Finger money

Finalist in the United Nations Association of Australia Media Peace Awards 2015 in the Promotion of Indigenous Recognition Award category.

Judges' comments: 'Finger Money’ is a credit to its three authors. By combining each author's expertise in exploring and investigating the scandalous and ongoing ‘stolen wages’ affair, the authors illustrate the power of combining Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal experiences to reveal the impact of deceit and denial of the truth by the Western Australian government toward Aboriginal people. The research, as displayed in this article, is in-depth and engaging, while contributing to a major exposé of injustice in Australia. The stories told here have the potential to be conveyed across various media making them accessible to a broad audience.

IN THE KIMBERLEY, Aboriginal people were forced to work on pastoral stations from the 1880s. The impact of station life became all-consuming. Whole communities and even entire language groups attempted to survive this tranformation of traditional life by continuing to work and live on stations, yet remaining close to country to maintain law and culture. Colonisation in the form of pastoral leases was protected and patrolled by the Western Australian police, in theory until the 1967 citizenship referendum, but in practice until the 1980s. From 1905 to 1954 people worked under a permit system operated by the state government, which purported to oversee and uphold work and living conditions, but was in fact a system of containment and forced labour that limited traditional livelihoods and ensured subservience by withholding income, the consequences of which have lingered for generations.

In Western Australia, Aboriginal people have imprinted the term ‘stolen wages’ with personal, political and intergenerational meanings to form an unswerving black analysis of white ways.

Aboriginal leaders across the state reacted with disbelief and disgust when in March 2012 a meagre payment of $2,000, limited by stringent criteria, was offered under the WA Stolen Wages Reparation Scheme as recognition for decades of non-payment. For many it felt like a return to the days when Aboriginal people were non-citizens and were offered payment in sticks of tobacco and finger money (pocket money). In response, thousands opted to use the scheme for their own purposes: to tell their stories about years of unpaid labour in government-controlled or sanctioned institutions and on private pastoral stations under government regulation.

AS THE MIRIWOONG Dancers took the stage, Steve Kinnane knew the dirt was about to fly – East Kimberley rock-and-roll-style. He writes: ‘Elders voices ring out through the rising dust. More than a dozen male dancers float and stamp, building in pace and strength, converging on the audience before a final leap and shout to the clear night sky, then sauntering backstage for another performance to claps and cheers. Over a thousand traditional owners and invited guests watch expectantly, waiting for their own countrymen and women to perform, sharing the law, language and culture of the thirty-four language groups and five cultural blocs that sustain the Kimberley.’

The meetings are for members and invited guests only. On this day, one politician, Josie Farrer – Kija woman and Labor member for the Kimberley in the Legislative Assembly – is singled out for special attention. It is her birthday. It is a relief from the serious business of native title and combating threats to heritage and sacred sites from proposed amendments to the Aboriginal Heritage Act (1972) to laugh and clap and sing ‘Happy Birthday’.

This is a significant day for Josie. It is the birthday she chooses to celebrate – 24 September. The day her mother raised her to acknowledge as the day she was born in the bush between Moola Bulla and Old Halls Creek – not 25 September 1947, the day wrongly identified in the few pages she has managed to obtain from her Native Welfare file. This may seem a small error, but when your life has been tracked and controlled as a non-citizen by an all-powerful authority, being aware of such details is power, an important life skill. Details matter. Knowing the whole story matters.

As one of many respected leaders in the Kimberley, an MLA and the newly elected chair of the Kimberley Language Resource Centre, Josie Farrer embodies the complexity of the Kimberley Aboriginal community: a dynamism founded in extended family, cultural governance and connection to country; long threads of tradition and language given respect through new forms of expression in art, language nests, films, music, festivals, sport, Aboriginal media, cultural governance, ranger programs and new businesses tied to Aboriginal knowledge and country. But like many of her age, Josie has also experienced the intergenerational traumas of past policies, and the long journey to rebuild communities and create education programs and employment opportunities. She knows the toll this can exact.

