Indigenous Law Bulletin
by Cristy Dieckmann
The Aboriginals Protection and Prevention of the Sale of Opium Act (Qld) came into force in 1897. This legislation and related acts (collectively described as ‘the Protection Acts’) set up a regime which primarily controlled payment of and access to the wages of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workers. The regime continued until approximately 1975.
All pocket monies and other savings set aside for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workers under the Protection Acts were kept in various accounts controlled by the Queensland Government. However, many workers assert that they did not receive their wages from these accounts or that monies were spent without their express permission.
An investigation into the accounts conducted under the Goss Labor Government found that there seemed to be fraud in the management of the accounts generally. These accounts included, but were not confined to, the well-known Aborigines’ Welfare Fund (‘the Welfare Fund’). Although the Queensland Government has acknowledged that there is approximately $7.9 million in the Welfare Fund, research indicates that beyond this $7.9 million there is anywhere between $100-$200 million that remains unaccounted for, which may be payable to the individual workers and/or their families.
In 1997 ATSIC requested the Queensland Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services Secretariat (‘QAILSS’) to conduct research into the government savings accounts and welfare funds held on behalf of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workers. The purpose of this research was to determine how much money was actually owed to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who had worked under the Protection Acts, what had become of the monies owed to the workers and whether or not there was sufficient evidence to sue the Queensland Government for the return of these monies. In January 2000 the project’s focus changed slightly to attempt to draw the Government into negotiations. Since then the aim and mandate of QAILSS has been to act as coordinator of an ‘Indigenous negotiation team’, set up to negotiate on behalf of the workers to whom the monies are owed and to attempt to have the government pay reparation to these workers and/or their descendents.
The Protection Acts created the Office of the Chief Protector of Aboriginals and introduced a permit system for Aboriginal employment as well as imposing numerous other restrictions on the movement and lifestyle of Aboriginal people. Prior to 1919 the Protection Acts provided that all Indigenous workers’ wages were paid to a third party who exercised control over the monies such as the local protector, the superintendent of the settlement or the superintendent of the church mission. After 1919 regulation provided for a part advance to be made to the workers as pocket money, but the majority of workers complained of never receiving this money. The control given to employers, protectors and superintendents by the Protection Acts was so great that almost total subservience from the workers was achieved. Even if people understood their rights at the time they were rarely able to enforce them.
Under the statutory schemes, distinctions were made between different categories of Aboriginal workers. The workers’ wages were assessed according to the following categories.
Mission workers were mission residents who worked outside the missions. Their wages were controlled by the superintendent of the mission. Statutory deductions from the wages of these workers were paid to the superintendent for the general upkeep of the mission.
Outside workers were settlement residents who worked outside the settlement for white employers, typically providing agricultural and domestic labour. Their wages were paid by employers and controlled by the superintendent of the settlement. Workers were usually housed and fed by the employer. The employer was also required to pay the worker an amount of pocket money. However, supervision of these payments was minimal.
The wages of outside workers were split into the following components:
(1) Compulsory savings
The bulk of wages paid to outside workers were deposited into the Queensland Aborigines Account. These monies made up the compulsory savings component of the wages and were drawn upon by the Government, without the consent of the wage earner, in order to meet additional withdrawals as well as requests for clothing and other essentials. Costs associated with compulsory removals and other travel expenses were also deducted from compulsory savings.
(2) Statutory deductions
Settlement maintenance deductions were compulsorily made from the wages of outside workers regardless of their taxation status. This money went into various accounts over the period, including the Welfare Fund. Prior to 1945 there was no legislative authorisation for such deductions. Deductions were set at arbitrary levels, ranging from between 5 to 24 per cent of the worker’s wages. After 1945 regulations provided that workers with dependents who resided on settlements had to pay 10 per cent by way of settlement maintenance. Workers with no dependents had to pay 5 per cent.
(3) Pocket moneyA component of the wage was to be advanced directly to outside workers as pocket money.
Inside workers were settlement residents who worked inside those settlements. All residents of a settlement had to work without pay for 32 hours per week, this portion of the salary going towards the provision of rations and shelter. Once this time quota was exceeded, inside workers were to be paid a small wage.
Like outside workers, the wages of inside workers were controlled by the superintendent and divided into compulsory savings, statutory deductions and a cash allowance. Advances of extra cash monies had to be approved by the superintendent. If the request was considered unnecessary or unreasonable it was refused.
