The Struggle for Justice
Today I’ll briefly outline government controls of Aboriginal families here in Queensland. And then I’ll focus on the struggle for unpaid wages, missing savings, and misused Trust funds.
There was bitter conflict when white settlers moved into Queensland in the mid-1800s. The death toll among Aborigines has been numbered as high as 20,000 people, and countless more fell to starvation and disease. Families were destroyed as women and children were kidnapped as sex objects, and it was common practice to capture adults and children and ‘break them in’ as servants. The Aboriginal labour force was crucial to the development of outback Queensland: by 1886 more than 1000 Aborigines were in permanent work, and 2000 by the turn of the century. The records show few white men had the skills or were prepared to endure the risks of pastoral work in remote areas, and the promise of Aboriginal servants did much to persuade white women to join their men on remote stations and emerging outback towns.
But Aboriginal workers were not paid for this essential work: most survived on a few food scraps and cast-off clothes, or relied on food-gathering skills in their extended families. It was common to induce compliance and dependency through alcohol and opium, the latter being a legal drug in Queensland until 1905. Police were commonly implicated in the culture of abuse and exploitation; some officers did a brisk trade in captured Aboriginal children, and others kept women for their own use. Authorities commonly ignored many vendettas and killings as whites cleared Aboriginal families from land allocated for farms and towns.
In 1897 the Queensland government introduced a law to protect the Aboriginal population. But this law targeted only the Aboriginal half of the equation, allowing the basic freedoms of any Aboriginal man, woman or child, to be cancelled at the stroke of a pen. There was no court hearing, and no right of appeal; an appalling abuse of rights which continued for most of the twentieth century. The 1897 Act prohibited the supply of opium or alcohol to Aborigines, it allowed for areas to be set aside as reserves restricted for the use of Aborigines, and it initiated a network of police ‘protectors’ to inspect, monitor and record every facet of the lives of local Aboriginal families. Now almost any person of Aboriginal parentage could be declared a ward of state and removed from their family and home country for confinement on a government settlement or church mission.
For nearly 100 years into the 1970s, merely to be an Aboriginal person in Queensland was to live in fear of being seized ‘under the Act’. As wards of state you were deprived of the most basic human rights – the freedom to live and work where you pleased, the right to marry according to your choice, whether your children were taken from you and confined in a dormitory, the right to choose your place and type of employment, to be properly paid for your labour and to have full access to your own savings.
A major focus of the new policy was control of the crucial Aboriginal labour force. Over the next 60 years thousands of men, women and children were sent as cheap workers to remote pastoral properties. These wards of state were contracted out on 12 month ‘work agreements’ on pitiful wages. To call these compulsory work contracts ‘agreements’ is ludicrous; the only choice was to sign or risk jailing or banishment to a remote government settlement. Many people never saw families and friends again.
Police protectors were supposed to prevent abuses and exploitation but there were few inspections of work and conditions, and when complaints were made about sexual or physical abuse police routinely sided with employers. In 1927 for instance, when workers at Wrotham Park station refused to extend the contract period until they were paid, the local ‘protector’ plied them with alcohol, threatened them, and locked them overnight in the poisons shed until they gave in.
Manipulating a captive workforce cut costs by reducing dependents on government reserves. It also put workers’ income into state hands because all wages were paid directly to the local protector and people only got a small sum of pocket money, although internal records show no system was ever implemented to check even this was paid. The government knew that police were cheating Aborigines of their savings; even after thumbprinted and witnessed accounts were introduced for all transactions, specifically to reduce police fraud. So in 1933 the bulk of Aboriginal savings, equivalent to a massive $14 million today, was centralised in Brisbane, again to lower the incidence of fraud and embezzlement, and I’ll return later to those bulk savings.
So the government has always known Aboriginal monies were never safe from illegal pilfering. But nor were they safe from ‘legal’ pilfering: because the department took multiple levies from Aboriginal wages and savings without the consent, without even the knowledge, of these most underprivileged of workers. The department simply refused to allow people to see any record of their savings; it also refused people access to their own money – except by request through police protectors who frequently refused permission to spend even the smallest amount. Commonly, all you got was a voucher on the local store for the goods the protector deemed you were allowed to buy.