I’M A MIRIWOONG Marda Marda (blood blood in the Moore River Native Settlement lingo for a person of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal ancestry). Miriwoong Country straddles the East Kimberley of northern Western Australia and the western boundary of the Northern Territory. It borders Kija country, Josie’s country. I first met Josie through her work maintaining language through the Kimberley Language Resource Centre. I was documenting projects tied to Caring for Country and sustainable livelihoods that Kimberley leaders have been building carefully since the 1980s as part of the out-stations movement, to reconnect with country and escape refugee-like living conditions in town reserves. Local people were thrown off stations when the 1967 Pastoral Industry Award wages decision, which granted all Aboriginal people equal pay, began to impact the Kimberley, making the 1970s a time of incredible distress and hardship. Remaining close to country and maintaining practices and values provided a collective cultural strength from which to battle the powerlessness that was generally felt. Our old people held fast to these foundations and as a result, almost 85 per cent of native title claims in the Kimberley are likely to be fully determined by 2015. Josie was a key claimant on Kija Ngarrawanji, which includes the Moola Bulla cattle station, a government settlement station where Aboriginal people from all over the Kimberley were sent from 1910 to 1955. Josie spent part of her childhood there and it remains a place of complex significance.

My family’s story shifted south as my grandmother was taken away from Argyle Station on Miriwoong country when she was five years old, in 1906. She was raised on a mission, then incarcerated at Moore River Native Settlement when she was not working as a domestic servant (forced labourer) under the various incarnations of the Aborigines Department. This department was responsible for the removal and control of thousands of individuals: the massive disruption of hundreds of families and whole communities under the various guises of the 1905 Aborigines Act (WA).

I first learned of the realities of stolen wages for our people listening to the stories of my mother and aunties and uncles. Stockmen, domestic servants and farm labourers – people who had all been removed from stations that had been carved out of their homelands, or whose parents and grandparents had been taken away to settlements and missions, people who had worked all their lives, most of it for little or no pay. From 1988, historian Lauren Marsh and I began tracking these stories through the archives. Moving between the Kimberley and the south, we came to know many of the elders whose stories were documented in the files: mothers, aunties, uncles and grandparents by skin and law. Our work focused initially on child removals, but shifted to the systemic controls and sanctions imposed on Aboriginal people. As well as the oral histories of community members who survived this system, the voice of the state was revealed through its own records.

My family received my grandmother’s file in 1990. Its three hundred and eight pages documented her life from when she left the control of Swan Mission in 1921 until the late 1950s. The file contained her letters complaining about poor treatment by employers, letters requesting access to her trust account, which held three-quarters of her wages. Even the pocket money she was supposed to receive (the other quarter) was not always forthcoming. She wrote asking to use her money to buy clothes but was often refused access to her own money. Her file bulged with judgments by the Chief Protector, police officers and employers on all aspects of her life, and showed where the money had gone – to pay her bed and board (which was greater than her wages) at the East Perth Girls’ Home where she was forced to live between jobs, to pay for mandatory medical tests and for a police escort when she was sent back to Moore River Native Settlement and the like. It angered, but did not shock, my family. We preferred to know what had been written than to remain ignorant. Ultimately, seeing all of the information in the file was empowering, a kind of archival justice.

THE SENATE STANDING Committee on Constitutional and Legal Affairs Inquiry into Indigenous Stolen Wages was launched in 2006, responding to the work of Queensland historian Dr Ros Kidd and local Aboriginal activists. The inquiry investigated the scope and nature of the widespread practice of withholding Aboriginal income.

Lauren and I accessed hundreds of administrative files, to aid families who sought to piece their history together, as part of community-based historical research from 1988 to 2004. While conducting this research we were also able to track the ‘ghost files’ destroyed by the government. For instance, of the 15,400 personal files that were created by various Aboriginal administrations in WA and used to manage people between 1926 and 1959, a fifth (3,276) were destroyed. Of the 10,787 administrative files created for the same period, more than half (5,919) were destroyed. Government files were kept for eighty-six years from 1886 to 1972, providing a vast bureaucratic record of surveillance. The level of destruction of administrative files is significant, but enough examples exist to create an accurate picture of how this system worked. In my evidence to the senate inquiry I described how most Aboriginal people who had worked on stations received no wages, with some exceptions for valued head stockmen – who were paid far less than comparable white stockmen.

In her detailed submission, Lauren Marsh explained how the administrative files dealt with many subjects: child removals, missions, stations, government settlements, rations, employment regulations, co-habitation laws, section-twelve transfers where people could be removed from one part of the state to another without warrant, paternity files and so on. The personal files were the centralised summation of the state’s actions against individuals: whether they were to be imprisoned in the Moore River Native Settlement in the south or Moola Bulla in the north; permits that enable white people to employ them; how much pay kept as pocket money and how much banked in trust accounts.

