Stolen Wages, Stolen Lives
Author: Daniel Eaton
Date: 15 October 2020
Topic: Stations – Stolen Wages
Word Count: 3097
For a hundred and fifty years a perfect storm has torn through the Northern most region of Western Australia. Not a storm of wind and rain but one of legislation, law and control that swept up and smashed the lives, culture and integrity of those who occupied and belonged to the area for over 40 thousand years. A sequence of events beginning with the acquisition of the Kimberley and Pilbara regions for cattle stations, coupled with an overzealous police force and backed by a paternalistic government would simultaneously boost Western Australia’s economic growth and decimate the integrity of a nation of people. By outlining in chronological order, it will be shown that the taking of the Kimberley using both actions and inactions of the government was and is an intentional tactic to maintain interests in favour of the station owners and the state’s economy. For well over a century, Aboriginal workers were forced and/or coerced to work on cattle stations for no pay and those that did receive wages had it held in a trust fund by the state government that would never be seen again. This essay shows how the repercussions of this would not only take away the integrity and sovereignty of over 30 language groups but imprison them in a cycle of intergenerational poverty that holds today.
Taking the Northwest
In 1879 European explorer Alexander Forrest would carry out an exploration of the Kimberley region. In his journals he gives multiple accounts of beautiful grassed plains with plentiful water supply perfect for grazing. He mentions that on multiple mornings and evenings “fires were seen in every direction” and encountered "Large numbers of natives”. In his words, he described them as “fine big men”. Yet in saying so, Forrest was likely sizing them up as a suitable workforce as he also commented on there being so many that the availability of cheap labour on hand in the region should allay any concerns that might be had by prospective pioneers.
Following Forrest’s reports land was gazetted by the state to several pastoralists with a few thousand cattle. “By the end of 1882 more than forty-four million acres had been granted to seventy-seven people with one third of it leased to just five people”. To simply state that the original inhabitants had a drastic change in lifestyle would be an enormous understatement. The complexities involved bought about by dispossession were far reaching and beyond the scope of this paper. It was not just the adaptation to a lifestyle less reliant on country, with it came a cascade of epic social, psychological and demographic changes that would devastate a nation of people in such a way that they would never recover. New laws, ideals and desires were forced upon them by the new settlers who had almost no idea, much less any interest in Aboriginal laws and systems of land management. Chaos, fear, death, incarceration, rape and slavery would now play a major role in the new lifestyles of the Aboriginal people of the region.
Creating a Dependency
A series of circumstances inflicted by the station owners and government would force the Aboriginal people to become dependent on the stations for survival. First of all, the allotted stations were located on the most fertile pockets of watered land and the increasing number of stock was turning waterholes to cesspits, reducing game animal numbers. During the initial decade, ninety to ninety-five per cent of the strongest Aboriginal men were arrested for allegedly spearing cattle. Sentencing often involved hard labour on stations in which the men would endure a lifetime of work for no wages. Over the next couple of decades the Northwest would become free reign, With such an expanse of land and limited police force the police commissioner, appointed station owners as ‘special constables’ and changed fire arm regulations so that they might fire upon any suspected Aboriginal men they could not catch. Essentially giving station owners the power to arrest and kill at will. For the next 80 years there would be no inquiry into police behaviour.
With their own land now a complete danger zone and having to compete with stock for resources, the remainder who could not work on the stations were forced to congregate near the station houses to live off of what rations they could get. A cycle of poverty developed and squalid conditions were now becoming prevalent amongst the elderly and those not selected to work. With nowhere to go ‘black camps’ were set up away from the main homestead of the stations. These impoverished groups would later be moved into permanent refugee camps away from the country they knew. A law was passed stating that Aboriginal women were now not allowed to be near any waterway after sunset or before sunrise. In a devastating final blow, all the hunting dogs were shot. Almost all means of self-sufficiency and self-governance had been ripped away. What was once a land of “fires in every direction” had now dwindled to a fraction, their spirits shot, and connections to land severed.
Those that did work on the stations received only rations and were considered part of the property along with the cattle and resources. It is important to note at this point that no convict labour was allowed at this time north of the 26th parallel. However, Aboriginal men and their knowledge of the land made them exceptional stockmen and their presence on the stations would prove to be invaluable in keeping the stations in operation. The government relied on the stations to maintain beef production for the growing population in the southern parts of the state as well as a growing international trade. But following the Roth Report in 1904 word began to spread of the atrocities that were happening in the North. There had to be a way of legally maintaining the cheap labour whilst simultaneously creating an illusion of good faith, and this came in the form of the Aborigine’s Protection Act of 1905.
The Protection Act
In order to protect the Aboriginal population, it was decided that a ‘Chief Protector’ would be appointed who would have legal guardianship over each and every Aboriginal person within Western Australia. Essentially this gave the government complete control of their lives, how they married, what they bought, where they lived. Any and all actions were under strict scrutiny and needed vast amounts of applications, forms and letters to do almost anything. Under this new law they were now legally not allowed to leave or refuse work and up to 70 per cent of each individuals wages would be kept in a trust fund by the state government. The remaining 30 per cent was usually kept by the station owners to cover the clothes and rations they supplied. 80-year-old Mabel Juli who worked for decades on an East Kimberley pastoral station during this time said in a 2015 interview with ABC 'We don't know the money,' she says. 'We [were] just working for bread and tea and meat. We don't know the money; we never get the money.'
The Great Australian Silence Continues
It's easy to look back on this sequence of events and say that the people of power and influence were a product of their time, that we are very different now with higher moral standards and a better recognition of social inequities. However, the following half of this paper will demonstrate that despite this perception, policy makers and government legislations continue to neglect and silence our history. And in doing so, they contribute to the ongoing lack of recognition and respect the people of the region deserve whilst also preventing any real chance of reconciliation.
