The Guardian 23 April, 2008
Stolen wages "insult"
Kirstie Parker and Alf Wilson
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Queenslanders are considering legal action against the state government over its decision to divert more than $20 million of a reparations offer for stolen wages to Indigenous educational scholarships.
At protest meetings held in Brisbane, Townsville, Ingham, Rockhampton, Normanton and Mapoon earlier this month they declared the Cabinet decision "disgusting", and "an insult" which treated claimants "like children" and amounted to "another theft" of their hard-earned wages.
They say the plan shirks the government’s responsibility for education, and puts young people who might be in receipt of scholarships in an unfair position.
The issue was further inflamed when a north Queensland federal MP reportedly urged stolen wages campaigners to "get over" the issue for the sake of Indigenous children.
In 2002, the state government announced a $55.4 million Indigenous Wages and Savings Reparations (IWSR) Scheme to help address historical injustices suffered by Indigenous Queenslanders through the controls imposed by the successive governments over their wages and savings from the 1890s to the early 1970s.
More than 3,200 people who applied for payments under the IWSR Scheme were refused because government records, many of which have been lost or destroyed, did not exist to back their claim.
A total of 5,553 people were assessed as eligible, with 4,211 receiving $4,000 and 1,342 receiving $2,000, leaving about $35 million.
During consultations by the government last year, Indigenous community members considered a range of options and expressed an overwhelming preference for the remaining funds to be distributed to claimants.
On 25 March, Premier Anna Bligh and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships Minister Lindy Nelson-Carr announced that about $15 million of the remaining IWSR funds would be paid to the past successful claimants (a further $3,000 for those who had received $4,000 initially and a further $1,500 for those who had received $2,000 initially). The payments would be rolled out from next month, with priority given to the old and the sick.
The remaining $21.2 million would be added to $10.8 million from the defunct Aborigine Welfare Fund (AWF) to provide about 140 scholarships to Indigenous young people each year under a new Indigenous Queenslanders Foundation, starting by the middle of the year.
The Premier said the scholarships of up to $20,000 per recipient would allow Indigenous students to seize educational and sporting opportunities that might otherwise be out of their reach.
"I passionately believe that the new scholarship funds present a real opportunity for the youngest generation of Indigenous Queenslanders to break out of disadvantage and seize educational and training opportunities which would otherwise be denied to them," she said
"We must close the gap in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians and that means improving general health, education, employment and housing outcomes, and to tackle the hard issues in the remote communities like alcohol and welfare reform.
"While some older Indigenous Queenslanders may be initially disappointed in the final payments for ‘stolen wages’, I urge them to support the Foundation to give their children and grandchildren the opportunity of the best possible education."
Ms Nelson-Carr said the final payments from the IWSR Scheme were an acknowledgement of the wrongs and harms caused by past government policies.
"No amount of money could really compensate those Indigenous Queenslanders who suffered under the ‘Protection Acts’," she said. "The government’s focus is on ensuring that Indigenous Queenslanders have the same prospects as all Queenslanders."
Two hundred Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and supporters attended a meeting at St Teresa’s Church, Townsville, where they slammed the government’s decision.
"Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders and community members are outraged by the recent Cabinet decision to rip-off those recipients whose stolen wages are still owed to them", said meeting co-ordinator Yvonne Butler.
"We slam the state government for their continued patronising actions towards our people and we call for immediate action."
The meeting recommended that an injunction be sought on the distribution of the remaining IWSR Scheme funds to stolen wages claimants "who have the right to make their own decisions on how this money will be spent according to their individual needs", and a class action be mounted against the Queensland government for full compensation of stolen wages (estimated to total more than $500 million).
The meeting also called on the government to identify all mainstream public houses paid for using stolen wages and the AWF, and for the families of deceased claimants to be entitled to claim reparations on behalf of their Elders.
More than 300 people marched peacefully on Minister Nelson-Carr’s Townsville electorate office.
Many of the protesters carried placards and stickers bearing the words "Stolen Wages built this State" and chanted that they wanted stolen wages, had lost lives and wanted compensation immediately.
A delegation comprising Gracelyn Smallwood, Yvonne Butler, Dulcie Isaro, Pastor John Anderson, Felicitas Ernest, Carl Wacando met with the Minister and handed her a petition.
Ms Nelson-Carr said after the meeting she understood that elderly Indigenous Queenslanders were still carrying pain over the manner in which they were treated under the "control legislation" in the past.
However, she said the Cabinet’s decision was final.
"The Cabinet decision on this matter has attempted to strike a balance between recognising the wrongs of the past and trying to give young Indigenous Queenslanders opportunities for the future", she said.
On suggestions that stolen wages campaigners may sue over the matter, Ms Nelson-Carr said, "I indicated that that was their right and a course open to them in consultation with their legal advisers".
