Who Paid for the Lucky Country?


One of our enduring myths is that the Australian economy was built on the sheep’s back, that our wonderful rural wealth during the late nineteenth and much of the twentieth century made us the lucky country we are today. We hear little about the huge nameless army of unpaid and underpaid Aboriginal labour upon which this wealth depended; generations of workers who even now are rarely acknowledged. I believe this is because official files that chart the critical value of the Aboriginal labour force, reveal also the entrenched and shameful exploitation of work and wages by the governments that controlled Aboriginal employment into the early 1970s.

Around the turn of the 20th century, each state government, and the commonwealth government in the Northern Territory from 1911 to 1978, carefully crafted laws controlling Aboriginal lives and labour. It is clear from official files that Aboriginal workers have been a massive and vital component of Queensland’s economic development. Legislation from 1897 to impose a complex network of surveillance and control effectively designated almost half the state’s Aboriginal population as wards of the state. Until 1968 in rural areas and until 1979 on government settlements, Aboriginal legislation over-rode the whole raft of industrial protections enjoyed by every other Australian worker. In operating this “protection” regime into the early 1970s, the government incurred a range of legal obligations. Those relating to controlled employment included a duty to secure safe workplaces and a duty to negotiate a rate of pay reflecting the worker’s best interests. In its role as banker for Aboriginal wards, the government held a duty to safeguard all wages and savings, and a duty to fully protect the integrity of all Trust accounts. Attention to official records reveals how successive Queensland governments executed these legal obligations.


The Conscripted Workforce

By the mid 1880s over 1000 Aborigines were already in permanent work in Queensland, predominately in rural areas where white labour was scarce. Payment was generally scant food and shelter, but many were given adulterated liquor or opium dregs (a legal drug until 1905), addiction to which secured compliant workers and access to their wives and children. Until the late 1890s there were no employment protections for any Queensland workers, excepting the dubious security offered by Masters and Servants laws, under which breaches by workers were criminal offences, while breaches by employers were a civil matter usually adjudicated by local police magistrates or justices of the peace, members of the employer’s social cohort. Absconding workers could be arrested and returned to work out their contracted time, although this provision was regarded as ineffective against Aboriginal workers.

The 1897 Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act was brought down to impose a framework of controls over all aspects of inter-racial relations. Rather than strengthening or replacing existing laws to eradicate abuses, the 1897 Act and 1901 Amendment Act enclosed only the Aboriginal half of the equation. These laws prohibited Aboriginal access to liquor and opium, set aside reserved areas for Aboriginal use and confinement, and initiated a network of police “protectors” to oversee Aboriginal interests. Any person of Aboriginal parentage, excepting “half-caste” males over 16 years of age living separately from Aborigines, could be declared a ward of state and exiled to a reserve, losing rights and responsibilities regarding movement, marriage, children, education, employment and finances. Under this legal framework, which persisted into the early 1970s, Aboriginal lives were hostage to official decree.

Control of Aboriginal employment was a major component of the government’s protection regime. Operating as employment broker for all Aboriginal labour through its agents the police protectors, the government controlled where workers were sent, what work they were hired to do, provision of food and shelter, their wage rate and their access to any of this wage in cash. In theory work contracts were twelve-month “agreements” but in practice people who refused such relocations were routinely removed to government settlements. If employers refused to accommodate wives and families, these dependents were sent to the reserves, further fracturing families and communities.

The government deployed its captive labour pool to meet the needs of its rapidly expanding rural economy, especially in areas where white labour was scarce due to harsh conditions and poor pay. An 1899 government survey listed over 2000 permanent workers south of Rockhampton. By 1907 there were more than 3000 contracted Aboriginal workers across the state. By 1920 the figure was nudging 4000 government-controlled workers in the pastoral industry alone, rising to 4500 in the early 1930s and 5000 in the mid 1960s. Only after 1972 were Aboriginal workers free to choose their employment.