In just the last two decades information has begun to surface in regard to what happened to the 70 per cent of wages held by the government as a consequence of the Aborigine’s Protection Act since it apparently vanished, the financial records simply disappeared. Following the attention sparked by Queensland historian Dr Ros Kidd’s 2006 publication Trustees on Trial: an investigation into the ‘stolen wages’ was launched by the Senate Standing Committee on Constitutional and Legal Affairs. However, the initial report by the appointed Stolen Wages Taskforce stated that there was not enough evidence to demonstrate an actual amount that might have existed. In response to the lack of information acquired it was decided in 2012 that a mere $2 thousand would be paid to any person still alive that could prove they had worked on a station within the given time. Proof came in the form of a convoluted application to Centrelink. It required proof of age, which by virtue of working on the stations many did not even know. Also, questions were stated in such a way that made it hard for interpreters to translate and there was no push by the government to provide either interpreters or to get word of the application to those in remote communities meaning many missed the deadline for application processing. To think that such a payout could in any way compensate a lifetime of work that would leave both individuals and their descendants in debt and set up an ongoing cycle of poverty is absurd. Besides headlines of the time that tout, yet another payout to the Aboriginal communities, their stories still largely remain unheard.
But then in 2015 Investigative Journalist Sarah Dingle would uncover information that leaves no doubt that the government’s efforts to minimise the payment would be an intentional act to silence the situation and again cheat the Aboriginal people of their right to a fair deal. First of all, Perth firm, Barton Consultancy (one of the groups that carried out detailed financial modelling for the stolen wages taskforce) estimated that a total of $63 million in wages was kept from just the Moore River native settlement alone. Second, in an interview with a whistle-blower from the taskforce, Howard Riley stated that there was an initial agreement to compensate each individual $78 thousand. Further, this estimate was made in 2008 but was shelved for four years in an apparently intentional delay by the Barnett government waiting for claimants to die. And third, in confidential documents obtained by the ABC, findings of the taskforce indeed estimated those still alive would number 3,000 workers and would be owed $71 million. Yet with the denial of these records, just over one thousand claimants who managed to submit a viable Centrelink application received just two thousand dollars. In response to the backlash for what many considered an insult, Indigenous affairs Minister, Peter Collier said;
"Unfortunately, due to the complexity of trust accounts in Western Australia, the significant lack of surviving records and the passage of time, the task force could not develop an actuarial model that could illuminate the true value or full impact of any compensation".
In light of the evidence listed above this statement comes as, at best, ignorance, yet more likely a flat out lie. This intentional silencing of the Aboriginal population perpetuates the idea that the Aboriginal problem is their problem and they must now help themselves. But no matter what angle of approach they take they are restricted either by law, corporations or pastoralists. Native title holds only tokenistic value and can be extinguished by Government at any time. Pleas to have a say in their own fate have been denied as recent as 2017 by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull when he rejected the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
Feeding our Perceptions
How can we look at any legislations either of the past or the present and say it has benefited the Aboriginal people? Even so-called fair legislation has caused irreparable damage to the people of the Kimberley. For example, when award wages were finally introduced in 1969, rather than pay indigenous workers equal to that of their white counterparts, the majority were sacked and forced to join the now deteriorating communities that had been established to relieve the ‘black camps’ mentioned above. These permanent refugee camps are what we now know as remote Aboriginal communities dotted throughout the Kimberley that suffer from inadequate housing and sanitation, cyclic poverty, malnutrition and high mortalities, all conditions more akin to those found in third world countries than to a first world nation like Australia.
The majority of Australians have no idea of the history that forced these people into the conditions we see today. Yet, an educated government continues to perpetuate the idea that “there was no slavery in Australia”. Consequently, perceptions of Aboriginal people held today by the majority of Australia’s non-indigenous population is horribly skewed. In their eyes, the government has handed great fortunes to Aboriginal people. In august 2020 a complaint to the human rights commission was lodged by over 20,000 Aboriginal West Australians demanding $400 million from the Western Australian Government for stolen wages. Without the background knowledge of how the people of the Kimberley have been robbed of their lives the Australian population simply views this as another request for more handouts. These are people who have been used up and rejected, cheated of their right to choose for themselves, controlled and silenced. The truth is that Australia would not have anywhere near the resources and richness of economy without the unpaid work of the Aboriginal population. To this day the famously whimsical saying that ‘Australia was built on the sheep’s back’ remains and is testament to the ignored history of those who really created the foundations of our economy.
By outlining a brief overview of the circumstances surrounding colonisation of the Northwest of Western Australia I have attempted to demonstrate how the Aboriginal people of the region have been cheated of their wages, their lives and their future. Further, that the highly restrictive notion that they need to be governed and controlled still exists, the paternalism of the state government continues but this is just a form of control that has been going on since the beginning. I have demonstrated that even today the government silences the Aboriginal voice and in doing so perpetuates opinions that the Aboriginal problem is their problem and they must now help themselves. Sadly, ‘The Great Australian Silence’ continues, ignorant views are cemented into the collective consciousness of Australia that none of this happened or at least that it deserves unfounded concerns.
What might have been different had these people received wages and fair treatment from the beginning? If they retained their sovereignty? It could be argued that they could have supported themselves, their families, set up their own stations. Remote communities formed by the refugees most likely would not have existed. Poverty, mortality and disease would not plague thousands today. What is owed to these people is far beyond what any dollar amount can pay.
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