You Can Trust Me – I’m with the Government



The purpose of this article is to describe how the system of state management of Aboriginal wages was established in Queensland, and to expose some of the deficiencies and distortions in the practical application of the system throughout the twentieth century.  The article also examines the establishment of various trust funds to receive Aboriginal savings and income derived from Aboriginal earnings through the imposition of levies and through the state’s appropriation of accumulating interest.  Finally, a critical analysis is made of the state’s manipulation of trust and welfare funds to reduce state expenditure on Aboriginal affairs.


Setting up the system

Nearly 100 years ago, in 1897, the Queensland government enacted a major piece of legislation which was intended to bring some measure of control to social, sexual, and labour relations between the Aboriginal and colonial populations.  As well as addressing the problem of widespread opium dealing, the Aboriginals Protection and Prevention of the Sale of Opium Actcreated a legal distinction between `full-blood’ and `half-caste’ Aborigines, it established administrative districts supervised by local `protectors’ who were usually district police, it legislated for restricted reserve areas, and it prohibited the employment of Aboriginal labour except by permit.  As an indication of the extensive Aboriginal workforce in those early days nearly 1200 work permits were processed in the 12 months to June 1900.  There was strong opposition from many Aboriginal men and women to this administrative intrusion.  However abuses of labour, amounting virtually to unpaid slavery, had not been eradicated.

In 1901 an amending Act introduced the concept of a minimum wage for all Aboriginal labour,1at a time when no such labour protection existed in Australia, even for white workers.  This provoked hostile objections, one parliamentarian depicting it as the thin edge of the wedge, protesting:

What right have they to interfere with me as an individual employing labour and expending capital?…If they have the right to interfere and say what I shall pay the aboriginal who chops my wood or carries water for me, or sweeps my floor or scrubs my house, have not they the right to step in and say I shall pay my white employee a minimum wage?2

A rate of 10/- per month was set for boat workers, and 5/- for mainland workers, exclusive of food, accommodation, and clothing.  It was common for employers to avoid paying wages by claiming workers had deserted or died, so a trust account, the Aboriginals Protection Property Account, was opened in Cooktown in 1902.  Wages owing went into the fund for payment to the worker or to relatives, or for use “for the benefit of blacks generally”.3

Control of the income of Aboriginal workers was started by Rev Gribble at the Yarrabah mission before the turn of the century.  He directed that all wages of mission residents be paid to himself.  He then passed on only half to the wage earner, and pooled the remainder as a mission fund to provide food and clothing for those who were too old or unable to work.4

Control over savings accounts was introduced officially in Brisbane at around the same time and applied to the earnings of Aboriginal women.  In the first years of the century there was a high demand for domestic servants,5 and since 1899 there had been a `protectress of Aborigines’ in Brisbane whose specific duty was to monitor the employment of Aboriginal girls and women, inspecting work conditions and ensuring wages were duly paid.  In 1901 nearly 70 Aboriginal domestics were working around Brisbane, receiving wages of between 2/6 and 12/6 per week.  The girls were given pocket money only, and the remainder was banked in personal accounts by the protectress and made available if the girls married or left work to live on the government settlements.  Three years later, however, following complaints by Brisbane women to their member of parliament, an official inquiry found the protectress herself guilty of swindling the savings accounts, and she was forced to resign.6

In rural areas supervision was often lax due to negligence by local protectors, and the department brought many successful actions against employers for non- or under-payment of wages. It was not uncommon for seasonal workers to be told that food and clothing had absorbed all wages owing or to be cheated of their pay before they reached their home camps.  To counteract such swindles, regulations in 1904 provided the possibility for wages to be paid directly to the local protectors, who would then act as banker for the worker.  Even so, fraud on accounts was so common by both employers and protectors that a system of thumbprints was introduced in 1904 to endorse withdrawals.  In 1905 a policy was adopted that all female wages must be paid to the protector, although this remained optional for male workers,7 and a trust account was set up under the Home office, to handle received wages.


Controls of wages and savings

During the first twenty years of the century, much latitude was allowed in the matter of employment permits and savings control, particularly in remote areas.  Between 1906 and 1914 Richard Howard was the departmental head, (until 1939 titled the chief protector), and in a tour of the state in 1911 he noted many families supporting themselves through odd jobs, and the trapping and selling of native animals and skins. He also noted that many protectors took direct control of Aboriginal wages, and he remarked that workers frequently compared notes on difficulties of accessing their savings, a cause of much resentment.  But in the far west, he said, such controls were necessary:

Station managers…seem to have a deep-rooted objection to paying the aboriginals anything for their services, unless it is coming back again through the station store…8

On his retirement in 1914 the position of chief protector went to John Bleakley, who held the office until 1942.

During the first world war Aboriginal employment was at a premium and Bleakley immediately moved to increase the minimum wage.  He also formalised the compulsory payment of male wages through protectors, arguing that enforced management of savings would ensure that workers’ families did not become dependent on government charity in the off-season.  Generally 50% of wages was banked directly into individual savings accounts controlled by local protectors.  But workers were only allowed to withdraw about half of their earnings and only if the protector deemed it a `necessary’ expense.  It was said that this manipulation of income deprived each worker on average of £29 per year of their earnings, a criticism Bleakley rejected.