Workplace Conditions and Wage Rates

How well did the government’s “protection” regime safeguard the interests of these thousands of conscripted workers? 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. Official files show that from the earliest days the government knew abuses continued. Yet minimum conditions were not introduced until 1919 and even then there were no inspections to enforce them, 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.”[1] 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”.[2] Only in 1956, after the system had run for nearly 60 years, did the government instruct industrial inspectors to include Aboriginal employees in their tours of rural areas. Even then, as the records show, abuses continued; 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.[3] Other files record 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. Meanwhile, under this employment regime, Aboriginal  workers who absconded because of physical or sexual abuses, scandalous conditions, overwork, lack of food, or perhaps to seek better pay or visit their families, were pursued by police and forcibly returned. White workers, in contrast, could choose to work for their own benefit.

While young men were more likely to be retained on the settlements as unpaid labour, young girls “between school and marriageable age” were routinely dispatched to remote locations as domestics, some being rostered out year after year with only a week’s break between. Many were subject to physical and sexual abuse. Children under 12 were also contracted to external employment, although after 1919 this needed endorsement by the chief protector. As late as 1957 the director of Native Affairs admitted child labour was still prevalent in rural Queensland.[4] Observing that many children suffered broken limbs through their work, he suggested “undersized and weedy” children should not be put to hard labour, adding: “We try to look on these people as human beings.”

Not only did the government fail to safeguard the work environments of its conscripted workforce, it also breached its duty of care for workers by selling them cheaply to its key constituency, the pastoral industry. From 1901 the government set a minimum monthly wage of about $46 (today) for workers in the sea trades and half that for those on the mainland, around one-eighth the white rate. Regulations in 1904 listed wage rates for children under 12 years, amounting to $5.80 a week.  By 1907 over 3000 pastoral workers averaged about around three per cent the white rate. In 1919 the government lobbied to exclude Aboriginal workers from the Station Hands Award, striking a deal with the pastoral industry to freeze Aboriginal wages at 66 per cent the white rate.[5] This discount belied a raft of testimonials over many years confirming many employers considered Aboriginal workers to be equally or better skilled than their white colleagues. Workers were responsible for maintaining their families on this fractional wage; failure to do so trigged removal to a reserve.

Records show the government frequently failed to demand even the 66 per cent continuing confirmation from surveys that Aboriginal workers were often more highly regarded than their white counterparts, being better horsemen and knowing the country better. It was frequently said that many stations would not survive without the Aboriginal workforce, effectively gifted to them at bargain-basement wages. Unstated, although obvious from different records, was the additional benefit of a vast pool of captive man- (and woman) power for whom leaving abusive employment triggered police pursuit and capture.

In the 1920s and 1930s, when white rural labour was described as “often useless” and Aboriginal labour “indispensable”, Aboriginal workers were sold at around 40 per cent the award rate.  Rates for the 4500 workers fell to only 31 per cent in 1949 and 59 per cent in 1956, when a departmental 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”.[6] By the mid 1960s the 5000 Aboriginal workers were paid only 70 per cent the award rate. In defiance of the “equal pay” judgement of 1966, workers under state control were termed “trainees” and still sold at a discount, although most had decades of skill and experience.[7] Only after 1972 were Aboriginal pastoral workers free from conscripted employment. For the first time elderly family members and wives who had been compelled to work for free on the stations could refuse such exploitation.


