John von Doussa:I too acknowledge that we are meeting on Aboriginal land and I pay my respects to the Elders.
It is my very great pleasure to be here to launch Trustees on Trial recovering the stolen wages by Dr Rosalind Kidd.
As many of you know, for over a decade Dr Kidd has been a tenacious and dedicated advocate for the rights of Indigenous people. She has focused especially on the gross inequities that occurred through and under the various ‘Protection Acts’ that operated in Queensland from the 1890s to the 1980s.
In 1996, Dr Kidd was an expert witness in the Palm Island Wages Case which were proceedings before the Human Rights Commission. The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission found that the past decisions of the Queensland Government to pay wages to Aboriginal people employed by the government on missions at about one third the rate that non-Aboriginal people were being remunerated for similar work, was a breach of the 1975 Racial Discrimination Act.
In response to the decision, the Queensland Government introduced the ‘Underpayment of Award Wages Process’ in 1999 [making available] a single payment of $7000 to people employed by the Government in Aboriginal Reserves between 31 October 1976 — when the Racial Discrimination Act came into force — and 29 October 1986 — when everybody moved onto proper award wages.
But that process left two other important aspects of the stolen wages campaign to be resolved.
The first was …the underpayment of wages to Aboriginal people employed by church organisations on mission communities. This topic is presently being addressed in litigation in the Federal Court.
The first claim against Queensland has so far been unsuccessful. The court found that the underpayment was not the result of discrimination by the Government contrary to the Racial Discrimination Act because it was the church, not the government, that was the actual employer. That decision is under appeal, and there are other cases awaiting trial. It remains to be seen whether Queensland is ultimately found liable for that underpayment on the basis that it provided the funding to the church organisations and it was therefore an accessory to the underpayment.
The second remaining aspect of the stolen wages campaign is central to Trustees on Trial. It concerns the fate of savings, wages, endowment payments and pensions of Indigenous people that were taken into the control of the State under Queensland’s administration of the ‘Protection’ laws.
It seems that these moneys, on being taken by a ‘Protector’, were in the first instance credited to accounts in the names of the persons concerned and certainly the legislation at the time required that. But — and this is the problem — the moneys so credited have never been properly accounted for.
After sustained pressure from the stolen wages campaigners — including Dr Kidd — in May 2002 the Queensland Government conditionally offered a one-off payment of either $2000 or $4000, depending on the age of the person concerned, under the ‘Indigenous Wages and Savings Reparations Process’.
When the time for making claims under that Process closed about 3 years later, there had been a very low take-up of the offer. Trustees on Trial explores why this was so, including such things as inadequate consultation with the communities affected, a readily understandable perception that the offer was “too little, too late”, and a feeling amongst the communities that the very smallness of the offer was simply an insult.
Dr Kidd has harnessed all her considerable skills as a researcher and an historian to show why those feelings are justified. She meticulously documents the devastating impact of Queensland’s administration of Indigenous affairs under the very laws that purported to protect Indigenous people.
The book records instance after instance of the misappropriation or misuse of funds that were taken from wages, etc. into the care of ‘Protectors’. Tragically, the loss of these moneys has resulted in many Indigenous people being caught in a cycle of inter-generational poverty which is still affecting them today.
At its commencement the book announces that its purpose is to bring a legal perspective to the realities of history. To this end, Dr Kidd develops the argument that the ‘stolen wages’ came into the hands of the State in circumstances that render the state a trustee, subject to a host of fiduciary duties which impose continuing legal obligations to account for all these moneys and to compensate those that haven’t received them in today’s values. From a legal perspective, I have to say that the issues are both complex and complicated. Whilst I think there is room for academics and lawyers to debate the prospects of legal action based on the principles of equity explored in Trustees on Trial, the book does eloquently illustrate the moral obligation that rests on Queensland to provide a just outcome for the communities whose members were systematically robbed over a very long period of time.
Perhaps the greatest value of Trustees on Trial is to lay bare the record of financial mismanagement by Queensland and the moral failure at the time to act on evidence of systematic underpayment, of fraud and of suspect dealings with the moneys held in accounts. The book gives justification for the often expressed view that the issue of stolen wages is one of the great scandals about the ‘Protection era’ that remains to be resolved.
As Geoffrey Robertson QC observes in the foreword to this book, Premier Beattie at least put forward a scheme that his government hoped would achieve an outcome, and for that he at least deserves two cheers for acknowledging a responsibility. However, the Stolen Wages Reparation Process has left most issues unresolved and they continue to be a bar to the process and progress of reconciliation. The Stolen Wages Campaign continues and Trustees on Trial is unashamedly intended to give the campaign new impetus by disclosing to the world what really happened.
Geoffrey Robinson also gives his views that the equitable principles which Dr Kidd has explored may not be the best way forward. He suggests that the best way to rein in government action is through a developed system of administrative or public law. Well, whether that be right or not, or even if some of those observations are relevant to the present situation, I too wonder whether litigation based on the obligations and duties of care of a fiduciary is the best way forward.