As they commenced in the era of ‘protection’ they were unlike any personal files government clients would expect today. They were the tools that the Aborigines Department used to maintain control. UNESCO describes such collections as ‘archives of repression’, and likened the files to those kept by the East German Stasi or South African security forces. They also detail how wages and other income – maternity allowances, age pensions or deceased estates – were withheld, stolen from Aboriginal people in Western Australia.

Having revealed the machinery of government through its own records, Marsh’s conclusion was direct and simple: ‘Given both the department’s attitude in not consulting, informing, or holding itself accountable in any way towards Aboriginal workers and pension recipients regarding their trust accounts, it would be both an impossible and unjustifiable requirement for Aboriginal people to provide comprehensive written evidence. The best source of evidence in relation to matters relevant to this enquiry is oral history, and as was made very clear by Aboriginal witnesses at the hearings, there is an urgent need to record these stories now.’

The Senate Committee’s report, Unfinished Business: Indigenous Stolen Wages, was tabled in December 2006. Its first recommendation was that all governments should provide ‘unhindered access to their archives for Indigenous people and their representatives for the purposes of researching the Indigenous stolen wages issue as a matter of urgency’. The second recommendation called for joint funding of an education and awareness campaign about stolen wages issues and preliminary legal research. It also recommended funding a national oral history and archival research project, plus urgent consultation with Aboriginal communities about the impacts of stolen wages.

The report recommended the Western Australian Government urgently consult with Aboriginal people in relation to stolen wages and establish a compensation scheme, and that the Commonwealth also research its archives about stolen wages in the state.

AS A DIRECT response, the WA Government established the Stolen Wages Taskforce. It had a broad brief: ‘to identify the scope and extent of the stolen wages issue’. The taskforce was criticised for having too many government representatives, although Aboriginal advisors were employed to provide ‘cultural and ethical guidance’. Hundreds of Aboriginal people shared their stories.

Its report, Reconciling the Past: Government Control of Aboriginal Monies in Western Australia, 1905–1972, was completed and delivered to the government in mid-2008 and responded to the general terms of reference by examining frameworks under which peoples’ lives were controlled, including the use of government-managed trust accounts.

Reconciling the Past drew a distinction between direct state control of incomes and indirect control through state regulation of employment and living conditions for Aboriginal people working on pastoral stations, and through state distribution of federal social security benefits. Aboriginal people did not draw this distinction. Their common experience was of having income withheld without explanation. The report did not estimate the value of Commonwealth benefits or other income withheld, and the actuarial report commissioned by the taskforce has never been released.

The report found that ‘the practices of control over Aboriginal people’s money’ had a ‘consequential impact’ that continued for the duration of people’s lives, and ‘in many cases extended through subsequent generations’ resulting in ‘trans-generational disadvantage’. It acknowledged that many Aboriginal people who made submissions and participated in consultations ‘spoke of their strong and continuing need to find answers to questions that they have about their past’.

It endorsed the Canadian model of a comprehensive approach to reparation, ‘designed to recognise, resolve and reconcile’. It recommended a formal apology for the impact of past income controls, a public statement of recognition of economic, social and cultural contributions, and that the WA Constitution acknowledge Aboriginal people as the original inhabitants. It urged consideration of ‘a range of policy initiatives as a genuine step in reconciling this aspect of the state’s history’, including ‘Welcome to Country’ at significant events; headstones and memorials; and training of Aboriginal archivists and oral historians. It recommended establishment of an ‘ex-gratia Common Experience Payment to those still living who experienced direct government control over their money’ and a fund to encourage economic development. There was no recommendation about the factors which should be considered in setting the amount or a plan to negotiate with Aboriginal people about reaching a settlement.

The report was completed in 2008, an election year – and in September the Labor Government left office. Responding to the report became an issue for the new Liberal–National Government, which chose, despite concerted lobbying, to withhold it from public release and from those who had shared their stories for nearly four years.