The portion not directly banked was in theory paid to the employee during the work period as `pocket money’.  But no provision was available for Aboriginal workers to sight either the `pocket money book’ or their own savings passbook, and the system was open to wide abuse.  The department ran no proper checks to ensure due `pocket money’ was received by the worker,9 nor did head office establish controls  “to ensure that correct postings are made to individual native’s accounts” by country protectors.10  According to the government auditor, this negligence continued as late as 1965.

Higher wages during the war years increased the accumulated credit balance of country workers in 1915 alone by £12,475 to £56,855, and the government reserved the bank interest to underwrite its own outlays for food, rations and blankets.  Bank interest due to workers living on mission and settlements was disbursed as `Christmas cheer’, courtesy of the largesse of the chief protector.

In 1915 Bleakley proposed a tax on the already low earnings of Aboriginal workers, arguing that a 10% levy on the compulsory bank portion would encourage social responsibility for the “aged and helpless relatives of men earning wages in employment”.  Bleakley calculated this strategy would yield around £2,500 per year, which was more than £1,000 over existing government expenditure on Aboriginal welfare.11  Although he stated that the taxes would be set aside “for general relief” of needy Aborigines, it is not surprising that many Aboriginal workers were deeply suspicious of government control over savings accounts, believing that their earnings were diverted to fund mission development.12  The taxes were not brought in until 1919.

During the war the department applied to the Army for trustee powers over the wages of the nearly 200 men who volunteered for military service after the lifting of initial Army restrictions against Aboriginal enlistment.  Ultimately Bleakley gained control of 62 accounts, and imposed tight control over spending.  He later described this as “friendly restraint” and necessary to prevent “these lads…from wasting their savings in drink, prompted by the loafers and parasites anxious to relieve them of their money”.13

By 1917 64 protectors throughout the state handled 3,553 permits for male workers and 623 for females, as well as several hundred short term permits.  In June 1919 Bleakley’s planned new tax – set at 5% for single men and 2½% for married men – was imposed on all workers not living on missions or settlements.14   The Aboriginal Provident Fund was set up as a special trust fund to allocate this additional revenue as relief for workers and their dependents when in need or unemployed.  Bleakley also sought to gain control of the accounts of all workers living on government settlements.  He argued before a Royal Commission into the public service in 1919 that settlement superintendents had for several years lacked the competence to handle either the management of institutional development or the finances of their workers.15  His minister opposed such centralisation of finances.

In 1919 the department also brought out a set of regulations governing the conditions, as well as the rate of pay, for Aboriginal pastoral workers. The McCawley Station Hands Award of the previous year had set wages and conditions for white pastoral workers.  But Aboriginal labour was specifically excluded from the Award since it was Bleakley’s policy to maximise Aboriginal employment, so reducing the numbers dependent on state funding.  The department set the new rate of pay for Aboriginal pastoral workers at 2/3 of white rates.  Although pastoralists argued that this rate made Aboriginal labour too costly,16 the hypocrisy of such claims, and the prominence of Aboriginal labour in the pastoral industry, was underscored by the massive jump in Aboriginal earnings, from around £45,323 in 1917 to £61,842 in 1919.  This surge brought the savings trust fund to £120,000.  So great was the windfall to the government through its levy on these earnings that the Anglican Archbishop of Brisbane accused the state of exploiting Aboriginal labour as a means of reducing official expenditure.17


Frauds and swindles

The records show a stream of complaints over misappropriation and malpractices by police protectors, leading to allegations in parliament that several police had been sacked for swindling Aboriginal workers by having them sign receipts for grossly inflated amounts.18  In April 1921 thumbprints were re-introduced as “a further safeguard” to prevent illegal dealings on Aboriginal savings accounts, since many workers could not read or sign their names.  In an effort to eradicate police swindles, protectors were now instructed that all prints were to be witnessed by a “disinterested third party”.19

There is evidence that police protectors also connived with station managers to manipulate Aboriginal employment, refusing long term jobs in order to keep good workers `on call’ for selected clients at peak times.20  In a scandal at Wrotham Park in 1927 workers refused to reapply until they were paid outstanding wages of nearly £200.  The local police protector terrorised the men and women, plied them with alcohol, threatened to have them removed to Barambah, and locked them in the poisons shed overnight.  Under these threats they signed on.21 When an internal police inquiry took no punitive action against the officer involved the minister leaked the inquiry to the press, prompting the Police Union Journal to claim their members were being falsely victimised.22

In 1922 a public service commissioner’s inquiry exposed misappropriation by the government of both the property account and the provident fund.23  The commissioner found that the former account, intended to receive and distribute unclaimed earnings, was being operated as a suspense account to cover departmental costs, refunds, transfers and advances.  £1700 had been diverted for improvements at the Barambah settlement and a grant of £590 paid to the missions for maintenance expenses.  Wages and sawmill expenses worth over £1000 had also been appropriated from the fund.

