Justice Now

By Ros Kidd
Kate Ausburn Flickr

From the turn of last century, Australian state governments took control of the lives of people of Aboriginal descent, assuming all-encompassing powers that continued for over 60 years. No government has ever been held to account for its application of these extraordinary powers over the personal and financial lives and labour of thousands of disempowered Aboriginal families.

This article will look at the powers assumed by successive Queensland governments, how those powers were exercised, and the fight for just resolution for what are termed the Stolen Wages.

Under the 1897 Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act and subsequent laws and regulations, the government in Queensland gave itself the right to “remove” any Aboriginal person or family from their home country, to confine for life any person to a mission or government settlement, to control their children, to indenture any child or adult to employment, and to administer their private finances. People “under the Act” were thereby forcibly dependent on the discretion of government and the integrity of its administrators. While it was possible to gain “exemption” from these controls, people of Aboriginal descent remained under continual surveillance and threat of resubjection. At any one time, into the late 1960s, more than two-thirds of Aboriginal Queenslanders were “under the Act”, half of them compulsorily confined on controlled reserves.

These extreme measures were justified as “protection”. Key police in rural areas were designated as “protectors” under the office of the Chief Protector of Aboriginals (renamed Director of Native Affairs after 1939). For almost 70 years, rural protectors controlled the movements of local Aboriginal families, as well as their employment through compulsory work “agreements” designating place, work status and rate of pay, generally 30 – 70 per cent of white wages. 12-month agreements allowed for a fortnight’s holiday each year when workers could return to their families. Absconders were arrested and returned to work or banished to Palm Island. Wages were paid directly to the protector except for a token “pocket money” component. Dealings on personal wages and savings were kept secret from account holders until 1968.

Successive laws and regulations mandated the security of these private monies. In 1899 protectors were directed to keep proper accounts of all wages received and money expended on a worker’s behalf, and from 1901 they were deemed “public accountants” under the Audit Acts. The 1910 regulations decreed the Chief Protector must keep proper records of all monies deposited in the Government Savings Bank. The 1939 Aboriginals Preservation and Protection Act again directed protectors, as “public accountants” under current Audit Acts, to keep proper records of all dealings on Aboriginal money or property. While a new law in 1965 released all Aboriginal people from official control except those living on missions and government settlements, their finances could still be subject to compulsory management. An Amendment Act in 1967 constituted the Director “as a corporation sole capable in law of suing and being sued”.

Only after 1971 were people free to live and work where they pleased, although the department could retain control of those deemed financially inept.

“None of the government’s financial dealings on Aboriginal monies was ever open to public scrutiny.”

In addition to the massive accumulation of private savings (equivalent to $9.6 million in 1940; $7.3 million in 1970), this legal financial accountability encompassed three trust funds. The Aboriginal Protection of Property Account (APP), established under the 1904 regulations to hold the wages of deceased or missing workers for transfer to their descendants. The Aboriginal Provident Fund (APF), established under the 1919 regulations as a relief fund for unemployed workers, through levies on Aboriginal wages (five per cent for single workers, half that for married workers). And the Aboriginal Welfare Fund (AWF), set up in 1945 to absorb previous APF levies and profits from settlement labour, to be expended “for the benefit of Aborigines generally”, for which the Director of Native Affairs “as trustee” was required to keep full records and accounts.

None of the government’s financial dealings on Aboriginal monies was ever open to public scrutiny. It is only recently that the evidence from internal inquiries, audit reports and correspondence has been exposed. This evidence shows that from the earliest days of its financial management, successive governments condoned and continued a system blighted by fraud and misappropriation.

Government records show that the token “pocket money” payable to workers during employment was never secure, because, as auditors complained in the 1930s, there was no head office inspection to check payments were ever made. Protectors surveyed in 1943 described the system as a farce and a direct profit to employers[1]; in 1956 they said it was “out of control” with workers “entirely at the mercy of their employers”[2]. In the mid-1960s auditors reported that lack of head office supervision left the system “too open to abuse”[3]. It is clear the government was fully aware during more than 60 years that thousands of “wards of state” contracted in compulsory employment had wages stolen by their employers.

What of the government agents – the police protectors who administered rural accounts from 1901? A 1923 Public Service Inquiry[4] described police fraud on Aboriginal accounts as “endemic” and urged workers be given the right to appeal dealings on their accounts; this was ignored. Introduction of thumbprints to corroborate withdrawals made little difference. A public service inquiry in 1932[5] warned that government supervision of police dealings on Aboriginal savings accounts was “totally inadequate”.

With no accurate verification of wages paid and endemic pilfering, the Aboriginal accounts were, concluded the inspectors, more vulnerable to fraud than any other government accounts. Although the government centralised the bulk of Aboriginal savings accounts in Brisbane in 1933 specifically “to minimise police fraud”[6], little changed. Auditors complained in 1940 that thumb printed withdrawal forms were easily falsified because head office did not check police handling. Auditors in the late 1960s said lax head office surveillance cast doubt on the authenticity of supposedly witnessed signatures. In 1968 the government issued bank passbooks in order to improve security to some extent, but in 1970 auditors yet again complained that forgeries continued due to the lack of vital checks by head office. People could request permission to run their own accounts after 1972, but auditors in the mid 1970s described security procedures on remaining accounts as “faulty”.[7]

It is clear the government was also fully aware that these thousands of designated “wards of state” had their savings stolen due to the government’s failure to uphold clearly stated legal obligations.