Wages, Savings and Trust Accounts

The government ran its contract-labour system for 70 years. It gave employers the right to pay into workers’ hands between 30-80 per cent of wages. Decade after decade protectors and auditors warned the government that workers were not getting this “pocket money”, yet the system continued. An internal inquiry in 1932 found it could be “reasonably assumed” that workers were cheated of this payment.[8] In 1943 protectors described the pocket money system as a farce and a direct profit to employers, in 1956 they said it was useless, futile and out of control, with workers “entirely at the mercy” of employers who simply doctored the books. Yet the government rejected auditors’ calls for external inspectors as “too costly”. In the mid 1960s there was still no departmental control over the payment of pocket money.[9]

From 1901 the government assumed the right, through its network of police protectors, to retain or sell Aboriginal property, to take direct control of wages and to restrict withdrawals by account holders. A trust account, the Aboriginals Protection of Property Account, was opened in Cooktown the following year, absorbing wages of any employees who were said to have deserted or died, and disbursed to remaining relatives, or “for the use of Aborigines generally”. Over several decades the distribution to families in any one year was around one third the levies into this Account. In contrast, the equivalent of almost $460,000 in 1921 and $450,000 in 1931 was used for settlement development and to subsidise consolidated revenue.[10]

Workers could only access their money on request to the protector, who frequently refused. Fraud on controlled savings was so common by both employers and protectors that a system of thumbprints was introduced in 1904 to endorse withdrawals. Official control over women’s wages began around 1905 following the practice of several protectors, including the superintendent at Yarrabah, who already took direct receipt of all wages, leaving only a fraction as pocket money during the contract period. When John Bleakley took over as chief protector in 1914 he expanded the compulsorily contracted workforce, increased minimum wages, and demanded every worker’s wage be paid direct to local protectors. The 30 per cent increase brought to 5000 the savings accounts under government control, holding almost $3.5 million. By 1919 the government controlled over 6000 accounts holding over $6 million, to which workers were frequently denied access.[11]

In 1921 thumbprints were re-introduced to counteract continuing police fraud on Aboriginal accounts. An internal inquiry in 1922 revealed there was no official supervision of the 8000 rural savings accounts where police practices were so unreliable it urged workers be allowed to appeal dealings on their savings, a recommendation the government dismissed out of hand.[12] This inquiry also exposed misappropriation by the government from the Aboriginals Protection of Property Account and from a second Trust fund, the Aboriginal Provident Fund, which was started in 1919 through further levies on Aboriginal wages of 5 per cent from single wages and 2.5 per cent from married wages. In theory this was an insurance fund in times of sickness or unemployment, but in practice the bulk of these Trust monies was diverted for capital expansion and maintenance expenses on missions and settlements, as well as for departmental costs. Of £2517 (almost $124,000) taken from workers’ wages in the 1922 year, a year of extreme drought and hardship, less than 8.5 per cent was released to relieve family suffering.

The 1932 public service inquiry uncovered continuing negligence and misappropriation, and concluded that government refusal to allow account holders to vet dealings on their savings meant “the opportunity for fraud existed to a greater extent than with any other Governmental accounts.”[13] Pilfering on the Aboriginal savings accounts under government control was found to be “frequent”, and the department admitted – after 35 years of management – there were no real controls over the 95 country police charged with protecting the interests of these wards of state. In order to “minimise fraud by members of the Police Force who are Protectors”, it was decided to manage all accounts from Brisbane, except for a small residue.[14] But this did not benefit Aboriginal workers. Because of the £258,596 (almost $15 million) of private Aboriginal savings in its control, the government promptly diverted £200,000 ($11.572 million) – over 75 per cent – to generate an investment bonus for consolidated revenue. This replicated a profitable, but unauthorised, policy initiated in the early 1920s of investing the “idle portion” of the Property Account and the Provident Fund. Savings bank interest of 2.5 per cent was now also appropriated by the department, a step that was subsequently noted as “not in accordance with Regulations.”[15] Account holders, meanwhile, continued to live – and die – in poverty, without ready access to this financial return for their labour.