The provident fund, comprised of a tax on earnings as a relief fund for Aborigines in need, had also been milked to cover government costs of £117 to transfer 70 people to the new Cape Bedford mission.  The commissioner expressed disgust that while the department had commandeered over £3000 from wages during a disastrous slump in the cattle industry in 1922, only £253 had been paid out for rations and relief for needy Aboriginal families.  In addition, the commissioner found that nearly half the deductions from wages made by country protectors were inaccurate, and he declared that Aboriginal people should be extended the right to appeal against dubious handling of their savings accounts.

Ten years later Bleakley was forced to admit there were still no real controls over the practices of the 95 country protectors.  In fact a new public service inquiry in 1932 reported that pilfering from Aboriginal savings was frequent and invariably executed in small amounts on doctored receipts over long periods.  The report stated that the policy of denying Aboriginal workers the right to check transactions on their savings accounts meant the opportunity for fraud existed to a greater extent than with any other governmental accounts.24  By this time country protectors handled accounts in credit for nearly £265,000, and it was decided that all savings accounts would now be managed from head office in Brisbane, leaving a small residue only in individual accounts.  As the undersecretary stated, “This will go a long way to minimise fraud by members of the Police Force who are Protectors”.25


Government deceit

The centralising of savings accounts at head office also increased the government’s capacity to evade its financial obligations.  £200,000 of the combined savings pool was promptly invested in commonwealth inscribed stock, and the government pocketed the interest component over and above the commonwealth bank interest of 2½% previously received on Aboriginal bank accounts.26  Documents show the department was well aware appropriation of the interest bonus was illegal.27  Also illegal was the investment, since 1923, of the bulk of the property account and the provident fund, in commonwealth inscribed stock and with the state electricity authority, with the government again pocketing the interest to reduce state expenditure.28

With the onset of the worldwide depression of 1929 a range of creative schemes was implemented to tap into accumulated Aboriginal savings.  Initially the government demanded that half the trust funds be made available to cover budgetary cutbacks of 20%.29  Bleakley resisted this raid, but with the approval of both treasury and of the public service commissioner he did implement a series of extra taxes, including a 5% levy on savings balances of over £50, and a 2½% tax on country savings accounts.  Bleakley sought to disguise these levies under the label of `administrative charges’.30  In addition, the state appropriated all provident fund deductions, 50% of funds in the property account, the tax of 10% for married men and 5% for single men rightfully available for settlement maintenance, the excess interest generated by invested bulk savings, and patients incarcerated in the Fantome Island hospital were charged 2/- per day until their accounts dropped below £20.

Although the taxes on wages were authorised to boost distribution of relief and rations to needy Aboriginal families, documents show that between 1925 and 1935 nearly £19,000 was diverted to cover deficits in funding.  In answer to questions raised in parliament in 1935 regarding use of Aboriginal savings to cover departmental shortfalls, Bleakley deceitfully advised his minister to deny any such dealings on the grounds that the money had been raised from `earnings’ and not from `savings’.31

In addition to misuse of the levies, the government was also raiding the trust funds.  Between October 1930 and May 1931 over £20,000 was illegally drawn from the provident fund32 to cover the deficit in government grants.33   Records show this fund was so depleted that trust money from Palm Island and Barambah settlements was transferred to keep it solvent.34  There is evidence that raids on both funds in 1931 to “relieve” consolidated revenue totalled nearly £13,500, with a further £14,450 withdrawn in 1932.35  This range of withdrawals from Aboriginal earnings and savings was laundered through the Aboriginal standing account, a treasury trust account whose legal status was in fact limited to purchases for, and profits from, settlement retail stores.

In the ten years from 1925 to 1935, covering both Country-National and Labor governments, the two funds were milked of over £72,000 for “departmental purposes”.  And for ten years after the depression, despite annual protests from government auditors, the government continued to divert trust monies to pay for mission and settlement development, wages, costs of forced transfer of Aborigines to settlements, rations, and grants to missions – all legitimate costs to consolidated revenue.36  In 1941, following yet another damning public service report cataloguing gross mismanagement of savings accounts and general maladministration,37Bleakley resigned `on health grounds’.  Deputy Cornelius O’Leary took over as chief protector, and the government continued to operate illegally on the trust funds.


The Welfare Fund, child endowment

When the government created the Aboriginal Welfare Fund in 1943, it framed the regulations specifically to legitimise its customary diversion of trust moneys to cover development costs of missions and settlements, by stating that levies and taxes on Aboriginal earnings could be utilised “for providing benefits to aboriginals generally”.38  Started with an injection of £51,000 from consolidated revenue, plus the balance of the standing account, the welfare fund received all interest on invested funds, the 5% levy on savings accounts, and proceeds from settlement stores and ventures such as sale of cattle and produce.  Now the welfare fund was set up as a balancing fund:  all revenue from Aboriginal earnings and enterprises was to be targeted for Aboriginal development.  The welfare fund was not authorised to finance operational grants to missions, cost of relief to indigent Aborigines, or costs of compulsory transfer of Aboriginal people from one area of the state to another.  The provident fund remained although deductions from country workers were reduced to 5% for single men and 2½ % for married men.  Settlement workers were still docked 5% for single men and 10% for married men towards amenities and maintenance costs.

