Dr Rosalind Kidd has made an
enormously valuable contribution to our understanding of the history of
relations between Indigenous peoples in Queensland and government. Because
of her commitment and tenacity in obtaining access to, and then exposing
the contents of government records about the administration of Indigenous
peoples' lives, we now know far more about the precise details, the extent
and the nature of the control exercised by governments in Queensland over
the lives of Indigenous peoples during the past 100 years than we otherwise
That is not to say that there is still not a long way to go to ensure
that the historical record fully reflects the reality of the lives of
Indigenous peoples in this state. And it certainly does not mean that
the consequences of this history have been grappled with and dealt with
in an appropriate way by government. These are two issues I want to address
in the context of Dr Kidd's book. In my view, the past five years or so
have seen a sustained attack on what are seen as attempts over the past
20 to 30 years to 'correct' or more fully reflect the historical record.
The past year, for example, has seen a revival of a fairly aggressive
debate about the extent and nature of frontier violence in this country.
In this debate, historians are identified as if they were politicians
(are they of the left or the right?), and are then pitted against one
another based on their perceived, but perhaps not actual, ideological
leanings. Words and findings have been distorted to fit ideological straightjackets.
The attempts of some historians to dispute the findings of their peers
have taken on a gladiatorial, combative tone - they are battles to the
death with the reputations of fellow historians the prize. The result
is an 'all or nothing' approach to history - with both the left and the
right accusing each other of being 'revisionists', and with no grey areas,
no ambiguities and no room for middle ground.
A steady movement towards a collective understanding of the history of
relations with Indigenous peoples in this country has begun to be fractured
and polarized, with history continually being marginalised as if there
is some point at which there has been no continuity between past and present.
In Black Lives Government Lies Dr Kidd expertly comments on this critical
problem in the context of reconciliation and debates about the 'stolen
This book demonstrates that there is indeed no gap between the historic
deeds of previous governments and present circumstances. The book vividly
exposes a system whereby the Queensland Government exercised control over
every aspect of the lives of Indigenous peoples for more than a century,
and maintained an extensive administrative record of their actions. As
she says in the introduction to the book, "the nightmare of interventions
both petty and momentous, the machinery of continuous bureaucratic monitoring,
produced an enormous amount of paperwork".
The book methodically details - from government records - a range of abuses,
neglect, deprivation and exploitation experienced by Indigenous peoples
from the beginning of the 20th century into the 1980s. From the dormitory
system, the placement of Indigenous children into work, through to the
system of education and the inability to respond to threats to health,
the book paints a disturbing picture of government neglect and inaction.
Time and again, the book returns to one basic conclusion about the nature
of government administration of Indigenous affairs. It does not matter
whether the issue is the unsafe housing conditions, the lack of resources
which left many children starving, the avoidable outbreaks of disease,
the labour exploitation or the failure to properly account for Indigenous
peoples' wages and savings. In each instance, the government records of
the day show unequivocally that they knew what was happening.
As she says about the dormitory system of missions, reserves and settlements,
"There is no doubt that governments have known for decades of the physical,
social and psychological damage inherent in the dormitory system, damage
entrenched by the deliberate refusal to budget even for basic foodstuffs,
safe water, clothing, sanitation, bedding, washing facilities, schooling
and social amenities... dormitory confinement was a perverse environment
which wreaked appalling damage on personal and social development. Governments
knew this, yet allowed it to continue" (p19). The same conclusion is reached
about the lack of appropriate health and sanitation conditions in communities;
the widespread exploitation of labour on missions, settlements and in
rural industry; and the exploitation by the government itself of Aboriginal
savings through the use of trust funds. As Dr Kidd continually emphasises,
this happened under the rubric of acting in peoples 'best interests' and
with benign intent. The book challenges what is perhaps the mainstream
view of this history. It demonstrates simply and clearly that it is untenable
to suggest that successive Queensland governments have merely been bit
players, whose role in shaping the current parlous state of Indigenous
communities across the state is of only minor consequence.
The book rightfully identifies Queensland governments and administrators
as the central influence in affecting the status of Indigenous communities,
and in showing continuity to the present.
As she says in the introduction, "I wanted to uncover other truths, to
ask a different set of questions, to start with a different set of assumptions,
to expose this untold story. My path was not the seamless political packaging
from benign (if misguided) practices of the past linked to the funding
generosity of the present, defining Aboriginal conditions as a continuing
Aboriginal problem." This leads me to question - what are the consequences
of this history that has been so expertly exposed in this book? I am sure
that most of you are aware of the current offer from the Queensland government
for 'stolen wages'. I have been an outspoken critic of the approach which
the government has taken.
The book particularly relates to two aspects of this current debate we
are having about stolen wages. First, the troubles that Dr Kidd talks
of in gaining access to official government records of what happened,
remains. A so-called 'generous' offer of reparations has been made to
Indigenous communities, who have limited access to records which reveal
the true status of their circumstances. The government today continues
a long tradition of Queensland governments seeking to manage or perhaps
manufacture the truth. The government's offer does not appropriately address
the issue of public acknowledgement, and of correcting the historical
record of what has happened with the wages and savings of Indigenous peoples
in this state over the past century. This remains an issue that needs
to be given great consideration as government and Indigenous communities
begin to consider what will be the appropriate response and settlement
for the welfare fund in the coming year.
Second, what Dr Kidd's book shows is that while the government presents
its offer for stolen wages as an act of reconciliation, of good intent
and of kindness, it is in fact paying back Aboriginal people what is rightfully
theirs. This fundamentally affects how we view the offer by the government
- what is presented as an act of reconciliation is in fact a continued
exploitation of Indigenous peoples. A cheap way of paying off a moral,
and in all likelihood legal, encumbrance on the government.
We are challenged to consider these issues when we read Black Lives Government
Lies and I would say that Dr Kidd has succeeded in asking different questions
and challenging assumed truths. We currently live in a world that is full
of uncertainty and fear. The war on terror has exposed dangerous and undesirable
characteristics in many Australians, with heightened suspicion of people
of different racial and ethnic groups, and a reduced level of tolerance
and acceptance of difference. The plight of Indigenous peoples in this
country has been affected by this change in the national mood.
The reductive, minimal approach to Indigenous issues that has been adopted
by the Commonwealth Government has seen reconciliation and concepts of
social justice reduced to and defined by experiences of disadvantage as
if they existed in an a-historical vacuum. Connections between past experiences
and present disadvantage and the denial of rights are treated as separate
and unrelated. They are not. Dr Kidd is to be commended for so vividly
demonstrating these connections between past and present, and for outlining
some of the challenges that remain in addressing unfinished business.
Dr Rosalind Kidd's article in this issue of Common Theology
Dr William Jonas AM,
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Human
Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission spoke at the launch of the 2nd
edition of Ros Kidd's Black Lives Government Lies on February 12 in Brisbane.
Lives Government Lies (pp69) available from email@example.com
ANTaR Queensland, 25-27 Cordelia Street, South Brisbane 4101
rrp. $14.95 By Dr Ros Kidd