Where Have all the Wages Gone?

by Dr Rosalind Kidd

Dr Ros Kidd

From 1900 to the 1970s Queensland governments took total control over Aboriginal wages and private savings. People had no idea what they earned, who was taking money from their savings, or what amounts they had to their credit after decades of work. There was no consent and no avenue of appeal. Across generations, while the public was told the government was funding, supporting, 'protecting' Aboriginal families, thousands of people were trapped from childhood in a work regime which split them from their families and communities, condemning them to the humiliation of penury and the prospect of early death.
Governments in Queensland profited handsomely from the labour of this disempowered workforce. They decreed all workers would 'contribute' to a Trust Fund as unemployment insurance and then raided the Fund for operational expenses (including costs of deportations to reserves) and for capital works on settlements, for grants to missions and development loans.
During the depression years they siphoned off fifty per cent of money held in deceased estates, seized bank interest due on private savings, and simply deducted from accounts held for patients at Fantome Island twice the cost of their medical care. No person was advised of these raids on their accounts - raids which auditors and public service inspectors condemned. Over many decades, rural workers 'contributed' to buildings, fencing and amenities on country reserves. But these reserves are crown land; it was the department's responsibility to provide adequate shelter and sanitation; these improvements are assets of the state. The government intercepted federal child endowment from the 1940s, passing only a fraction to the mothers. By the 1960s its nest-egg was so large it feared the federal government might find out and withhold further payments. Meanwhile babies were dying in their first year at more than six times the non-indigenous rate, malnutrition was the key factor in mortality of fifty per cent of children under three and eighty-five per cent of children under four.
This is the profit and loss register of government 'protection'. Contracted labour was a huge money-earner for the government. By indenturing able-bodied men, women, and children from fourteen years of age, the government reduced maintenance and rationing costs on the settlements and took the incoming wages. It was not until the late 1960s that the government stopped taking 'contributions' from private savings and people were allowed to see a record of their accounts. Only from the 1970s could people apply to control their own banking and many discovered, to their horror, that little remained after decades of work.
Some made the long trip to Brisbane, presented their bank books to departmental staff, and asked: where has my money gone? The official answer then - as it is now - is that records are lost or incomplete, that it is almost impossible to trace transaction histories, that people have no recourse. Then - as now - this is untrue.
Today, the Beattie Labor government has offered $2000 or $4000 per person (depending on age) as reparations for decades of 'lost' wages and savings. Ignoring protests from Reconciliation Queensland, the government touts this 'generous offer' as being made 'in the spirit of reconciliation'. This pitiful payment is only available to those who sign an indemnity against any future legal action to regain monies owing.
Poverty is notoriously entrenched and many will take what they can; the government has already paid 'consultants' who explained that those who initiate legal action are likely to loose and may personally have to bear significant costs. The meanness of the offer is matched by the subterfuge of the government which knows full well the wealth of records which document almost a century of negligence and outright misuse of Aboriginal monies.
Frauds by employers which were so endemic that in a sixty-year period, as auditors continued to point out, there was no way of knowing how much, if at all, workers received of up to eighty per cent of their wages which were payable during the work period. Swindling by police protectors which was so endemic Aboriginal monies were described as being more prone to fraud than any other government account. This unchecked fraud was touted publicly as the reason the government centralised all banking in Brisbane in the 1930s, but police fraud continued. And for almost forty years the government siphoned off up to eighty per cent of the bulk savings to generate investment profits for itself - while those whose money it was lived, and died, in poverty.
An internal Inquiry in 1991 concluded that fraud on the savings accounts was 'a fairly regular occurrence', and adduced a 'large volume of undetected fraud', including misappropriation and misapplication, due to the lack of competent control systems - an incompetency frequently identified but never resolved. In throwing claimants a few dollars to buy their legal quiescence the Beattie government is perpetuating the secrecy and denial which so profitably benefited its predecessors.
By demanding compliance from people who are refused access to their financial records, it is exploiting their systemic poverty and contemptuously trampling their rights. By touting this buyout as 'reconciliation' it is reinforcing racist assumptions that, once again, Aboriginal people are the benefactors of government largesse. Aboriginal Queenslanders slaved for this money. The government took control of it and millions of dollars has been lost or stolen. This is the twentyfirst century. Surely it is time for honesty and justice. Or has nothing changed?