Welfare fund resources were soon diverted to capital projects.  For instance in 1945 the department acquired a property near Murgon to be developed as an Aboriginal Training Farm for Cherbourg Aborigines.  This was purchased from the accumulated savings of country workers for £6,400, with a further £1,000 extracted from the welfare fund for setting up expenses, and was expected to return a profit of £500 per annum.  In 1946 a second training farm was established on crown land near the Woorabinda settlement, again using £10,000 from `surplus’ savings account funds.  By mid 1947 both properties were in debt and O’Leary asked for access to a further loan of nearly £10,000.39  By January 1948 the welfare fund itself was nearly £18,000 in debt.40  In defence of his management, O’Leary denounced government pilfering:

Generally it must be accepted that Aboriginal Welfare Fund is bearing a considerable amount of expenditure which truly could be regarded as legitimate Vote expenditure, and in this category comes the cost of removal of aboriginals, indigent, sick, and refractory.41

Another miscalculated business venture was the house bought in Cloncurry in the mid 1940s for hospital patients and off-season workers.  £450 was outlaid from the welfare fund and the local protector later declared that  “every aboriginal in this Protectorate on the 19th December 1945 was compelled to contribute towards the purchase of the House”.42  By 1949 the council inspector declared the house unfit for human habitation, the building was condemned and demolished at a further cost of £50.  O’Leary admitted privately that the department made “a bad deal and aboriginal funds were invested therein to their disadvantage”.

A major difficulty in tracing the deployment of Aboriginal earnings is the facile manoeuvring of funds between various sources to cover shortfalls, with no regard to legal distinctions separating government liabilities from Aboriginal `development’ projects.  In addition to large sums previously shifted to investment stocks from the provident fund and the property account (which was often brought to a nil balance), lump sums from `excess’ funds held by the government settlements had also been invested to produce government revenue.  The files further show that such trust funds generated by specific settlements were freely transferred to cover financial crises in other areas or to provide revenue for departmental projects.

With the inflow of federal child endowment monies to Aboriginal mothers in the 1940s, paid through the agency of the Aboriginal department, it was suggested that the `surplus’ of £10,000 in the accounts of country mothers might be commandeered by the government for further investment revenue.  Perhaps sensitive to federal criticism of this illegal dealing at a time when the department was actively pursuing federal funds, O’Leary declared it might be “inadvisable” for the state to invest “the property of individuals”.43  The missions and settlements had immediately applied to gain control of child endowment income and bulk payments went into their official accounts as `institutions’, with only a portion passed on to the mothers.  But the records show that the government made corresponding reductions in grants to missions, and in 1952, with the welfare fund deficit running at over £13,000, there is evidence that the Presbyterian missions were so desperate that they were forced to apply child endowment revenue for administration costs and to feed starving adults and children.44

There is also evidence that the department poached child endowment for capital ventures.  When finance was required in 1954 for the building of a transit hostel at Aitkenvale near Townsville on land purchased with welfare fund holdings, documents show that the government advanced only £2,000, and diverted the remaining £8,000 from Palm Island institutional child endowment.  In 1957 a further £3,100 from the Palm Island funds was injected, plus £1,000 from the welfare fund.45  By this time the department was also using welfare fund holdings to pay most of the wages bill for settlement workers.46


Investments and living conditions

It is apparent from internal records that, even before the wider range of pensions became available to Aboriginal applicants in the early 1960s, the state government anticipated equivalent cuts to department funding, in effect exploiting private pensions as public revenue.47  This inflow of commonwealth allowances greatly increased savings account balances and thereby the pool of trust monies handled by the department.  Rather than releasing its controls on Aboriginal savings accounts to allow individuals to use this social security income to improve their own living conditions, the department exploited savings balances to produce revenue.  In 1956 Aboriginal savings balances diverted to revenue-producing investments in commonwealth stock totalled £467,000, with a further £60,000 in a state electricity loan, and £4,950 lent to the Hopevale mission board.  The drive for revenue was perhaps at its most indecent when Aboriginal regulations were amended the same year, allowing the government to offer Aboriginal savings for development projects of regional hospital boards, for improvements to white hospitals,48 at a time when overcrowding was so bad on the government settlements that at Cherbourg many huts sheltered over 15 people.49

The Audit Report of 1959 shows investments totalling £622,000, comprising £262,000 in inscribed stock, £60,000 to state electricity, and loans to hospital boards of £65,000 to Toowoomba, £30,000 to Townsville, £37,000 to Maryborough, £60,000 to Mt Isa, £93,000 to North Brisbane, and £15,000 to Roma.50  The government continued to exploit this swollen pool of Aboriginal earnings, diverting revenue to substitute for state expenditure rather than to improve Aboriginal living conditions.  At the same time it was stated that the fund “is not in position to provide assistance” for replacement of the burned sawmill upon which the Monamona mission depended for its survival.51  As late as 1960 at Woorabinda many families still lived in earth humpies, and suffered a fatal epidemic of gastroenteritis caused by overflowing drains and unsafe drinking water.52