Lets talk about the wages. Since 1919, in what was confidentially described as ‘a gentlemen’s agreement’, the department did a deal to supply the pastoral industry with its essential labour force at discounted rates – down by one-third compared to their white counterparts – yet the department often failed to keep abreast of wage increases. In 1950, for example, the department was hiring out this captive workforce at two-thirds the 1938 rate, condemning Aboriginal drovers, musterers, fencers, cooks, cleaners and child minders to struggle on only 25% of the current white wage. Yet periodic surveys revealed that Aborigines were acknowledged, although never in public, as the mainstay of the pastoral industry, often more highly prized than white labour which was frequently less skilled and rarely as willing to remain in remote areas.
Many children from government settlements were sent from the age of fourteen, alone, frightened and extremely vulnerable, to cane farms on the mainland or to remote pastoral properties; without a youngster to talk to or a black face to comfort them; labouring up to 20 hours a day either out in the paddocks or around the homestead. Many girls were worked illegally at horse work and fencing; many children were subjected to sexual and physical abuse. Yet until the late 1960s it remained departmental policy to send this forced labour contingent out year after year with only a week’s leave between contracts. There are hundreds of stories which could be told today by Aboriginal men and women who have worked 30, 40 and 50 years, but found to their horror in the late 1960s there was little or no money in their accounts.
Aboriginal people under state control lived in abject destitution, whether on missions or settlements or on country reserves, while the state which committed them to decades of compulsory employment and deprived them of access to their own savings grew fat from their labour. In 1933, of the $14 million of Aboriginal savings held by the state, over $12 million was withheld for revenue-raising investments to benefit state treasury. During the depression years the equivalent of more than $5 million was simply taken from Aboriginal trust accounts and never returned. This deliberate financial confiscation continued into the late 1960s, at which time the government was playing investment broker with the equivalent of $20 million of Aboriginal savings, while those whose money it was were living, and dying, in poverty.
The side-lining of huge sums of Aboriginal earnings and savings was the basis upon which the state ran its Aboriginal administration. 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 when the rest of the population enjoyed free hospitalisation. In the 1950s, while infant mortality at Palm Island was 15 times the state’s average, the government used over $140,000 today of child endowment monies for capital works on the mainland. From the 1940s through to the 1970s the state routinely intercepted child endowment monies and then pensions, allowing people only a fraction for themselves.
Indeed life for the hundreds of families interned on missions and settlements has always been a horrifying struggle. Because of below-subsistence funding, inmates have died, year after year, from diseases caused by malnutrition, overcrowding, unsafe water and faulty sanitation on these government institutions. Internal reports reveal these deadly conditions, yet the public was told sickness occurred because people neglected their children, were incompetent housekeepers or uncaring parents.
Aboriginal people did not sit about under the trees with their hands out while white gangs built and ran the communities for them. Missions and settlements, the Aboriginal communities of today, were built and run on compulsory, unpaid, Aboriginal labour. Apart from a few key tradesmen, workers received scant rations for their 32 hours’ work. In the late 1940s a Palm Island ganger got the equivalent of $12.60, only 3% of the basic wage at that time. Very few workers saw even this pitiful amount – because the ‘wage’ was commonly remitted in vouchers on the settlement stores, with their profit margin of 40%, yet another plundering of these most destitute people.
In 1957, when seven Palm Island men went on strike over this starvation pay, the weekly wage was around $37 today. These men were arrested at gunpoint and deported. In the mid-1970s families struggled on 60% the basic wage, fresh bread, milk and vegetables arrived only twice weekly and sold out within hours. And the effect? 75% of child outpatients at the island clinic registered as severely underweight and children evacuated to Townsville hospital during a deadly gastroenteritis epidemic were described as looking like ‘starving Biafrans’. And don’t forget, this is a government-run institution for compulsory wards of state.
