Black Lives Government Lies

article by Dr William Jonas

 

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 would.
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 generations'.
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.

Link to 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.

Black Lives Government Lies (pp69) available from antarqld@dovenetq.net.au
ANTaR Queensland, 25-27 Cordelia Street, South Brisbane 4101
rrp. $14.95 By Dr Ros Kidd