For decades the government received official complaints also about disgraceful conditions on its country reserves.  At Mt Isa circumstances for local Aboriginal families were described as “appalling”, at Ravenshoe conditions had “called forth the condemnation of many public bodies”, and at Birdsville the squalor and lack of water produced such skin infections and gastroenteritis that children were denied access to the local school.  Here O’Leary privately deplored that “men of good standing with families and money” who were industrious and hardworking should be reduced to such deplorable circumstances.53  Despite this litany of neglect O’Leary publicly boasted in 1961 that the government’s “progressive housing policy” meant that “practically every native is adequately housed”.54  At this time O’Leary did suggest that an amount of £50,000 be withheld from general investment in expectation of a new government policy towards improving housing for Queensland Aborigines.55  His suggestion was ignored, and the government continued to raid the fund for items such as wages, trucks, and launches, which reduced it from £62,832 to £27,800 in 1959 alone.56

When the Mapoon people were evicted from their mission in 1963, nearly £3,000 of their own savings, “built up from deductions from aboriginals wages over the years…for the benefit of the inhabitants” was extracted from the mission fund to develop the Bamaga site to which they were forcibly transported.57  In the same year, while conditions on Aboriginal reserves and settlements continued to be criticised as pathological to Aboriginal health, welfare funds were expended on projects such as reafforestation worth £4000 at Hopevale mission suggested by local member Joh Bjelke-Petersen,58 £950 on sewerage at the Aitkenvale hostel, and £950 on a new store at Palm Island.  Patently illegal were additional outlays from the fund of nearly £10,000 spent on `removals’ of Aborigines, and £585 on relief of indigent country Aborigines, both government costs.59

In 1962 the scandalous use of Aboriginal earnings for white development threatened to become a public issue when several members of parliament were lobbied over an impending loan of £100,000 to the Redcliffe hospital board.  The member for South Brisbane wrote that he could not conceive such an allegation could be correct.60  The Trades and Labour Council demanded information regarding the investment of Aboriginal earnings.  An internal memo shows that revenue-producing Aboriginal and Islander trust monies totalled over £987,000;61 a note on this letter said “Charles how much of this should be passed on to the TLC?”  It was decided to divulge nothing and direct all queries to a reading of the annual report of the department.  Despite these massive investments, the department often lacked cash to cover urgent needs of missions and settlements; in 1963 the department was forced to seek an extra £25,000 in unforeseen expenditure to cover a welfare fund deficit.62

It was not until 1966 that the department ceased the levies on Aboriginal earnings which financed the provident and welfare funds, and all savings passbooks were surrendered to the account holders.  Even so, the department maintained its control of the huge pool of accumulated savings (the Audit Report 1966/67 showed the welfare fund gained over $21,000 in ‘surplus interest’), and retained control of all child endowment payable to children under five years of age on government settlements.63


Federal funds and housing

In mid 1968, while housing and amenities for most Aboriginal families remained pathological to health, internal documents show trust fund advances of nearly $875,000 to various hospitals, $9,000 to the Wondai and Ipswich councils, $140,000 in commonwealth stock, and $120,000 with state electricity.64  In this year, pursuant to the 1967 referendum, the first injection of $800,000 of commonwealth funds was made to improve Aboriginal housing in Queensland.  Contrary to strict instructions, the state refused to set up a separate State Aboriginal Housing Trust fund account, leading federal officials to question whether the money was legitimately expended.65

In 1970 the welfare fund generated 23% of total departmental expenditure.66  The department retained control of over 8,000 savings accounts, and in a press release Killoran boasted that extensive cattle ventures of over 21,000 head of cattle worth $2m made the DAIA the biggest `cattle baron’ in the state.  Proceeds of over $250,000 per year from sales went to the welfare fund “for the benefit of the State’s 50,000 `assisted’ Aboriginals and Islanders”.67  However documents also show that the department continued to use the fund to cover state expenses, with over $97,000 paid out for settlement wages and nearly $5,000 for compulsory `removals’ to settlements in 1972.68  At the same time the hospital at Hopevale had only one nursing sister and eight beds for a population of over 500 people,69 and the Bamaga hospital, built with $600,000 from federal funds to service a community of 1200 Aborigines, was still without a doctor twelve months after opening.70

New regulations gazetted in 1972 provided that all rents on state and federal housing, all institution child endowment, and all unclaimed estates would go to the welfare fund as well as the proceeds from enterprises on Aboriginal communities.  The fund was to finance purchases of goods for resale, trade materials, livestock, agricultural equipment and machinery, wages and administration on communities and farms, rental assistance programs, development of reserve industries, and grants in aid at the director’s discretion.