I think the solution most likely to advance the cause of reconciliation would be a negotiated settlement. And I stress a negotiated settlement, not one imposed unilaterally by the government on a ‘take it or leave it’ basis. It must be a settlement worked out through proper consultation with the Indigenous communities involved. It will have to be a settlement that recognises on one hand the moral and legal obligations resting on Queensland …and on the other hand I think, good sense on the part of the communities to discount their claims somewhat to achieve finality without further long delays.
Whatever might be the other problems with the 2002 Reparation Process, the amount offered was obviously too low. It was even much less than the arbitrary amount available to people in somewhat different circumstances under the Palm Island Case process.
The scandal of 'stolen wages' is not confined to Queensland. Similar problems … also arose under ‘Protection’ policies in other states and they also remain unresolved.
Dr Kidd’s book makes a very valuable contribution to understanding why the stolen wages scandal continues. It should be read by every non-Indigenous person in Australia so that they understand why there is continuing and justified resentment and frustration simmering within the Indigenous communities that were affected. Hopefully Trustees on Trial will assist a sensible outcome.
The Senate Legal and Constitutional References Committee is presently holding an Inquiry into stolen wages in Australia. Dr Kidd’s research that lies behind her book, and the book itself, is likely to be a very valuable resource for that Committee.
I congratulate Dr Kidd …and have much pleasure in formally declaring Trustees on Trial launched.
 Baird v Queensland  FCA 495.
I want to acknowledge and thank the traditional owners of this country and in any place where we move around Australia.
My thanks to Dr Fiona Paisley and Prof Anna Haebich from the Griffith University Centre for Public Culture and Ideas for their support including the 6-month research fellowship which was very welcome …but also for their considerable support of the stolen wages struggle generally and for hosting the launch.
And I’d like to thank Aboriginal Studies Press, in particular Director Rhonda Black and her deputy Gabby Lhuede. I have benefited greatly from their imagination and professionalism and their friendship, honesty and humour in helping me to translate a grand vision into a finished book.
…Thanks as always to my supportive family who seem perfectly unperturbed that their wife, mother and nana is gradually disappearing under an ever increasing avalanche of paper and books.
…I’m really touched that so many people have travelled so far for this launch …[and]… my friends and colleagues who have made the trip locally, my heartfelt thanks to you for coming today. Research and writing can be a very solitary pastime and I am overwhelmed by your expression of support.
I was thrilled when John von Doussa agreed so promptly to launch Trustees on Trial even though as it initially seemed he would travel all the way from Adelaide for a ten-minute speaking spot, but he generously organised to make time yesterday for a meeting with the Stolen Wages campaigners and planners which is much appreciated.
Given his eminent role as President of the Human Rights Commission and, in another life, as a judge on the Federal Court, I greatly value his appraisal of my book which suggests new strategies to achieve justice for thousands of Aboriginal families whose lives were impoverished by government policies, failure and greed.
I don’t make this journey on my own. I share the experiences of thousands of people who guide me through this vast historical landscape. Some might think that the voices of the past are not heard except in the memories of families and friends. But for me the realities of their lives speak from countless letters and reports. It’s this human dimension which is crucial to understanding this incredible immensely appalling social experiment where a handful of men gave themselves the power to control peoples lives for most of the 20th century and wielded that power with such disastrous effect. The past and present voices of those whose lives were controlled, demand that we confront those who still lie about the past, that we insist the truth be proclaimed, that we force those who wield the power to be accountable for their words and their actions.
I don’t see anything unusual in a middle class white woman undertaking such a journey. For me the colour is irrelevant. It’s the shared humanity that matters — the adults and small children I read about contracted to live and work in environments of physical and sexual abuses, of starvation rations and lousy conditions. These sufferers might be any one of us here, in another time and another place.
We are all human. We all feel pain and shock in enduring such hardships or in learning of them. I believe that in knowing these things now we can choose either to turn our backs and walk away or to link arms and say we will walk together on a journey to bring truth to our national history.
Whether I succeed or fail in my task, I can look my children and grandchildren in the eye and say I tried to play my part in righting a terrible wrong. I’m only one of many, and many were already fighting for justice while I lived in ignorance.
My hope for this book is that it might offer a strategy to force our governments to be accountable in our courts of law to settle this sorry saga on just terms which do not cheat people of their rights. I would like just once in my life, for those Premiers and Prime Ministers, who supposedly act in our names, to act with integrity, with true compassion and with honour.
Ah well, I always was a dreamer. Thank you.
Aboriginal Studies Press (ASP) is the publishing arm of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS).
Also by Rosalind Kidd:
"The Way We Civilise", University of Queensland Press, 1997
"Black Lives, Government Lies", University Of New South Wales Press, 2000