STOLEN WAGES SCANDAL: WA govt offers pennies for a lifetime of lost wages

BY AMY MCQUIREAPRIL 3, 2012

Originally published in Tracker Magazine.

WA premier Colin Barnett. The Barnett government has offered $2,000 ex gratia payments to Aboriginal people who had their wages withheld on government missions. The offer has been labelled a “slap in the face” by the Aboriginal Legal Service of WA ((AAP IMAGE/JOSH JERGA)

NATIONAL: From the 1905 until the 1970s, Aboriginal people had their wages and entitlements funnelled into a complex system of trust accounts. The WA government is the latest state to offer a settlement, writes AMY McQUIRE*.

A $2000 one-off ex gratia payment in exchange for what, in some cases, was a lifetime of stolen wages.

That’s the Barnett government’s offer to the thousands of victims who had their wages and entitlements funnelled into trust accounts throughout the state between 1905 and 1972, under legislation like the Aborigines Act 1905 and the Native Welfare Act 1963.

There is no evidence that the funds were ever paid back, and the state government claims much of the documentation was lost.

The practice compounded the disadvantage of Aboriginal people, not just in Western Australia, but all around the country.

“This was a vast amount of money,” historian and stolen wages expert Dr Ros Kidd told Tracker.

“It’s not only the amount of wages that went missing in government hands, which is bad enough, but it’s also the amount of pensions and child endowments that weren’t paid, that the government knew about.”

“… We know that governments were well aware, particularly in WA that hundreds and thousands of dollars weren’t being paid.

“There are many letters by government inspectors which showed people were not being properly fed and housed, that (the government was) not looking after the worker.

“All this vast deprivation is because the government failed in its duty of care… I think that’s a terrible stain on the way governments behaved and it’s obscene they are walking way from it now.

“The poverty that we’ve got today in Aboriginal families would not be there if workers and pensioners had received the money they were entitled to.”

The WA government’s offer comes six years after a federal Senate inquiry probed the national scandal, and three years after the state government completed it’s own report.

The report was only made public last month, on the same day the offer was announced.

It was an internal government report, and although it was written in consultation with communities, the author remains undisclosed.

To be eligible for the payment, a claimant must be born before 1958, was aged 14 years or older and resident at a Government Native Welfare Settlement in WA. Their wages must have been withheld from them.

Descendants of claimants are not eligible for the payment. Claimants will only have six months to compile documentation and send off their applications.

Dr Kidd calls it a “disgustingly low amount to offer”.

“The WA government, perhaps of all governments, given their mining boom and being the richest state in Australia, should have paid some reasonable amount.

“…It really is an insult to cancel out so many people from the deal again. They say only 1,500 might be eligible.

“… In terms of any sense of justice, the West Australian government have been a failure on that score.”
The offer was also derided by Aboriginal Legal Service of WA CEO, Dennis Eggington, who labelled it a “slap in the face”.

He told Tracker that the fact it is not open to descendants is a “disservice” to victims.

“What this did is it created an intergenerational affect. This isn’t about saying a person went to work and didn’t get $2,000, so they should be given it back as fair compensation,” Mr Eggington told Tracker.

“We’re talking about people who worked a lifetime and were effected by this. In that period, they had families, they had children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren… I would even say for those families it is still having an intergenerational effect.

“… If the government doesn’t change its mind and give (reparations to descendants) then they are doing a great disservice to the families who would have got the benefit and should still get the benefit.”

The ALSWA is currently considering legal action.

“We’ve been doing a fair bit behind the scenes,” Mr Eggington said.

“We’re getting all our files in place, and looking at particular issues, particular people who have got stronger claims than others.

“We’ve been looking at the pros and cons of the schemes in NSW and Queensland and we’ve been seeking opinions about the legal merit of class actions and test cases.”

He says, unfortunately, many Aboriginal people will want to accept the payment.

Mr Eggington is still receiving legal advice about whether that will mean they sign their legal rights away.

“We’re hoping that we can get a similar opinion (as the WA redress scheme) that if people accept the offer from the state government they will still have legal recourse to be a part of a class action or pursue their legal rights if there were a successful test case.”

There is currently a legal action against the Queensland government’s $55.4 million take-it-or-leave it reparations offer on behalf of Yarrabah man Uncle Conrad Yeatman.

Uncle Conrad is taking action to recover his decades of lost wages, withheld since he began work as a carpenter and labourer at age 14. It will put the onus back on government, which Dr Kidd argues is essential.

She argues that government, as a trustee of Aboriginal money, must be the ones held responsible for documentation.

“Anyone which gives itself the legal obligation as trustee of a person’s finances has the duty to keep the records,” Dr Kidd said.

She said the legal issues were similar to those in the United States – a similar practice was widespread among First Nations communities, except they won a $3.4 billion settlement in the ‘Cobell case’.

“The United States class action showed that the courts were likely to find if you can’t find records, that is automatically a breach of duty as a trustee.”

Dr Kidd says Aboriginal people shouldn’t trust government claims that records have been destroyed.

“I don’t think we can trust government to tell us what’s there or not.

“The Queensland government said records didn’t exist, and I actually received photocopies of them.

“So you can’t trust governments at all.

“It’s also quite perverse that the body that is on the defensive, and being charged with fraud and admits many times in its own records it is defrauding people, should be the body that determines who can find records.”

Numerous attempts by Tracker to contact the office of state Indigenous affairs minister Peter Collier were ignored.

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