While the welfare fund financed these multiple commitments, funding from the government for essential community services was grossly deficient.  The files show a continuation of appalling conditions on missions and settlements during the 1970s.  In a climate of endemic ill health, housing surveys at Lockhart River showed between ten and nineteen people to a dwelling,71 and at Woorabinda 83% of homes were labelled as overcrowded, 69%  with over ten occupants, one house sheltering twenty-eight people.72  Yarrabah huts also contained two and three families and most lacked baths, basins, or hot water.  Drinking water was often unfit for human consumption.73  Scabies, salmonella, hookworm, and diarrhoea were common also at Palm Island where some houses held three families totalling eighteen people.74  A Weipa survey found 104 children and 56 adults sleeping on concrete, and called for 32 new houses.75

It is inconceivable in this context, that when an additional $6.1m of commonwealth funds was offered in 1979 for rental assistance for needy Aboriginal families through the state housing commission, the Queensland government suspected a plot to undermine the authority of the Aboriginal department and refused the funds until the commonwealth agreed to departmental control.76  When it finally gained access to the revenue, the department once again merged it through the welfare fund, despite directives that a separate account be established.77  Official analysis shows that up until 1990 nearly $133m of Commonwealth State Housing Authority money was passed through the welfare fund.  But when we relate this to expenditure on commonwealth/state housing programs, we find a `surplus’ to the state of $3.64m in the years between 1980 and 1984, and a further `surplus’ of $7.88m between 1985 and 1990.78

During the 1970s and into the 1980s, the state was also waging a bitter battle against successive federal governments which demanded legal wage rates be paid to community workers.  Both Bjelke-Petersen and department director Pat Killoran were adamant that the state would bear no financial responsibility for any normalisation of wages.  If Aborigines demanded equal wages, then Aborigines would pay the penalty.  In the financial year 1971/72, when prime minister William McMahon tied commonwealth/state housing subsidies to payment of full wages on commonwealth/state housing projects, welfare fund diversion to wages leapt from $25,000 to $97,500.  In the years from 1972 to 1976 over $1.13m of welfare fund holdings went to wages, rising to $2.16m in the years 1977 to 1982,79 frequently exhausting the fund.  In addition to this line of attrition, the government also slashed community workforces and cut back or aborted maintenance programs, often bringing essential services into crisis. Indeed overcrowding and defective living conditions were so bad that in 1983 officers at both Edward River and Palm Island insisted they could not demolish condemned structures because of acute overcrowding.

During the 1980s many department development ventures were consistently unprofitable and welfare fund investments were capitalised to shore up this expenditure drain.  Documents show that between 1982 and 1988 department-controlled cattle ventures and community stores ran up a deficit of $5.3m.  But recent inquiries to catalogue assets and operations of the fund are hampered because many asset acquisitions were never registered according to professional accounting procedures.  As responsible officer, Killoran’s range of authority was comprehensive and his discretionary powers almost absolute.  Although official investigators have identified the probability that many operating decisions may have been “unwise”, indifferent accountability limits the prospect of proven illegalities and negligence.



In conclusion, two general points can be made.  First: Aboriginal people under departmental control have laboured for most of this century with limited access to their artificially low wages and have been further penalised through a system of double and treble levies.  From the Annual Reports of the Auditor General it appears that hundreds of Aboriginal workers in Queensland have also suffered fraud and mishandling of their savings over many decades.  Second: it seems that governments often utilised that portion of earnings held `in trust’ to reduce state expenditure to the detriment of those families who remained on Aboriginal communities.

If the political rhetoric of `freedom of information’ is to be taken seriously, all support must be given for Aboriginal inquiry into the handling of their earnings, and also into the government’s expenditure of trust monies, both in the operation of community assets and ventures, and in the subsidising of state costs.  However the determination of Aboriginal individuals and the goodwill of present departmental staff is frustrated by decades of incompetent and defective record-keeping, and a legacy of incomplete and missing files.  With the present political emphasis on Aboriginal accountability, both for future policy directions and for organisational finances, this litany of governmental mismanagement and maladministration over many decades, and the damaging consequences for community workforces and infrastructure, should form the background for any critical analysis.


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A shorter version of this article appeared in Queensland Review, May 1994, the journal of the Queensland Studies Centre, Griffith University.




   1  The 1901 Amendment Act primarily targeted Aboriginal girls and women, providing a range of protective regulations designed to prevent sexual exploitation, prevalent in remote areas.  It now became illegal to have a female Aborigine on a property or on a boat unless a permit had been issued.  It was common practice for men to be `employed’ in a ruse to gain access to women and girls.

