The fight for justice
For most of the twentieth century the Queensland government controlled the lives – and the finances – of around 50% of the Aboriginal population. This ‘guardianship’ was characterised by scandalous levels of deprivation, sickness and premature death. The government’s machinery was predicated on the forced labour of thousands of men, women and children, either contracted out as domestic servants and to the pastoral industry, or consigned to the development and maintenance of missions and settlements. Today’s blighted communities are both an outcome, and a continuation, of State economic management that has operated since the late 1900s.
It was at the end of the 1890s that the home secretary told Queensland parliament it had a duty ‘to compensate for the injuries’ inflicted in the process of driving Aborigines ‘from their native hunting grounds’. Legislation was passed in 1897 which applied only to persons of Aboriginal descent, any one of whom could now be declared a ward of State and exiled to a reserve, losing all personal and public rights. A network of police ‘protectors’ was appointed to oversee their interests or advocate exile to a reserve.
This was a unique administrative and physical confinement of a large population group: such exclusions and limitations of rights had hitherto applied only to individuals found criminally culpable or mentally deficient. For the next seventy years Aboriginal lives were entirely dependent on official decree – there was no due process and no right of appeal. Those brought under government control lost all rights and responsibilities over the lives of themselves and their children who were commonly taken from them and confined in dormitories or contracted out to work. People who escaped to search for work or freedom were routinely hunted by police and forcibly returned, often to imprisonment on bread and water.
This inhumane regime was predicated on ‘protection’. Even today that rhetoric is still proclaimed by political and social commentators who seek to cloak decades of inhumanity in the garb of well-meaning, if now out-dated, policies. Those policies – of social exclusion and removal of children – are now under challenge. Yet it’s not the policies which entrenched the sickness and deaths and despair, but how they were implemented. Mealy-mouthed words of racial and cultural superiority are not the killers but exploitation, starvation, deprivation and abuse. Whether governments like it or not, it’s time to question exactly how a century of ‘protection’ produced such disastrous outcomes for almost all those who were trapped in this regime, thousands of whom led full working lives yet remained impoverished. It’s time we demanded full disclosure of this unprecedented social and financial experiment.
Today I want to share with you some of the facts as I found them, during more than a decade researching into hundreds of official files.
From early last century every employed Aboriginal in Queensland was contracted by the government for 51 weeks out of 52, with or without his or her family. To refuse such separation could result in beatings or banishment, usually to Palm Island. Some never saw or heard from families again. On the backs of this workforce of between 4000 and 5000 men, women and children, the Queensland pastoral industry developed and prospered. Surveys showed that Aboriginal workers were often regarded as more skilled than whites, but an agreement struck in 1919 between government and pastoralists set Aboriginal pay at 66% the white rate – for the next 50 years.
But the reality was even worse, because records show that workers actually received as little as 31% in 1949 and 59% in 1956. In that year a department survey confirmed the industry was entirely dependent on Aboriginal workers, particularly in remote areas where white stockmen were rare. The inspector deplored the entrenched mentality of paying ‘as little as possible for Aboriginal workers’ and he dismissed allegations of incompetence, observing that ‘white men of markedly less ability and industry [are] receiving higher wages and better living conditions than Aboriginals who are better workmen.’
Workers’ wages went directly to State control via police protectors except for a portion of ‘pocket money’. Yet over a sixty-year period the department never ensured pocket money was correctly paid. Indeed an Inquiry in 1932 warned it could be ‘reasonably assumed’ that workers were being cheated. This was confirmed by protectors over time who described the procedure as a farce and a direct profit to employers in 1943, and as useless, futile and out of control in 1956, with workers ‘entirely at the mercy’ of employers who simply concocted the figures. The department rejected auditors’ calls for external inspectors as ‘too costly’, while admitting – into the mid-1960s – that pocket money probably was not paid ‘in many instances’. It is sobering to realise that pocket money accounted for up to 80% of individual earnings.
Workers who did not live on the pastoral stations were ‘free’ to stay in the wider community, with every move and every contact watched, supervised and recorded by protectors. Files were kept on every Aboriginal family, employment and finances were controlled, and people were always at risk of banishment from family and country. Racism and poverty denied them normal accommodation into the 1970s, yet conditions provided on departmental reserves would have triggered criminal action in any other circumstances.
