This afternoon I sat in on a meeting of about 50 Aboriginal people at Musgrave Park in Brisbane. They had come together to talk about the Queensland Government’s decision to take back some of the money the government had put forward six years ago by way of recompense for a small part of what was taken from Aboriginal people over decades through the process that has become known as Stolen Wages.
This is a good example of why people get despairing and exasperated by the political process. Despite it taking over ten years of effort by so many people to finally get the Queensland government to acknowledge the reality of Stolen Wages, and a Senate Committee Inquiry which unanimously recognised the clear injustice which had occurred, there has been (a) a contemptuous decision by the state government to take back some of the small amount money they put forward in 2002 to recompense a small percentage of those who were directly affected, and (b) no action at all from either Liberal or Labor federal governments on this injustice and the unanimous Senate Committee recommendations regarding it.
In this context, it is worth revisiting Recommendation 6 from the Senate Committee report:
The committee recommends that the Queensland Government revise the terms of its reparations offer so that:
a. Indigenous claimants are fully compensated for monies withheld from them;
b. further time is provided for the lodgement of claims;
c. claimants are able to rely on oral and other circumstantial evidence where the records held by the state are incomplete or are allegedly affected by fraud or forgery;
d. new or further payments do not require claimants to indemnify the Queensland Government; and
e. the descendants of claimants who died before 9 May 2002 are included within the terms of the offer.
Instead, the Queensland government “revised” the terms of their offer so that :
– there was no effort at all made at ensure full compensation for anyone;
– no one who had not already received the initial derisory $4000 offer would be able to receive anything
– payments continue to be denied for the descendants of people who had died prior to the initial limited reparations offer;
and to add massive insult to an already very significant injury, the Queensland government also decided to take back a chunk of the money originally offered and put it towards funding educational scholarships.
I doubt many people would find it satisfactory if an employer acknowledged they had defrauded them, or their parents, of a significant part of their wages over a prolonged period of time and then said “it’s OK I’ll put some of the money I’ve taken into a scholarship fund for disadvantaged youth” – yet this is what the Queensland government has done.
One could hardly blame Aboriginal people for asking “why bother”, but instead the meeting of people today are quite elderly and have been fighting for justice for decades – resolved to keep fighting for justice on this issue. One of the people there was Ruth Hegarty, whose has written about some of her own experiences of having to live her life under the total control of government officials.
Amazingly, in announcing they were diverting some of this money, which had been provided to repay people who had never received money they had rightfully earned, into a fund for scholarships for Indigenous children, the state government managed to get media coverage which mostly gave the impression like they were being generous. Not only were they not providing any new money, they were taking back ‘old money’ – money which was meant to be partial payment for people who had what they earned taken away from them by government agents.
Part of what makes it so much easier for the Labor government in Queensland on this issue is that they have never had any political or public pressure from the Liberal or National parties. It has always been easy for the state government to dismiss requests from Indigenous people as they know there is no political price they will pay.
But it does add to the frustration that a media which often presents itself as a watchdog on government activities allows them to get away so easily with such a blatantly cynical and contemptuous act towards some of their least powerful and most disadvantaged constituents.