     2  Queensland Parliamentary Debates (QPD), 1901 Vol LXXXV11: 213.

     3  In the six months to December 1902 the fund had accumulated over £200 (Annual Reports 1902, 1904).

     4  QPD 1901 Vol LLXXXV11: 614.  For the year 1899/1900 £180 was distributed in this manner.

     5  Upper class Brisbane households at this time averaged four servants, and most middle class households employed at least one.  Many more white girls worked as domestics than did Aboriginal girls (Thom Blake, Excluded, Exploited, Exhibited:  Aborigines in Brisbane 1897-1910, Brisbane History Group Papers, No 5, 1987:52).  A study of non-Aboriginal domestics in N.S.W. at the time showed 40% of all women between 15 and 24 were in employment, most as domestics, commonly working between 16-20 hours a day six or more days a week (Anne Summers, Damned Whores and God’s police, Penguin, Ringwood, 1975:309).

     6  She had swindled their accounts by deducting amounts allegedly “already lent or spent” for fares, clothes, and pocket money (QPD 1906:1165).  By 1906 the department was supervising the employment of 121 girls, about 90% of the Aboriginal domestics in Brisbane (Annual Report 1906: 2).

     7  Queensland State Archives (QSA) HOM J/16  20.3.06 – chief protector to undersecretary.

     8  Annual Report 1911: 11

     9  QSA TR254 1B/69  Audit Report 1964/1965.  Supposedly a pocket money book was kept by the employer listing all money payments and endorsed by the worker.  It was found most amounts were written up just prior to the end of the work period.  Dispute of amounts invariably was not supported by local protectors, and jeopardised the chance of re-employment.

     10  QSA TR254 1B/63  Audit Report 1963/64.

     11  Annual Report 1915: 5

     12  Annual Report 1916: 4

     13  J. W. Bleakley, The Aborigines of Australia, Jacaranda Press, Brisbane, 1961: 170.  After the war many ex-soldiers had sufficient capital to buy small homes and farms.

     14  Settlement and mission residents were already taxed of 10% for married men and 5% for single earners as a contribution towards amenities and family support. Each settlement had a cash account to handle these levies.  Men with no outside employment worked on the settlements for at least 24 hours per week without pay to qualify for rations for themselves and their families.

     15  Queensland Parliamentary Papers, 1919-1920, Vol 1:460.

     16  One consequence of the higher wages and tighter conditions was the eviction from many properties of the families of Aboriginal workers, especially the very old and the very young.  Although Bleakley saw this in terms of the eradication of “exploited cheap labour”, the movement of many dependents to reserves traumatised family relationships.  The influenza pandemic of 1919 also resulted in a huge influx of families to reserves.  Bleakley later boasted that the framework of regulations set up in 1919 controlled rural employment “virtually without a hitch” for the next 26 years.  (Bleakley, op cit, 1961: 171, 172).

     17  Anglican Archives, Diocesan Year Book, Archbishop’s address, 1919: 21.

     18  QPD, vol CXXXIV, 1919-1920:2570

     [19]  Police Circular 21:3.

     20  Bleakley sent an official circular stressing that workers should be employed for a full season, and not laid off from one week to another to suit the employer (QSA A/38092  Circulars to Herberton Protector – 19.11.35).

     21  QPD, vol CLI, 1927: 1308.

     22  QPD, vol CLI, 1928: 1284-1287.

     23   QSA TR1227:128 – 15.3.23 Report on the Office of The Chief Protector of Aboriginals.

     24   QSA TR1227:129  9.11.32 – Report on the Inspection of the Office of the Chief Protector of Aboriginals, 24

     25  ibid, 14.3.33.  A system of identification numbers for all account holders was now also introduced.

     26  QSA TR1227:129 24.8.32 – Bleakley to undersecretary.  By the end of 1932 total savings were given as £291,487, comprising 5,579 individual accounts averaging £54 each.

     27  QSA TR1227:129  19.9.31 – memo from undersecretary, who conceded that commandeering of the interest bonus was “not in accordance with Regulations”.

     28  QSA TR1227:129  20.7.26 – Bleakley to undersecretary.  Also note on 20.7.31 (same file) – Bleakley to undersecretary.

     29  Department of Aboriginal and Islander Affairs (DAIA)  OF/2  30.6.41 – Bleakley to undersecretary.

     30  DAIA  OF/2  30.6.41 – Bleakley to undersecretary

     31  DAIA  RK:62  6.11.35 – Bleakley to undersecretary.

     32  QSA TR1227:129 13.7.31 – list of remittances.

     33  QSA TR1227:129  9.11.32 – public service inspector’s report on the office of chief protector of Aboriginals.

     34  QSA TR254 1A/188  25.6.31 – deputy chief protector Cornelius O’Leary to undersecretary.

     35  QSA TR1227:129  15.6.31 – undersecretary to premier and treasurer.

    36  Chief Office Audit Report 1939/40.  In 1936 trust investments of £14,000 were redeemed in order to “relieve revenue”, and documents show that the government saved over £30,000 in the 1935/36 year alone “which would have been a charge against Revenue had the account not been in operation” (QSA T1227:129  9.12.36 – memorandum).  In 1938 a further £10,000 stock was sold to cover a slump in the Torres Strait markets (QSA TR254 1A/188  1.7.38 – Bleakley to undersecretary).