For instance, in the 1940s at Ravenshoe and Cooktown people lived in hessian and sheet-iron shanties without running water, but the government would not pay for amenities; unlike at Charters Towers were they took money out of workers’ accounts to pay for toilets and sheds. In the 1950s the reserve at Normanton was described as ‘absolutely destitute’ with no trees or fresh water; here the government again took money from workers accounts to pay for shelter. In the 1960s the government admitted it had no housing program, and that many people with good bank balances lived on country reserves in deplorable poverty. In the 1970s, faced with continuing scandals over deplorable conditions, the government simply forced people off the reserves, advising councils to evict families ‘for health reasons’, and then demolishing the shacks and selling the land. The government well knew its failure to provide standard living conditions prevented generations of children from attending local schools. And time after time, into the 1970s, this poverty and lack of schooling provided grounds for authorities to ‘rescue’ children from their families.
Under the wages ‘protection’ system workers had to request permission to withdraw their own money, and records show that permission was often refused, even for people with large account balances. Few workers complained direct to head office, fearing retribution from the protector or exile to a reserve. Yet records show that Aboriginal savings directly controlled by the government and its agents – the police protectors – were massively compromised by decades of fraud, negligence and improper dealings. We know thumb prints were introduced in 1904 and again in the early 1920s because of widespread fraud on private accounts by both employers and police protectors. An Inquiry in 1922 revealed errors by protectors in nearly half the calculations for government levies. The 1932 Inquiry found that pilfering from private accounts was common, and department supervision was said to be ‘totally inadequate’. This Inquiry concluded that ‘the opportunity for fraud existed to a greater degree than with any other Governmental accounts’. Although the Chief Protector again admitted there were no real controls over official dealings on private accounts, he refused outright the recommendation that workers be allowed to see any record of what was happening to their money.
In the 1940s, auditors said there was ‘no system of internal checks’ on wage collections, and banking and withdrawal dockets were sometimes marked as witnessed despite the absence of thumb prints. In 1965, a public service inspection deplored the lack of a central signature register against which to check ‘signed’ withdrawals, and observed that there was no way to authenticate the witnessing of multiple withdrawals. In 1967, it was admitted that lax head office checks on withdrawals, payments and interest allocation allowed ‘room for fraud’. In 1970, auditors were still calling urgently for ‘vital checks’ to be implemented to avoid or deter forgeries. In 1974, the auditor again criticised head office controls as faulty. When the minister frequently insisted all accounts were regularly audited, she did not mention these constant and trenchant criticisms.
We know now that the government was itself misusing private and Trust funds. The 1922 Inquiry condemned misappropriation by the government of an unemployment relief Trust fund and a second Trust fund comprising deceased workers’ estates; both of which were raided for development and equipment on settlements, grants to missions, and costs of compulsory deportations. During and after the 1929-32 depression years, the government simply transferred ₤72,032 ($3.5 million today’s value) out of the Trust funds ‘for departmental purposes’, rendering the deceased estates’ fund technically insolvent.
In 1933 the government centralised ₤258,596 (almost $15 million) of workers’ savings in Brisbane. This was promoted as a measure ‘to minimise fraud by members of the Police Force who are Protectors’. However we now know it provided a windfall to the government, which promptly diverted over 80% of these private savings to investment, yielding interest of $320,500 in that year alone, money which should have devolved to the account holders. For several decades, by simply stating that massive amounts of Aboriginal savings were ‘idle’ or ‘surplus to needs’ successive State governments reaped the interest bonus while those whose money it was, those whose lives they had sworn to protect, struggled and died in abject poverty. We can only conjecture how different life would have been for Aboriginal families if they had for themselves the $9.6 million p.a. in the 1940s, over $11 million p.a. in the 1950s, and almost $10 million p.a. in the 1960s, all removed from circulation by the State for its own profit.
