving to death, but it refused to supply rations arguing this was the responsibility of station management.

“In 1938 anthropologist W E H Stanner again reported workers and dependants on several stations were at high risk of diseases caused by deficient diets; he said on one station only ten children survived from 51 births between 1925-1929.”

“In 1942 a patrol officer reported at one station workers ‘finished in a state of exhaustion due to the hard labour on the diet of flour only’, there was ‘not a vestige of food’ in the camp of twelve women in ‘wretched’ emaciated condition who fell upon a piece of unleavened damper ‘like starving dogs’. He cancelled the employer’s licence, but was overruled by his Canberra superiors who laid no charges against the owner.

“In the mid-1940s a survey reported all ration recipients were forced to labour, including the aged, women and children; and many stations in the central-west ruled their workers through violence and fear. The survey confirmed endemic malnutrition was endemic and excessive maternal and infant deaths were ‘destroying the race’; of four births at Wave Hill during a two-month period three of the babies and two of the mothers died.”

A submission by Craig Muller, a West Australian historian, to the Senate inquiry reveals documents in the West Australian government archives which record a police investigation in the 1930s into sexual abuse at a pastoral station.

It includes a statement from a woman named ‘Genevieve’ who was forced to have sex with the station manager.

“I always sleep in the tin shed near [the station manager’s] room. When he wants me he calls me into his room. After he have connection with me he send me back to my place. He never sleep with me all night. He tell me to go away after he have connection with me.”

At this juncture, it’s hard to determine which is more offensive – the fact that the station manager was charged with “co-habiting with an Indigenous woman”, or the fact that the charge was dismissed.

Either way, the woman was removed to Moore River, the mission made infamous in the movie Rabbit-Proof Fence and the stomping ground of the infamous ‘protector’ A.O. Neville.

It was standard practice in Western Australia to remove to Moore River not only women who were raped, but also the children born as a result.

Stephen Gray argued unsuccessfully for the Senate to broaden the scope of its inquiry to include a probe into slavery.

“[My] submission addresses the issue of unpaid Indigenous labour by considering whether such unpaid labour should be regarded as ‘slavery’,” Mr Gray writes.

“This is not an attempt to be provocative. Rather it is an argument that the term should play a legitimate part in any national debate on the issue.

“Indeed, it has played a prominent role in such debate in the past.

“Government officials amongst others regularly applied the term to discussions of Aboriginal labour in the Northern Territory and elsewhere until the 1970s, when it unaccountably dropped from sight.”

Gray also argues that “… an attempt to trace misappropriated money is only likely to identify a limited proportion of money paid into trust funds or accounts over the previous hundred years”.

“In any case an exclusive focus upon this issue does not fully address the broader Indigenous sense of grievance at having been underpaid or unpaid.

“While under-payment was usually legislatively authorised, at least prior to 1975, the complete non-payment of wages was less clearly legal, particularly in the light of anti-slavery laws.

“Whether redress ultimately occurs through political or legal means, the notion of slavery must be recognised, its presence acknowledged as part of the debate.

“Otherwise the ‘great Australian silence’ surrounding the truth of Aboriginal dispossession – a silence pilloried by anthropologists and historians since the 1960s and once thought to have disappeared from debate – will once again be allowed to prevail.

“This will be to the detriment of any prospect of lasting resolution of this least-recognised of the great running sores of Aboriginal-European relations in Australia.”

Even so, Gray acknowledges that the term will not sit well with most Australians.

“The term ‘slavery’ carries a social stigma equalled by few other terms in debate about Aboriginal issues,” Gray says.

“While popular understanding of its meaning has varied over time, its association with the African slave trade has contributed greatly to its “long held strongly emotive and moral associations.”

“Arguably, like the term ‘genocide’ – a term whose use and misuse has helped fuel a backlash against Aboriginal people during the so-called ‘culture wars’ – the term ‘slavery’ has come to be, “above all else, a marker or register of excess”.

“Like ‘genocide’, the term ‘slavery’ is dangerous, and to be handled with care.

“Nevertheless, according to Raymond Evans [a retired Associate Professor with the Department of History at the University of Queensland], the term ‘Aboriginal slavery’ “may be applied not simply as a loosely analogous term of opprobrium, but as one which may be defended with academic precision and rigour”.

Unfortunately, “academic precision and rigour” have nothing to do with the political process, which is where the best chance for a solution to the stolen wages issue – and a confrontation of our slave past – currently lies.

“Australians of this generation should not be required to accept guilt and blame for past actions and policies over which they had no control.”

That was the excuse Prime Minister, John Howard now infamously used in 1997 to escape a national apology to members of the Stolen Generations.

Even the briefest glance back in history puts the lie to Howard’s claims.

The comments by the Queensland Chief Protector about children under 12 being contracted into labour were made in 1957.

That was the same year John Howard joined the Liberal Party of Australia.

While minimum wages for Aboriginal workers in the Northern Territory in the early 1970s, including clothing, were less than half the unemployment benefit, Howard had entered federal parliament.

So had Philip Ruddock.

And by the time Joh Bjelke-Petersen finally capitulated in 1986 and agreed to pay black government workers the same as whites, Howard and Ruddock had both been in office for more than a decade and Howard had served a six-year stint as federal treasurer.

In Howard’s defence, his refusal to face not just the distant past, but the very recent past, is by no means unprecedented.

When international pressure about Australia’s treatment of Aboriginal people began building again in the 1930s, then Australian Prime Minister Joseph Lyons went on the offensive.

He told the Sydney Morning Herald: “The raking up of atrocities that may have occurred in the early days of settlement in Australia and the featuring of them as an indication of the state of affairs existing today is not only unfair to the Governments of today, but is extremely detrimental to the good name of Australia.”

Lyons made those comments in 1933, five years after at least 17 Aboriginal people (but more likely triple that number) were slaughtered by Northern Territory police in the Coniston Massacre.

It’s not like Lyons didn’t know about the massacre – it was reported around the world.

Seventy years on, we remain a nation in denial.

Copyright Dr. Rosalind Kidd. Website development by: Ryan-Thomas Robinson