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Issue #1542      4 April 2012

WA $2,000 offer “a slap in the face”

The Western Australian government announcement that it will give $2,000 or less to Aboriginal people who had past earnings stolen has been condemned by Aboriginal leaders as cruel, heartless and misleading.

Between 1905 and 1972, thousands of Aboriginal workers had up to three-quarters of their earnings quarantined under legislation allowing money and property belonging to Aboriginal people to be put into a complex network of trust accounts, without their permission.

Much of this money has never been paid to the people who earned it and is now known as Stolen Wages.

Aboriginal Legal Service Western Australia (ALSWA) CEO Dennis Eggington said the government’s one-off offer of a maximum of $2,000 was a “slap in the face and a cruel and heartless offer which offends the very notion of recompense”.

“These people worked all of their lives, worked for years, for nothing but a bit of flour and tea, with a little bit of offal thrown in from the cattle barons, and they’re being offered probably a fortnight’s pay for an entire lifetime of work,” Mr Eggington said.

“It is a compete denial of the contribution these people made to the development of WA and it reinforces the stereotypical view that Aboriginal people aren’t worth anything and aren’t worth investing in.

“One of the outcomes of the Stolen Wages debate was a chance to rewrite history in WA and write back into the history the contribution these people made at a time when WA needed resources for farming and for developing rural WA.

“This sends a very clear message that it doesn’t matter what Aboriginal people do, that we’re not worth investing in.”

WA Indigenous Affairs Minister Peter Collier said he understood there would be some people who were disappointed.

“But I really did want a resolution and I’d like to think that this does now provide solace,” Mr Collier told the Koori Mail newspaper.

The 2008 West Australian of the Year, Mark Bin Bakar, is the founding member of the Kimberley Stolen Generation Aboriginal Corporation, a group that helps stolen children reconnect with their families.


Mark Bin Baka

His alter-ego Mary G usually brings laughter and empathy to difficult subjects, but on the day the Koori Mail spoke with Dr Bin Bakar he was saddened by the WA government’s actions.

“It’s disgraceful, disrespectful and hurtful to Aboriginal people because it shows there is still a mentality that reigns that believes we should still be considered under the flora and fauna act,” he said.

Minister Collier said that sum had been arrived at after an “arduous” process, with the Department of Indigenous Affairs doing extensive investigation and interviewing a number of people who had their wages stolen.

“In terms of ascertaining an appropriate amount, it’s important to remember that it’s based on figures from records that don’t exist,” he said.

“For some people it will be too much, for some it won’t be enough, and there will be people who are legitimately disappointed, but there is nothing tangible on which we could base an assumed amount.”

Senior researcher at the Nulungu Centre for Indigenous Studies at the University of Notre Dame, Broome, Steve Kinnane comes from Mirruwong country in the east Kimberley.

He has been researching the state’s recent Aboriginal history for more than 20 years, and a book he co-authored, Ghost Files: The Missing Files of the Department of Indigenous Affairs archives, was used as a reference in the previous WA government’s Stolen Wages Taskforce report, released in 2008.

“I don’t understand it, there’s plenty of evidence – including 15,000 personal files – that clearly indicates exactly how wages were spent, on what, and how much went into trust accounts,” Mr Kinnane said.

“The idea that there’s not enough information or evidence is wrong and misleading, and goes against what’s clearly stated in the government’s own report. It’s completely ridiculous as a response; it’s insulting and misleading as to what actually took place and what their own Inquiry found.”

WA is the third state to offer compensation for Aboriginal stolen wages. 

In 2002, the Queensland government offered $4,000 and $7,000, provided people waived the right to further compensation.

NSW formed the Aboriginal Trust Fund Repayment Scheme (ATFRS) in 2004, which was supposed to repatriate in full all the wages stolen from Aboriginal workers to surviving people and their families. It committed to paying $3,521 for every $100 stolen, but has been criticised for not following through properly with descendants and for the conditions for payment being too strict.

Mr Eggington said Aboriginal workers would have been better able to provide for their families had they been paid their proper wages.

“For families who have been fighting for so long, it’s a kick in the guts,” he said. “It’s like double jeopardy. Firstly there was a complete denial of what could have been an existing basis for steady family life, could have meant better education, housing, and health, and now they’re being denied a second time.”

Mr Eggington said ALSWA had boxes of documentation detailing people’s pensions being taken without their permission and records from cattle stations that withheld money detailing names and amounts in some cases. “If there are people who can’t prove their wages were stolen then there needs to be a different approach, but records do exist, in some cases they’re quite rigorous,” he said.

Mr Eggington said it was typical of the attitude of the WA government to Aboriginal people, when a state that was doing so well out of the resources and mining boom refused to do the right thing by its Indigenous people.

“In WA, we have booming mining towns alongside poverty-stricken deplorable shanty towns,” he said.

“It just reinforces that attitude that we’re worthless, and don’t matter.”

The 2008 WA Stolen Wages Taskforce recommended a formal apology to Aboriginal people for income control and the effects on Aboriginal people; public recognition of the substantial contribution Aboriginal people have made to the social, economic and cultural development of the state, and those who served in, or assisted, the armed forces; recognition of Aboriginal people in the Constitution of WA; implementing a formal policy of welcome to country at all public events; recognising Aboriginal people by encouraging the use of the Aboriginal flag on government buildings; and a community fund to encourage economic growth and recognise the broader implications of stealing Aboriginal people’s wages.

Mr Collier said his government would not be doing any of those things, because they were outside the terms of reference of the taskforce. “We, as a government, have responded to stolen wages as required. That report went beyond the confines of stolen wages,” he said. “I can appreciate there will be some disappointment but, having said that, we did have to find a resolution. We could have ignored the issue completely but it was the decision of this government to go down this path.”

Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation (ANTaR) WA’s John McBain said the WA government offer was “grossly inadequate” and “in clear conflict with the legal and moral standards of our nation”.

“The proposed WA scheme falls far short of comparative schemes in NSW and Queensland, excluding descendants from compensation and delivering less compensation,” he said.

“West Australians should be ashamed of this government’s mean-spirited offer.”

Dr Bin Bakar said the government’s actions forced people to relive their pain.

“If you give people a sense of hope, that people feel the government is going to do a good deal, about redress, native title, stolen wages, and they do something like this very patronising attempt at reconciling the past, then that sense of hope just goes and it breaks your heart,” he said.

“Our people are in trauma as it is, and the government keeps dangling a carrot, or throwing burley to mullets, and you know, mullets just go mad. They’re laughing at our people, making a mockery of us, and it’s not Australian, not Australian at all.

“The truth of the matter is the government had the opportunity to do the right thing, to deal with the past with Aboriginal Stolen Wages, to really change people’s lives for the better, to reconcile, move on, so people could say ‘I suffered but my country loved me, my country looked after me’.

“But not the way Aboriginal people are being treated. There’s a stake in the heart of Aboriginal people; they move it and we bleed a bit more.”

Koori Mail  

Next article – Robots kill, but the blood is on our hands

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