Palm Island – some fragments of history

I’m visiting Palm Island today on the invitation of some community members. There will be a lot of media focus with the Premier and some other people of note also visiting. My aim is to help ensure a commitment for change and positive support continues past the immediacy of the moment.

The reaction to the Queensland Director of Public Prosecution’s decision not to lay charges in regard to the death in police custody of Mulrunji is understandable. I believe it is important that attention continues to be given to this issue. However, the reason for the strength of the reaction to this decision doesn’t come just from this incident, but from the terrible history of repeated injustices that precedes it.

I don’t think there is a very good awareness of the details of this history amongst Queenslanders. I certainly feel like I’m only starting to become aware of it myself, even though I’ve lived in the state all my life, and I expect most other Queenslanders of my generation would be the same.

I may write about some of the details of my visit a bit later. In the meantime, below are just a few details from the history of Palm Island.

A government controlled and run reserve was established on the Island in 1918. The Queensland government continued to maintain full control over managing the Island until 1985, when the land title for the island was handed over to the local community Council. Whilst this gave some nominal control to the local Indigenous people, they have to operate without any rate base or other form of independent funding.

The following details are lifted directly taken from research done by Queensland Historian Dr Ros Kidd – you can access further details in the various articles on her website. Her findings come direct from more than a decade researching into hundreds of official government files.

I suppose if I had to single out one simple fact which struck me, as someone born in Queensland in the 1960s, it is the following quote:

Medical surveys on Palm Island in the 1960s recorded deaths of children under one year were more than 4 times the white rate, and deaths of children under four years over 13 times the white rate, 85 per cent dying primarily from diseases of malnutrition.


From early last century every employed Aboriginal in Queensland was contracted by the government for 51 weeks out of 52, with or without his or her family. To refuse such separation could result in beatings or banishment, usually to Palm Island. Some never saw or heard from families again. On the backs of this workforce of between 4000 and 5000 men, women and children, the Queensland pastoral industry developed and prospered. Surveys showed that Aboriginal workers were often regarded as more skilled than whites, but an agreement struck in 1919 between government and pastoralists set Aboriginal pay at 66% the white rate – for the next 50 years.

But the reality was even worse, because records show that workers actually received as little as 31% in 1949 and 59% in 1956. In that year a department survey confirmed the industry was entirely dependent on Aboriginal workers, particularly in remote areas where white stockmen were rare. The inspector deplored the entrenched mentality of paying ‘as little as possible for Aboriginal workers’ and he dismissed allegations of incompetence, observing that ‘white men of markedly less ability and industry [are] receiving higher wages and better living conditions than Aboriginals who are better workmen.’

Workers’ wages went directly to State control via police protectors except for a portion of ‘pocket money’. Yet over a sixty-year period the department never ensured pocket money was correctly paid. Indeed an Inquiry in 1932 warned it could be ‘reasonably assumed’ that workers were being cheated.

On Palm Island in the 1930s the death rate was over 6% and nearly every baby died who was not breastfed, because there were no funds for vitamin-enriched formula. At Cherbourg, the government’s showpiece institution, the walls of the dormitory were described as ‘literally alive with bugs … beds, bed clothing, pillows and mattresses are all infested … all pillows were filthy because the previous matron withheld pillowslips to save washing’.

In the 1950s at Cherbourg families of up to 19 people shared unlined two-room huts lacking water for washing or food preparation.

In the 1960s malnutrition was cited as the key factor in the deaths of 50% of children under three on missions and settlements, and ten years later, at Palm Island 75% of child outpatients registered as severely underweight, and massive infection loads of inmates were traced to substandard living conditions – a survey revealed that many homes had no fridge, cupboards or even beds. Aboriginal people were eligible for federal child endowment from the 1940s and federal pensions from the 1960s.

These entitlements could have done much to alleviate the poverty to which people were condemned, but it was not to be. Official files show the state government had already planned how to divert the money to consolidated revenue by nominating itself as bulk distributor, and passing to mothers only a fraction of the endowment. Within eight years the three government settlements had accumulated over a quarter of a million dollars. By 1953 Palm Island alone had siphoned off twice that; nervous the commonwealth might found out they decided to spend it on buildings and vehicles. Meanwhile the people whose money it was paid a terrible price.

Medical surveys in the 1960s recorded deaths of children under one year were more than 4 times the white rate, and deaths of children under four years over 13 times the white rate, 85 per cent dying primarily from diseases of malnutrition. The sick and elderly fared little better, a 1960s document shows that over half a million dollars of aged, invalid and widows’ pensions was diverted directly to consolidated revenue.

The government continued to reap massive profits by illegally shortchanging the people it was mandated to protect. There was a shortfall to workers of almost $187 million between 1975 and 1986; in full knowledge that this underpayment was illegal, and in full knowledge of consequential dire poverty. Rightful payment of this money to community workers would have dramatically altered living circumstances and prospects, then and now. After losing a case in the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission in 1996, the government in 1999 made available $7000 for each worker underpaid in the 1975-1986 period. Payouts currently total around $40 million, a massive bargain for the State of less than one quarter of what is owed.

Palm Island: death rate over 6%, most of the ill and elderly slowly starving to death; hospital rations inadequate so matron takes money from patients’ bank accounts to buy provisions; most babies who were not breast fed died from malnutrition; doctor’s demands that rations be trebled and fruit juice provided to children rejected by superintendent.
Private savings of Aboriginal people in government control: £268,000 ($16.2 million)
Amount diverted by government to investments: £ 200,000 ($12 million) (75%)

Townsville: almost $225,000 of Palm Island child endowment funds diverted to build hostel for visitors and outpatients Townsville hospital – Palm Islanders denied access from 1969.

Palm Island: 165 homes for 1300 people – few have fridges, cupboards, beds; store routinely without milk and fresh food; massive infection loads from substandard living conditions; malnutrition underlies gastroenteritis and salmonella epidemic; 75% child outpatients severely underweight; parents petition parliament saying they cannot feed families on 58% of basic wage.
Private savings of Aboriginal people in government control: $1.26 million ($7.7 million)
Amount diverted by government to investments: $918,000 ($5.6 million) (73%)

Missions and settlements: survey shows 664 houses needed to bring occupancy under 8 people per home – Palm Island average 12, Napranum 14, Hopevale 19; Woorabinda still wood stoves and cold water and in ‘dire need of repair’; families at Pormpurraw and Palm Island in condemned houses because nothing else available; government freezes funding and diverts resources to wages causing massive backlog in maintenance and housing building

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  1. Queensland cannot return to a vast ocean of sleepy town injustices.In the early 1970s without the prodding Of Whitlam stuff was coming through..I dagged around sometimes ,not as activist, but low income supporter of CARE Campaign Against Racial Exploitation and CAMAL..Campaign against mining on Aboriginal Land..Seeing the older activists from Queensland ,Aboriginals,well spoken with good community intentions,and many details of mistreatment to draw from…What is presented by the Senator shows how difficult the problem has been for Queensland offspring of original inhabitants…they have had to educate us,like Australians have seemingly had to educate the Japanese….and the story isnt traditional or even finished.Its a shocker to know the pastoral industry made all its gains by using underpaid aboriginal labor and,the ALP.snoozed on.Being called a Dole-bludger then makes me wonder why we are still imposed upon by this logic,when the pastoral industry and government did what?

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