ON THE EVENING of Tuesday, 6 March 2012, Judy Harrison was lying on the lounge at home in Kununurra watching ABC News. She writes: ‘I came to town the year before on sabbatical from the ANU Law School and by February I was working on a project for the Kimberley Community Legal Service (KCLS) with Bev Russ, a Kija woman, and other KCLS staff. We were researching local experiences with the 2008–09 Redress Scheme, which included a payment of up to $45,000 to those abused or neglected as children in state care. The scheme was for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal children, including British child migrants. But it was clear that hundreds of Aboriginal people in the Kimberley had missed out. They hadn’t applied because they didn’t hear about it in time and because there was not enough local legal help.’

I had heard about the Stolen Wages Taskforce. Some lawyers thought that if the government established a structure to administer a stolen wages scheme it might also suit a re-opened Redress Scheme for Aboriginal people who had missed out earlier.

The newsreader that night said the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Peter Collier, had announced a Stolen Wages Reparation Scheme, which would be open for six months and would give a maximum payment of $2,000, and that the early reaction to the scheme from Aboriginal leaders was one of condemnation. Despite having had the report for almost four years, there had been no negotiation or advance notice, no indication of learning from the shortcomings of the Redress Scheme.

The next day, KCLS was awash with disbelief about the process to claim the money and the pitiful amount on offer. We worked through the material on the Department of Indigenous Affairs (DIA) website to try to understand who was covered. It was restricted to those born before 1 January 1958 who had income withheld when living in a ‘government native welfare settlement’. But there was no definition of this new term, which sounded historical but wasn’t; no way for people to know what income had been withheld; no reference to those who worked under government regulation on pastoral stations; no mention of withheld Commonwealth benefits; no recognition that allocated birthdates (usually 1 January or 1 July) made the cut-off date arbitrary.

Perth-based departmental representatives simply advised that people should put in an application if they thought they might be eligible, full stop, with no clarification of the guidelines. The department would not release the scheme’s definition of ‘government native welfare settlements’, and the list of eligible locations was withheld and still secret when the scheme eventually closed on 30 November 2012. The full list has never been released, although many sites were later identified through Freedom of Information requests. No discretion applied to birthdates – the government reasoned that no children worked or had income withheld until they were at least fourteen, despite the written and oral record that proved this was not the case.

Most of those who talked to KCLS were disgusted. A former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission regional councillor wanted to know, ‘Who’s in charge down there in Perth now in that government? Why are they doing this?’ A well-known elder said, ‘The government should come here and listen. Write to them and say they should come here now and sit down and work this out.’ An old woman in Kununurra, who had worked as a housemaid and kitchen hand for white station bosses urged me to ‘humbug those white men, they’re only looking after themselves’. A member of the stolen generation in Warmun said she couldn’t talk about it as she was ‘too sad for what they are doing again to us Aboriginal people’. A former stockman from Halls Creek argued, ‘I worked from dawn to dusk, I got no pay, they never treated other whites like that.’ We heard people talk about ‘station money’, others called it ‘mission money’ or ‘hostel money’, most did not know what income they should have received, only a handful had heard of a ‘trust account’ and only a few had seen their Native Welfare file.

While the claim form did not require applicants to tell their story or provide space for them to do so, invariably that was what KCLS clients wanted to do. They thought their stories made the injustice clear, and that if the government heard them it would respond differently. They wanted to be respected, and for their past work to be understood and valued. Over the following nine months more than two thousand people delivered their stories to the department, and explained the impact of systemic community-wide controls. Even if the scheme didn’t apply to them they still wanted their story told, and wanted government to listen. By the time it closed, these responses became the way of opening up the story, a ‘protest application’, a way of presenting their experience unmediated by bureaucratic selectivity and guidelines. ‘Stolen wages’ meant stolen lives, stolen work, stolen education, stolen health, stolen culture, stolen land, stolen ways of life, stolen opportunities, stolen human rights. Trust accounts were essentially white record keeping, which was now being used against Aboriginal people. They did not accept that because these accounts and records had not been located, or had been destroyed, that the past never happened.

WHEN THE PRO bono opportunity arose to go to East Kimberley and help out with the claims, Isabelle Reinecke jumped at it. She writes: I’m pretty sure I put my hand up before I even knew what stolen wages were. I used to sit all day and a lot of the night bored to death in a brightly lit, air-conditioned, fishbowl office at the big end of Australia’s corporate legal town. If I swiveled my chair and tilted my head, I could see the Sydney Harbour Bridge reflected in the glass walls of my office. The closest I was to actually being outdoors was a ferociously growing little desk plant whose tag informed me ‘Thrives on Neglect’.