During the depression years of 1929-1932 the government introduced a further tax of 5 per cent on Aboriginal savings, and withdrew £91,000 (over $5 million) from the Trust funds, money that was never repaid. In 1941, when another Inquiry again detailed the ongoing negligence and unauthorised financial dealings, the government forced the chief protector to resign to avoid charges of incompetence.[16] The Aboriginal Welfare Fund was set up the following year, legitimating the retention of bank interest and investment revenue, and the taxes on savings. It blunted criticism of misappropriation by blurring the expenditure fields of Aboriginal requirements and departmental expenses, declaring that outlays could be made  “providing for the benefits to Aboriginals generally”.  (This Fund was frozen in 1993 after decades of disputed dealings.)

From the mid 1950s the government offered massive amounts of private savings to regional hospitals for development projects, declaring they were “surplus to requirements” of account holders, an obscene suggestion given the entrenched appalling poverty. Poverty which, it should be remembered, was used to define Aboriginal failure of enterprise and management, triggering removal and confinement on reserves. It was not until 1968 that workers were given bank books showing a balance for their savings. Many found to their horror they held pitiful credit despite decades of conscripted work and financial privation. Those who queried head office were told that the records are too inconclusive to calculate the accuracy of their accounts. Only from the early 1970s could people control their own accounts.



It is clear that the prime motivator for the government-run Aboriginal labour market was the needs of rural industries – the supply of as many men and women as required for a price that the market claimed it could bear. Records confirm that the pastoral industry in Queensland would not have survived without the thousands of men, women and children forcibly contracted at cheap rates from the turn of last century. This conscripted labour was, as the head of the Queensland department boasted in 1948 “a valuable asset” to both the industry and the State.[17] Although there was no legal duty to pay full wages prior to 1968 when equal pay was introduced nationally Queensland had a stated policy from 1919 to pay pastoral workers 66 per cent the white rate. Examination of the records for every year between 1931-1961 confirms that the government did not demand even this discounted amount for this critically valued workforce. The wage portion supposedly paid direct to workers as pocket money was so poorly supervised that it was condemned regularly in every decade and into the mid 1960s. The pastoral workforce numbered between 3000 and 5000 people in the 50 years to 1968. The government knew that potentially an average of 50 per cent of their wages may never have been paid. The remainder of wages went directly to police protectors where audits and inquiries frequently revealed it was prey to fraud and negligent defaults.

Surviving records show unarguably that the government presided over a system it knew was blighted by frauds and failures to protect Aboriginal wages, savings and Trust funds. Official negligence as resulted in massive financial losses to pastoral workers whose labour, wages and savings were controlled by the State for a 70-year period. Legislative and administrative control of Aboriginal lives, employment and finances from the turn of last century carried with it a legal duty to protect and enhance the best interests of the designated dependents. Queensland’s recent Labor administrations since 2002 have sought to avoid accountability by offering affected workers a maximum $7000 payment conditional on a signed indemnity, an indemnity the government well knows will not represent informed consent in the absence of records of all financial dealings on a claimant’s account.

Even in the twenty first century, it seems, the Queensland government continues to profit from the vast army of Aboriginal workers whose labour has been critical to its rural prosperity.


[1]           Annual Report of the Aboriginals Department for 1921.

[2]           2 June 1941, Queensland State Archives (QSA) SRS 505-1 1D/2.

[3]           26 November 1959, QSA 505-1 1E/25.

[4]           23 January 1957, QSA TR1227:258.

[5]           22 November 1943, QSA SRS 505-1 Box 196.

[6]           22 October 1956, QSA SRS 505-1 Box 16.

[7]           28 May 1965, QSA SRS 505-1 1A/29.

[8]           9 November 1932, QSA A/58856.

[9]           11 October 1965, QSA SRS 505-1 1B/69.

[10]          23 October 1924 QSA A/69449, 6 November 1935, QSA A/70627.

[11]          Annual Reports, 1914 and 1919.

[12]          15 February 1923, QSA A/69452.

[13]          9 November 1932, QSA A/58856.

[14]          15 March 1933, QSA A/58856.

[15]          19 March 1931, QSA A/58856.

[16]          29 July 1941, 12 August 1941, QSA A/4291.

[17]          Annual Report, 1948.


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