What of the trust funds? Official records show that from the outset the APP and the APF were both raided by government for its own purposes, covering outlays such as building and development on missions and settlements, a launch used for government business in northern Queensland, amenities on rural reserves, and general administrative liabilities. Between 1925 and 1935, including the Depression years, the government simply transferred into consolidated revenue the equivalent of $3.5 million from the two trust funds, which was never repaid. A further $933,000 was taken from the accumulated Aboriginal savings trust fund. A 1941 Investigation[8] noted the APP was too depleted to meet its contingent liability to potential claimants.

The 1943 remit of the AWF, which absorbed the APF, was wide enough to legitimise previously censured diversion of trust monies to cover government costs. Even so, as the director protested, items continued to be charged against the AWF which were rightly government liabilities, such as costs of forcibly “removing” people to missions and settlements. In the 1940s and again in the 1960s the director objected to settlement wages charged against the fund. In the 1970s and 1980s auditors complained there was no proper accounting for the AWF’s million-dollar cattle ventures (stock control entries for 1986 were listed on a hand-written sheet inside the file cover).

During those same decades auditors complained there were no proper registers charting rents and expenditure for the AWF’s settlement housing projects. Records reveal that at times, lump sums from the APP, and later child endowment, pensions, and federal housing funds were streamed through the AWF, raising operational questions. It is clear the government failed its trust duties to secure and advance the AWF “for the benefit of’ Aboriginal Queenslanders”. Indeed the government only ceased its dealings on this fund in 1990 after concerted Aboriginal protests.

There is no question that Queensland governments of the twenty-first century know that their predecessors were guilty of grossly failing their legal liabilities and of chronic mismanagement of Aboriginal wages, private accounts and trust funds over more than 60 years. The archives are full of such evidence, detailed in decades of audit reports, damning internal inquiries, and protesting letters from senior bureaucrats. What has been the response to this litany of damning evidence?

“There is overwhelming evidence that the Queensland government knowingly and persistently failed to uphold its own laws and regulations.”

In state parliament in 2002, Premier Peter Beattie conceded “past injustices”, revealed there were already 4000 potential litigants, said the amount at stake might be $500 million, and announced his government’s “generous” offer of $55.6 million as settlement for the Stolen Wages. Repudiating any legal liability, the government offered $2000 to workers under the age of 50 and double that for older workers (deceased accounts were excluded) – conditional on documented proof and legal indemnity for the state. Such was the outrage and disgust that over $30 million was unclaimed four years later, prompting the government to increase payments to $7000.

In 2010, in defiance of express community wishes to distribute the unclaimed balance among Stolen Wages claimants, the government merged the remaining $15 million with the $10.8 million residue in the notorious AWF, to establish a foundation for educational scholarships for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island children. In 2014, Premier Campbell Newman declared the Stolen Wages matter closed. Stolen Wages claimants are forced to continue their battle.

I am not here arguing the rights and wrongs of “protection” policies. I am arguing that for the lifetime of the “protection” regime there is overwhelming evidence that the Queensland government knowingly and persistently failed to uphold its own laws and regulations, failed to ensure its nominated agents acted legally, and betrayed its trust duties in exploiting bulk trust funds to its own advantage. The government knows that this documented failure enabled potentially millions of dollars to be lost from thousands of Aboriginal accounts – earnings and savings of the poorest people in the state – during many decades of flawed guardianship.

The problem is: can it now be held to account? The government strategy is to demand an individual claimant provide complete and conclusive documentary evidence to substantiate a claim that funds are missing from a personal account. All documents were, of course, generated and held by the government which had an unambiguous legal duty, oft avowed, to “keep proper records”. Perversely, the government now exploits to its own advantage its failure to comply with this prescript. In a recent directions hearing in Brisbane’s District Court (Yeatman v The State of Queensland), the government invoked the dearth of surviving records to successfully argue it was unreasonably prejudiced in its ability to mount a defence against charges that money was missing from Mr Yeatman’s controlled account.

However there is no dearth of surviving documentation to prejudice the government’s ability to mount a defence of its conduct as trustee of multiple private accounts and trust funds during the twentieth century. Indeed government negligence and mismanagement of the private funds of individual Indian wards was the basis for a 1996 case in the United States (Cobell v Babbit). Account holders argued that the federal government had breached its core legal requirements: to keep proper records, to provide a full accounting to account holders, and not to exploit trust funds for its own gain. It was precisely the US Government’s inability to account for the funds taken into trust which resulted in a $A3.7 billion distribution to 500,000 past and present account holders.

There will be no justice for Stolen Wages claimants here in Australia until the body that proclaimed itself trustee of their funds is similarly held to account.

Ros Kidd is a freelance researcher. She has written widely on the financial mismanagement of Aboriginal savings and Trust funds for twenty years. Her evidence was crucial to multi-million dollar payments by the Queensland government for illegally underpaid wages and for money lost and stolen from private Aboriginal accounts while under government control. Dr Kidd continues to fight for full justice for the Stolen Wages.

Further information on www.roskidd.com


[1] Queensland State Archives [QSA] TR254 1D/106 17.8.43.

[2] ibid, 6.12.56.

[3] QSA TR 1320/1 Box 518:781M, 22.11.65, Report on the Head Office, Sub-department of Native Affairs.

[4] QSA A/69452, 15.3.23, Report on the Office of the Chief Protector of Aboriginals.

[5] QSA A/58856 9.11.32, Report on the Chief Protector of Aboriginals Office.

[6] QSA A/58856 13.11.32.

[7] QSA TR 1821/2:410, Audit Report 1973/74.

[8] QSA A/4291 29.7.41, Investigation into the Sub-department of Native Affairs.