I had volunteered at Canberra Aboriginal Legal Service during university and assisted on an amicus application to the High Court in Wurridjal v The Commonwealth, so was looking forward to providing whatever support I could, and couldn’t wait to get away from my sterile, six-star-energy-efficient fishbowl and pot plant.

Within a couple of weeks, in July 2012, I was on a 737 heading north to Darwin and then on a thirty-seat Embraer Brasilia flying west to Kununurra. Shortly after arriving, I was handed a card for a local taxi service that said ‘Don’t Risk It, Cab It’.

I was rushed to East Kimberley in response to a call for help from the short-staffed Aboriginal Legal Service of Western Australia (ALS) and KCLS. They needed lawyers to traverse the country and help applicants under the Stolen Wages Reparation Scheme before the deadline for applications closed, which at that time was still the end of September. It was feared that hundreds of individuals scattered across the state in regional and remote communities might miss out.

I set off from Kununurra in a beaten up four-wheel-drive with an ALS solicitor and a couple of student volunteers. We trailed after another vehicle carrying local community legal service solicitors who were en route to present legal education sessions, stopping every so often to let the red dust settle enough for us to find our way along the dirt road behind them.

You’re on Mars. It’s red and endless and flat and rocky. You feel the warm air on your face through the air-conditioning and you’re holding onto the steering wheel as hard as you can to guide the huge old four-wheel drive through the long dirt track. You try not to blink as rocks spatter up against the windscreen, and keep your mouth closed to stop your teeth from violently cracking open and shut on the soft inner flesh of your cheeks as you bump along. It’s 35 degrees outside and you realise that actually you’re on Earth and you’re driving on a 1,261 kilometre round trip, out of Kununurra and south into the beautiful, brutal centre of this extraterrestrial country.

The red earth and the blue sky battle intensely in the Kimberley. Endless flat and rocky redness turns into yellow bushes either side, smattered with green trees, bound by blue mountains and back again to endless, dusty, dirty red. The beauty, rawness, vibrancy, extremity and vastness of the landscape smack you with almost holy significance.

Stepping out of the heat into the relative cool of the Halls Creek sandwich shop, ‘De Alto Cedro voy para Marcan, Llego a Cueto, voy para Mayar’ floats through the air. Buena Vista Social Club is playing. The familiarity of the music combined with the strangeness of the location is a happy, silly memory. How a Central American family found themselves living twenty-nine hours drive from Perth, eleven hours from Broome and four hours from the Northern Territory border running a sandwich shop, I don’t know. But here they are, and they’re playing Cuban classics. Looking back on it now, I realise this was the last moment before I began to understand the recent history of the place.

On the Canning Stock Route on the western edge of the Tanami Desert, about eight hours drive south of Kununurra, we set up wherever we could find some space and shade – under corrugated iron shelters in Balgo and Billiluna, and on the basketball court in Mulan. Surrounded by red dirt, disused trucks and rusted mechanical equipment, we crafted makeshift promotional posters with butcher’s paper and textas and taped them to each community’s local store. Word had spread that we were coming. The lines in all the communities we visited were huge – elderly people, and sometimes their younger family members, waiting for hours for their turn to tell their story and apply through the scheme.

The forms applicants were required to complete were deceptive in their seeming mundanity and simplicity. When were you born? Did you perform work on a ‘government native welfare settlement’ when you were over the age of fourteen? Can you provide two forms of accepted identification, or the signature of two witnesses you are not related to?

They had been designed without any consideration for the people who would be required to fill them out. Not a low-level government bureaucrat, but the elderly and very ill. People for whom English is a second, third or fourth language. People who, to varying degrees, cannot read or write. People who had been given arbitrary birthdates by government officials many years ago. People who do not carry a wallet full of identification and bank cards. People who are related to almost everyone in their communities. People for whom the term ‘government native welfare settlement’ is meaningless.

It didn’t take long to realise that without an interpreter I’d need to start at the very beginning with every client.

Do you know when you were born? July 1 quickly became familiar. Do you know where you were born? By the tree near the mission. In the desert. Where did you live as a child? How old were you then? This high? Or this high? Did you do any work there? What sort of work did you do? Did you do cleaning work? Did you do cooking? Did you do work outside? Did you work with animals? Did you do work on the land? Did you ever get paid for your work? Were you given rations or money? Did you have a trust account? When did you leave? Where did you go next?

