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?