On missions and settlements families were trapped in a cycle of work and poverty, the regime enforced through punishment and withholding of rations. On Palm Island in the 1930s the death rate was over 6% and nearly every baby died who was not breastfed, because there were no funds for vitamin-enriched formula. At Cherbourg, the government’s showpiece institution, the walls of the dormitory were described as ‘literally alive with bugs … beds, bed clothing, pillows and mattresses are all infested … all pillows were filthy because the previous matron withheld pillowslips to save washing’. In the 1950s at Cherbourg families of up to 19 people shared unlined two-room huts lacking water for washing or food preparation. In the 1960s malnutrition was cited as the key factor in the deaths of 50% of children under three on missions and settlements, and ten years later, at Palm Island 75% of child outpatients registered as severely underweight, and massive infection loads of inmates were traced to substandard living conditions – a survey revealed that many homes had no fridge, cupboards or even beds.
Missions and settlements were built and maintained by Aboriginal inmates who had to work at least 32 hours a week for meagre rations of 500 grams of meat and flour, some soap and tobacco. Work included building construction, water and power supply, farming, fencing, sawmilling, teaching, nursing and domestic service to white staff. Until 1968 only the few most crucial employees were paid an ‘incentive’ – amounting to three per cent of the basic wage in the 1940s. In 1968, when the ration economy ceased, community wages were set at 20%below the dole. Yet store prices were often twice that of neighbouring towns, and – belying public statements to the contrary – department correspondence clearly shows that amenities nowhere near made up the deficit.
In the mid-1970s, when passage of the federal Racial Discrimination Act rendered underpayment on the basis of race illegal, the Queensland government was paying its reserve employees 60% of the basic wage. Fighting off a union-backed challenge in 1979, when the wage parity was 72%, the government sought legal advice – which confirmed it was breaking state and federal law in underpaying its Aboriginal employees. Nevertheless, on several occasions into the mid-1980s, the Queensland Cabinet discussed – and decided to continue – its illegal conduct. It was only when Aboriginal councils gained control of communities from late 1986 that legal wage rates were paid, although the government refused to provide for this in the budget.
Indeed since 1982, when Cabinet decided not to budget for wage increases, costs have been met through mass sackings of workers – over 1500 in the decade to 1985. This has caused massive shortfalls in building and maintenance programs: in the mid-1980s occupancy averaged 12 per house at Palm Island, 14 at Weipa and more than 18 at Hopevale, and people had no option but to remain in condemned buildings. At Woorabinda one 3-bedroom house held 21 people. Homes were typically serviced by wood stoves and cold water. On several occasions essential services were brought to crisis and high level bureaucrats warned continued sackings would increase alcoholism, violence and community upheaval. Then they stood by and watched it happen.
Under this punitive policy the government continued to reap massive profits by illegally shortchanging the very people it was mandated to protect, a shortfall to workers of over $180 million between 1975 and 1986; in full knowledge that this underpayment was illegal, and in full knowledge of consequential dire poverty. Rightful payment of this money to community workers would have dramatically altered living circumstances and prospects, then and now. After losing a case in the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission in 1996, the government in 1999 made available $7000 for each worker underpaid in the 1975-1986 period. The final payout was around $40 million, a massive bargain for the State of less than one quarter of what is owed.
In 1999 the Beattie government also settled a case on what is now known as the Stolen Wages, namely, missing and misused private savings and Trust funds. In May 2002, with an estimated 4000 workers expressing interest in taking legal action against it, the Beattie government offered a $55.6 million package to resolve grievances – either $2000 or $4000 per person depending on age. The government portrayed this pittance as ‘reconciliation’ and ‘generosity’ for those whose working lives may have spanned thirty years of systemic impoverishment. This payment ass also conditional on an indemnity against any future action on any aspect of a century of ‘protection’ controls. But the government refused to give all potential claimants their financial records so they could make an informed choice, and government-appointed lawyers will explain only the government terms. Without advice as to the full financial, historical and legal context, many claimants effectively signed in ignorance of their own best interests.