Asked whether the government would provide campaigners with funds to help them test the matter in court, she said the matter was outside her portfolio responsibility and should be directed to the Attorney-General.
The Townsville rally also criticised federal Member for Herbert Peter Lindsay, who told the Townsville Bulletin newspaper the day before that Indigenous Elders fighting for stolen wages compensation should focus on "what you can change, not what you can’t change" and "just get over it".
"It’s time to forget about the past. The past has happened, nobody wanted it to happen but it’s happened", Mr Lindsay was reported as saying.
"The community is fed up with the constant claims for money from Indigenous leaders. Their answer to everything is ‘just send us money’ and nothing ever happens.
"There wouldn’t be an Australian taxpayer who wouldn’t want to see the problems the Indigenous disadvantaged are facing to be addressed."
Mr Lindsay said stolen wages campaigners had to adopt a strong leadership role "to realise they’re part of the solution".
Elder Alice Barney wept as she told that a brother of hers had died in custody while in jail many years ago and had been owed wages.
"Peter Lindsay wouldn’t give up his own superannuation which is a lot more than the stolen wages we want which is a pittance", she said.
Gracelyn Smallwood told the rally that Mr Lindsay wouldn’t want to abolish Anzac Day because it "had already happened".
"Is he saying that we should move on without compensation and forget the past but it isn’t the same for every other Australian?" she said.
About 20 people who gathered in Rockhampton on Monday also rejected outright the government decision.
"Many people are still disappointed and feel that they are entitled to a more appropriate compensation — equal to what had been taken from the wages that they had honestly earned through hard and sometimes backbreaking work", the group said in a statement.
They rejected the educational fund, saying education was the government’s responsibility, and said family members of deceased claimants should be able to submit claims on behalf of those deceased relatives.
"This money should be distributed in full to all those previously successful applicants, who through hard work, blood, sweat and tears, rightfully earned it but wrongfully had it taken from them in the first place", they said.
About 80 mostly elderly people gathered at the Jagera Arts Centre to hear details of the Cabinet decision. Also there were Democrats Senator Andrew Bartlett, who said the government should return all unspent IWRS funds to claimants and their descendants, and representatives of Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation (ANTaR).
Grace Roma Hegarty, who successfully claimed $4,000 under the first payment offer, travelled from Cherbourg to the Brisbane meeting. Now aged 60, as a child she worked as a domestic servant or "slave labour".
"I came to speak for my money", she told The Koori Mail. "I’m disgusted. I have six children and 22 grandchildren and I would rather see them benefit from my money from my hard-earned wages.
"I’m sick of my money going from one fund into another. The government promised us when they came to Cherbourg to give us our money. This offer? Well, they can wipe their behinds with it."
During the meeting, Aunty Ruth Hegarty reported back on discussions she and other representatives had with Minister Nelson-Carr following the government announcement.
"The announcement came as a shock, it’s not fair at all to any of us", she said.
"Once again the government has treated us like children... We are very, very angry. They may have used and abused us when we were kids, but we will no longer let that happen.
"Seven thousand dollars is all we are worth after all of the work we have put in, me from 14 years or age and others from 12 years.
"All we wanted was to have some closure on this whole thing... That money belongs to Aboriginal people directly, it is our endowments, our wages."
Aunty Ruth said she’d be disgusted with any Indigenous person who agreed to sit on the Indigenous Queenslanders Foundation. She urged young people to reject the money offered by the new body through scholarships.
"We want our young people to stand up with placards saying ‘Don’t give us our old people’s money’?", she said.
Alex Davison told the meeting the government was "doing an about face, they’re trying to do us out of the rest of this money".
"We are Elders, we are leaders in the community. We don’t need to be treated like this", he said.
Reverend Alex Gater told the meeting that 70 first-round claimants had died since receiving their payments.
"We are not going to take this. We have to go national and international and make the biggest noise", she said. "That’s our money, it does not belong to (Premier) Anna Bligh or (former Premier) Peter Beattie. No more talk, we need action."
Before the Brisbane meeting, ANTaR Queensland president Monique Bond said the government’s decision was "mean spirited, insulting and racially discriminatory".
"Incredibly, the government is repeating the same mistake that led to the scandal of stolen wages in the first place — creating a trust fund because it doesn’t believe that Indigenous workers are capable of managing their own money", Ms Bond said.
"We need to remember that the money in dispute is not taxpayers’ funds but the wages earned by Indigenous workers and never paid to them because of government negligence and fraud.
"No other group of Queenslanders would be treated in such a heartless way by a government that claims to stand up for the rights of working people."
The Brisbane meeting resolved to seek an injunction against AWF money being rolled into the educational foundation; to write to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin; to explore avenues of support under the United Nations; to hold a state or national forum on the issue; and to organise demonstrations and protests, also mobilising non-Indigenous support.