By 1978, in a confidential letter from Joh Bjelke-Petersen to prime minister Malcolm Fraser, he admitted underpaying Aboriginal employees on state reserves by an equivalent of over $10 million each year compared to the basic wage, and nearly twice that if award wages were paid where due. Just think about that massive annual bonanza to the state, paid out in Aboriginal sickness and death. In the 1980s, knowing it was in breach of state and federal law, the Queensland government still paid these employees only 72% of the basic wage. In fact, in all its years of control through to the late 1980s, the Queensland government never paid what it knew was the legal requirement to these state employees.
In 1985 seven Palm Island workers started an action against the Queensland government in the Human Rights Commission, charging that the refusal to pay award wages was racial discrimination. It took 10 years to force the government to account publicly for its actions and evidence to the 1996 Human Rights inquiry showed Cabinet had discussed several times the illegality of its practice. When the Commission found in favour of the Aboriginal workers and proposed a settlement of $7000 for each complainant the Borbidge coalition government scorned the finding. After the threat of renewed action in the federal court it finally made a public apology and paid the compensation, totalling $42,000, having spent in the vicinity of $1 million of public moneys on a deceitful defence.
And the fight for justice continues. Last year, after settling several more such cases out of court, the Beattie government provided almost $25 million to cover the token $7000 payment to all Aborigines employed by government between 1975 and 1986. Not so generous when you remember that the government had saved itself almost that amount each year during the 1980s alone. Recently, however, we learn that the Beattie government is excluding workers on ex-mission reserves from this payment, despite the fact that all reserves were under government control and subject to the laws of this state, as several court actions have proved. It appears there will be another costly – and unnecessary – court case before these workers can get what should have been theirs over two decades ago. How many more will die without justice?
Other actions are also underway: men and women, whether individually or in class action groups, are demanding the government explain what happened to savings and inheritances which were never made available to them despite decades of work. Others seek to extend the fight for unpaid wages to cover the decades prior to 1975, declaring that it is an abuse of human rights tantamount to slavery to subject people to enforced labour without pay. A massive class action is being mounted to make the government accountable for the Welfare Fund and all the Aboriginal trust monies which have been lost, embezzled, and illegally used, with or without the state’s authority, while those monies were held in trust by the state. The figure in question, the amount it is calculated that Aboriginal Queenslanders have been deprived while under state care during the twentieth century, has been assessed at between $300 million and $400 million dollars. This is the immensity of the state’s enrichment; this is the depth of deliberately induced poverty, the effects of which continue to blight hundred of Aboriginal lives.
The whole scandalous story of official negligence and deprivation must be revealed to the public which has been denied knowledge of the true actions of government. We must ask why children who were taken from their families ‘for their own protection’ were then confined in dormitories which were well known as dangerous to health? Why were families on reserves fed rations which were well known as medically inadequate? Why were youngsters sent out to employment where it was well known they were prey to sexual and physical abuse? Why should governments profit from a huge nest-egg of Aboriginal monies while account holders have struggled in poverty? What other agency of care would be allowed to walk away from a century of deprivation and neglect? And then somehow blame Aboriginal families for living in overcrowded destitution?
As whites who escaped this purgatory, we have a duty to understand all of our history, to acknowledge the pain of those whose lives have been so terribly mismanaged, to stand beside them in their fight for justice. It is only an accident of birth which condemned thousands of men and women to a life of unrewarded struggle. How many of us would have survived with such gentleness, such generosity of spirit, such a will to continue?
It is up to all of us to help in this struggle for justice. If we all pull together, if we lobby and agitate, hold meetings, write protest letters, acquaint as many as possible of these facts, we can make a difference. Ten years ago the notion of Reconciliation was widely ridiculed; one year ago hundreds of thousands of Australians voted with their feet to declare their support.
ANTaR is one organisation which has spent years working for public education and political change. They work closely with a wide range of indigenous people to achieve these aims. It takes energy and commitment to win these battles; it took 10 years to win on under award wages. History – the evidence – is on our side. I’d like to leave you with a saying: It only takes for good people to remain silent for evil to prosper. Don’t remain silent; join ANTaR, come to next week’s workshops here at Uni and make your stand now.
Talk to Forum on Stolen Wages and Financial Discrimination against Indigenous Australians, University of Queensland, 1.3.01.