Perhaps the most unpardonable aspect of these decades of poverty, sickness and death is the fact that these wards of the State had, through their own labour, generated millions of dollars in earnings but have been prevented from accessing it to fulfil their basic needs. Documentary evidence confirms that the State’s financial handling of Aboriginal savings and Trust funds has been marred by negligence, fraud, mismanagement and misappropriation. By legislative decree and regulatory regime the State devolved to itself a fiduciary duty which it has patently failed to execute. The State has failed to provide standard requirements for life and well being on communities and in the workplace; it has failed to implement proper accounting procedures to protect workers’ earnings and savings; it has failed to ensure workers’ entitlements in the pastoral industry; and it has deliberately refused to pay legally due award wages to its community employees.
No other mass employer could preside for a century over such a travesty of basic industrial rights to fair wages and conditions – and expect to walk away from it. No other major financial institution which for decades lost private savings, condoned systemic negligence and misused funds could refuse to be accountable for its incompetence. The Beattie government’s approach to resolution of this shameful saga can be gauged by its cut-price and peremptory attempt to shut down exposure and accountability. So how do we achieve justice?
The law is a definite option. At this stage we have lawyers offering to work pro bono for claimants seeking justice through the courts. But why should it be up to people individually to force the government to account for its mismanagement of their funds? Especially when they rely on the same government to locate and provide the evidence? In my opinion the government must be challenged on its record as trustee for those people it declared to be wards of State, and as trustee for their finances which it took under its control. It is the government which must answer charges that it has comprehensively failed its fiduciary duty to act in, and to protect, the best interests of Aboriginal wards of State.
There is an interesting parallel in the United States. Here, since mid-1996, the US federal government has been fighting – and losing – a class action brought on behalf of 300,000 past and present account holders which asserts that monies due to them which were collected and managed by the government, have never been properly accounted for. At stake is billions of dollars – the proceeds of farming and grazing leases, and sales of timber, oil and gas on Indian reserves. Mounting the class action is a group from the Blackfeet Indian tribe of Montana, and their case centers on the mismanagement of private funds by government, as does the Queensland campaign for justice.
In December 1999, in what he described as a ‘stunning victory’ for the Indian plaintiffs, the judge ruled the US government had breached its trust responsibilities to individual trust beneficiaries, a breach he described as ‘far more inexcusable’ than misuse of normal donative trusts because, he said, ‘the beneficiaries of this trust did not voluntarily choose to have their lands taken from them’ (and managed by the government). A subsequent appeal has been rejected: the three-judge panel noted specifically ‘the magnitude of government malfeasance at issue in the case’. The judge held that the US government had an obligation to account for every dollar from the inception of the trust.’
The same should apply for Queensland. Aboriginal workers did not choose to be controlled by the department, and certainly did not choose for the department to intercept and administer their earnings. There can be no dispute that the great majority of ‘beneficiaries’ of this system were, and still are, trapped in appalling poverty.
I am currently working on three avenues to achieve justice on the stolen wages. I am completing a book, due out in October, which investigates the full scope of financial management in the context of national and international case law. Using legal precedent and expert opinion, I argue the Queensland government holds an enforceable fiduciary duty because of the enormous discretionary powers it wielded over Aboriginal lives and finances. This means there is an obligation on the government to be fully accountable for its dealings on Aboriginal monies. It means it cannot profit from its position of power.
And of course Queensland is not the only state to control the lives and finances of its Aboriginal population. Already the NSW government has conceded it misused Aboriginal trust monies and lied to people who applied to be paid monies still owing. It has set up a panel to process claims. Every state and territory to some extent gave itself the right to manage the wages, savings, endowment and pensions, workers compensation and inheritances, of Aboriginal people. By mid-year I hope to produce a National Report which investigates these controls.
More immediately, after constant lobbying and the very positive response over several years from Democrat senators, the issue of a senate Inquiry into Stolen Wages nationally will be debated in the senate next month. But it appears many politicians believe this is just a Queensland issue. So I’m working up a summary for circulation before this debate.
We need a full accounting of the government’s record as banker and trustee of millions of dollars of private savings and Trust funds. We need legal experts to adjudicate culpability and financial experts to assess compensation. We need to incorporate the whole story of Aboriginal labour and confiscated Aboriginal wealth into our national history. It is up to each and every one of us today to make sure that this happens.