     37  QSA A/4291  29.7.41 – Investigation into the Sub-department of Native Affairs.

     38  QSA TR1227:129  20.10.43 – treasury undersecretary to undersecretary health and home affairs.

     39  QSA TR254 4H/10  16.11.44 and 23.6.47 – director of Native Affairs Con O’Leary to undersecretary.  The purchases were initially legitimised as investment `loans’ at only 2% interest, with an interest free period of five years.

     40  QSA TR254 1A/303  2.3.48 – O’Leary to undersecretary.

     41  QSA TR254 1A/303  24.6.48 – O’Leary to undersecretary.  £8,000 was made available from consolidated revenue to partially offset the debit.

     42  QSA TR254 7C/8 (i)  10.2.47 – Cloncurry protector to O’Leary.  One man was still pursued in 1947 for his contribution of £2, although he had moved to Palm Island so his children could get schooling, and had only £2/10/- in his account.

     43  QSA TR254 1A/188  1.8.50 – O’Leary to undersecretary.  Denied access to their bankbooks, the 473 women would have had no way of knowing the extent of their credit (totalling £18,436), unless their local protectors informed them.

     44  QSA TR254 1E/45  21.11.52 – O’Leary to undersecretary.

     45  DAIA  01-001-002 – briefing paper (undated, 1990).  From 1969 the department actively prevented Palm Island residents from using the hostel in order to force them to make individual accommodation arrangements.

     46  QSA TR254 3A/241  – note on file listing Palm Island wages 1956/57 and 1957/58.

     47  QSA TR254 1E/58  14.7.59 – O’Leary to undersecretary.

     48  QSA TR254 1A/188  14.9.56 – undersecretary to O’Leary.

     49  QSA TR254 4B/15  19.8.55 – superintendent to deputy director.

     50  QSA TR254 1B/51  Audit Report 1959.  The Audit Report for 1958 showed the sum of £93,000 going to “Brisbane and South Coast hospital board”, not the North Brisbane board.

     51  QSA T254 6J/16  2.1.58 – O’Leary to undersecretary.

     52  DAIA  RK:9  12.12.60 – report of Rockhampton health inspector.

     53  QSA TR254 1D/145  14.8.58 – O’Leary to deputy director Patrick Killoran.

     54  DAIA  1A/519  4.4.61 – O’Leary briefing for minister Henry Noble.

     55  QSA TR254 1A/188  3.9.59 – O’Leary to undersecretary

     56  DAIA  01-057-007 (QSA 1C/88) 12.10.60 – minutes of superintendent’s conference.

     57  QSA TR254 6G/20 – Killoran to undersecretary.

     58  DAIA  RK:9  13.3.63 – O’Leary to director general, education department.

    59  QSA TR254 1A/655  – Statement of summarised receipts and disbursements for financial year ended 30.6.64.

     60  DAIA  RK:20  2.5.62 – Colin Bennett MLA to acting minister Gordon Chalk.

     61  ibid, 19.6.62 – O’Leary to undersecretary.  This letter further states that single men were allowed 25% of their wage and married men accompanied by their families were allowed 50% for living expenses.  Workers had limited access to the department’s appropriation of their wage and depended on the consent of the protector.  In 1964 alone these deductions netted the department $35,000.

     62  DAIA  RK:73  17.6.63 – Cabinet Submission.

     63  QSA TR254 3A/276  11.9.66 – Palm Island superintendent to Killoran.

     64  QSA TR254 1B/80 Audit Report 1967/68.

    65  DAIA  1A/795  1.4.69 – Office of Aboriginal Affairs to director of the Queensland Aboriginal department, now Patrick Killoran. Killoran was also castigated for charging excessive rents on commonwealth houses, and pursuing an extreme assimilationist policy, allocating houses on the basis of employment availability, rather than where desperate need had been identified.

     66  QSA TR254 1A/723 – progress report to 1970 Welfare Conference.

     67  DAIA  RK:10  19.3.71 – press statement.

     68  DAIA  RK:147 – balance sheet for 1971/72.

     69  QSA TR254 6B/61  5.10.72 – Dr Ian Musgrave to health department.  Patients had to travel to Cooktown for serious illnesses, emergencies, and pregnancies.

     70  Courier Mail 4.3.72.

     71  DAIA  01-084-030  14.4.75 – liaison officer reports.

     72  DAIA  01-084-027 December 1974 – Woorabinda liaison reports.

     73  QSA TR254 15D/12  10.1.74 and 31.12.74 – Yarrabah hygiene officer’s reports.

     74  QSA TR254 3D/35  16.10.73 – report of Dr A Davis, University of New South Wales health team, following fatal gastroenteritis epidemic.

     75  DAIA  01-084-033  4.8.71 – report of training liaison officer.

     76  DAIA  1A/975  5.9.79 – Queensland Housing Commission to minister for Works and Housing.

     77  See DAIA 1A/975 for exchanges concerning the Commonwealth State Housing Agreement.

     78  Final Report: Investigation into the Welfare Fund and the Aboriginal Accounts.

     79  Final Report: Investigation into the Welfare Fund…



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