One woman’s fight to retrieve her stolen wages

By Christopher Ringrose

Not Just Black and White | Lesley and Tammy Williams | University of Queensland Press

Murri Elder Lesley Williams and her daughter Tammy have produced an important book, which is both a historical record of governmental misdeeds when it came to “stolen wages” and an inspiring intergenerational story of perseverance, courage and success.

The book takes the form of a dialogue between mother and daughter, based on taped conversations between the two, and has been 20 years in the making. It culminates in Lesley’s nine-year legal battle to retrieve her earnings from her time as a domestic worker, which was being withheld by the Queensland Government under the various Aboriginals Preservation and Protection Acts.

From the 1890s to the 1970s, the Queensland Government managed the wages and savings of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Queenslanders who were controlled under the Protection Acts. Often, indigenous people did not know what was happening to their money. Government officials often took money out of these accounts to pay for things like clothing, travel fares, postage, medical and dental expenses, and purchase orders for workers or their families.

Indigenous workers were generally not told about this and unlike the rest of the community, many had no control over their money. The scandal of Aboriginal “stolen wages” in Queensland is now well documented, but Lesley’s first-hand account is highly valuable for its clarity, personal detail and emotional immediacy.

The greater part of Lesley’s wages were sent back from Condamine and Taroom to Cherbourg, the Aboriginal settlement that had been her family’s home since the early 1900s, when both sets of Lesley’s grandparents were removed from their traditional lands and relocated.

Lesley’s account of her life in life in the Cherbourg settlement leaves one in no doubt of the fact that the system was designed to ensure timidity. The authors provide a clear and evocative account of how it operated, and how its residents still managed to maintain their sense of family and dignity against the odds.

Tammy’s own story, interwoven with that of her mother, reinforces this sense of family loyalty and the will to succeed. Her success as a lawyer bears testament, she maintains, to the spirit of her mother, supportive brothers, wider family, and to the memory of her father, who died tragically young.

The book traces Lesley’s earlier attempts to withdraw from her ‘savings’, when she was humiliatingly rebuffed by a white official in Cherbourg, who asked her, “Why do you want it?”. Later in life, considerable hardship and admirable tenacity spurred her to track down the ‘savings’ of herself and thousands of others, and prepare for a legal test case of her claim.

“But Lesley’s pursuit of justice is an instructive and inspiring story of how one person, enlisting the support of determined political and legal allies, was able to confront a scandal that many clearly hoped would continue unacknowledged.”

Towards the end of Not Just Black and White, there is an iconic moment when Lesley discovers the passbook for her government-controlled savings account, resulting in her eventually signing a deed of settlement in August 1999.

The signing was followed by an apology by Judy Spence, Queensland’s Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Policy, and paved the way for Queensland’s purportedly “generous” offer in 2002 of $55.4 million to all Indigenous workers who had had their savings and wages controlled under the state’s various ‘Protection Acts’; although this process in itself was convoluted and attracted much criticism.

Not Just Black and White, focusing on Lesley’s struggle, does not deal with more recent developments, including Premier Campbell Newman’s contentious 2014 declaration that the Stolen Wages matter was closed.

But Lesley’s pursuit of justice is an instructive and inspiring story of how one person, enlisting the support of determined political and legal allies, was able to confront a scandal that many clearly hoped would continue unacknowledged.

It doubles up as a story of personal growth. Lesley characterises herself as someone who had grown “from a person who was meek and timid to one who had the confidence to stand up for what she believed in, and to take on the government”.

Lesley and Tammy are forthright about the insidious effects of institutionalised racism, which they experienced at school and at work, but are also generous in their acknowledgement of the friendship and support of white Australians who worked with them. The redoubtable and immensely sympathetic Andrée Roberts, the Brisbane-based employer of the young Lesley, will live on in the memory of any reader.

Lesley pays her dues to Aboriginal colleagues, but also expresses her disappointment with the outcomes of events such as the “stolen wages” meeting in Brisbane in 1997. Tammy wryly describes the reactions of some community members to her taking a job as a Commonwealth Prosecutor: “if you were a black lawyer, you should always be working as a defence lawyer, preferably fighting for native title land claims” and her response to being regarded as an “uptown black” or a “coconut”.

In this, and in other respects, the book is frank, defiant and wholly readable.

Not Just Black and White is now available from University of Queensland Press.