Until 1975 the superintendent was given ultimate control over the property of settlement residents. The legislation provided for a broad discretion to be exercised by the superintendent when dealing with the property of Indigenous persons.
Local workers were employed by private employers and usually lived at their place of employment. Pastoralists, cattle stations and other private enterprises provided the major source of employment for these workers. Local protectors exercised control over their wages in much the same way as for outside workers, with monies again being split into components.
Torres Strait Islanders were subject to a similar scheme of wage control as that enforced upon Queensland Aborigines. Prior to 1939 the Protection Acts covered Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders. In 1939 the Aboriginals Preservation and Protection Act 1939 (Qld) and the Torres Strait Island Act 1939 (Qld) provided separate schemes for the two groups. In 1965 the Aborigines’ and Torres Strait Islanders’ Affairs Act 1965 (Qld) placed Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders under the same Act, albeit one which applied different rules to each group. In 1971 the Aborigines Act and the Torres Strait Islanders Act were enacted. Despite differences within the schemes, the fundamental element of control of property including wages existed in both schemes.
Indigenous persons in receipt of government allowances such as child endowments and pensions had their benefits controlled in the same way as the wages of workers. These monies were accumulated and utilised in the same way as the compulsory savings component of wages of outside and local workers. Monies were drawn upon for such purposes as the provision of clothing, medicines and cash advances without the consent of the grantee.
In discussions to date the Government has focussed on the $7.9 million in the Welfare Fund. However, as this Fund is designated for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people generally and not the individual workers specifically, the QAILSS project is not concerned with the Welfare Fund. Instead it is interested in tracking down lost monies to ensure the payment of reparations for the individual workers and/or their descendents.
One focus of the QAILSS project recently has been to establish the names and contacts of the workers and their descendents to whom this money is owed. At present there are more than 1900 names on the QAILSS database.
The negotiations with the Government commenced on Tuesday 5 September 2000. This meeting involved the Government team, the Indigenous team and two of the three mediators who had been agreed upon to facilitate discussion. Members of the Indigenous team include representatives from various Indigenous organisations.
After the first meeting the Indigenous Negotiation Document was finalised and forwarded to the Government. It was expected that both the Indigenous and the Government Negotiation Documents would be made available to the mediators to facilitate a clear discussion of the vital issues. To date QAILLS has not received any document from the Government outlining its position.
In mid-December 2000, with the assistance of Gerry Hand, former Federal Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, QAILSS wrote to the Queensland Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Policy, Judy Spence, with a copy to Premier Peter Beattie. QAILSS received a response from Mr Beattie confirming the Government’s commitment to resolving the issues surrounding the Welfare Fund.
At the beginning of 2001 the Government asserted that they could not further discussions in relation to this project until after the State election. Prior to the election a meeting was held with some members of the Indigenous negotiating team and the Minister Judy Spence, where Ms Spence gave a verbal commitment that the negotiations would continue in due course. Before this meeting the Government confirmed that it would not further discussions until after the Elders’ Forum (‘the Forum’) in Rockhampton.
The Forum, coordinated by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisory Board, was held in Rockhampton on 26-28 March 2001 to discuss the issue of the $7.9 million Welfare Fund. The report from the Forum was supplied to QAILSS and the Government near the end of July 2001. However, as the Forum only dealt with the $7.9 million that remains in the Welfare Fund itself and did not address the further compensation that, in the submission of the Indigenous negotiation team, should be paid to members of the community who worked under the Protection Acts, the issues discussed at the Forum were largely outside of the QAILSS project.
QAILSS has contacted the Government in order to further discussions now that the report from the Forum is complete. Regardless of the Government’s response QAILSS will continue the preparation of a contingency plan and continue community consultation throughout the State. QAILSS is currently in consultation with communities to find out what they would propose for distribution should a mutual agreement ever be reached in relation to the savings account monies. This process of consultation has already commenced with a trip to southwestern Queensland including Roma, Charleville, Windorah, Quilpie, Cunnamulla, St George and Dalby. QAILSS hopes to continue with consultation in other areas of Queensland.
Payment of reparations for individual people affected by the Protection Acts is an issue that must not be allowed to rest until an adequate outcome is achieved.
Further questions or requests for registration forms can be directed to Ian Delaney or Vern Hopkins at QAILSS on 07 3233 5700.
Cristy Dieckmann is a barrister who worked at QAILSS between August 2000 and September 2001. She has a keen interest in Indigenous issues as a result of her growing up in Murgon, near Cherbourg in Queensland.