Continuing the loop of questions until finally arriving at the present day.

It wasn’t simply an administrative exercise. My clients were determined to have me listen to their stories – for me to pay attention and make careful notes. I wasn’t ‘government’, but I was a white lawyer and an outsider – a representative of white Australia with a responsibility to listen.

Story after abusive story poured out. Stories that sounded like slavery. Stories of decades of unpaid work, proud work, demeaning work, debilitating injuries sustained while constructing the backbone of modern Australia, physical abuse at the hands of missionaries, the murder of a small child. Some of these stories were already at the surface, I learned, because of the recent testimony people had given as part of the Redress Scheme.

In Balgo, we slept in an accommodation container surrounded on all sides by a locked cage. We were careful to obey the sign in the kitchen that read:








Your safety is our concern

but your responsibility


On our first night there, after crosschecking the piles and piles of files we had created, I lay in bed feeling completely disconnected from my world. The massive booming sound of ‘Zorba the Greek’, turned up to the maximum through huge speakers by a gathering in the basketball court nearby, only added to the sense that I was operating in some dislocated parallel universe.

AFTER CIRCLING THROUGH the East Kimberley we eventually wound back to Kununurra, where I stayed on for a week to assist KCLS with potential applicants based in town. I visited the local respite care centre almost daily on foot in the scorching heat, armed with a list of people KCLS had a hunch might be eligible for the scheme. The centre was a haven of air-conditioning, clean, white-walled and tiled – wholly unlike the dusty, mad world outside.

One by one, with clients at the centre, I continued the looping questions that had quickly become rote on the road, hoping someone would say the names of settlements, missions and hostels that I’d heard whispered were considered ‘government native welfare settlements’ by the Perth authorities. A few clients called bullshit on the system and the arbitrary inclusion of some work and some dates and some locations – a heartening sign that some would have the energy left to fight.

For the most part, though, it was plain these multi-generational, dogmatic bureaucratic practices caused harm among the clients I interviewed. At the time it seemed to me people had been beaten down by many incarnations of random and harmful government policies. People barely shrugged when I explained that despite the extreme exploitation and abuse they had suffered, they were unlikely to be considered eligible under the scheme. Justice did not seem to be anyone’s expectation. Strikingly, given the tedious process required by the statutory declarations, many strongly wanted to at least have their stories heard and written down on official documents.

One lady on my ‘hunch’ list from KCLS hadn’t been turning up at respite. A carer who had recently moved to Kununurra, after a lifetime of trucking huge lorries across the desert, offered to take me around town while she did her rounds ferrying the elderly to and from the centre.

We drive to her house and I walk inside the dark front room, with exposed concrete walls, floors and ceilings, empty except for a rusted metal bedframe in the corner, where an elderly lady sits silently, her bare feet and legs hanging over the edge, wearing clothes so old and torn they leave her exposed.

I explain who I am and ask to sit with her. She motions for me to sit beside her on the thin single mattress. We go through the routine and she tries to answer my questions. Do you know where you were born? Do you know when you were born? Where were you next? And next? And next? Eventually, having exhausted all possibilities, I explain that she is unlikely to be eligible for the scheme in its current form despite all she had been through. I feel ashamed and helpless. She nods quietly. I apologise and leave.

The next day Julia Gillard is in town, looking appropriately prime ministerial in a crisp white shirt and blue jeans, doing a press conference in one of Kununurra’s breathtaking lakeside parks. The media throng surrounds her, as do the freshly laundered children who have been brought along to see her. She holds and kisses a beautiful plump white bub. A few gorgeous Aboriginal teenagers stand front and centre in the audience, observing closely, wearing white T-shirts painted with the slogans ‘NO’ and ‘Our songlines are living heritage protect the Kimberley Coast’. Behind us all a man sitting on a ute wearing a Guy Fawkes mask provides a bit of theatre, holding a painted wooden board that reads: ‘We live in a world built on promises constructed by liars’.

MONDAY 9 SEPTEMBER 2013, noon, and it is time for Judy Harrison to drive to the Waringarri Arts Centre. She writes: ‘A few KCLS staff pile into the office RAV, the rest are already there helping to get lunch ready for the big meeting about stolen wages. As we head off, someone in the backseat runs through the names and backgrounds of some of the men and women sitting in groups on the grass under the tree. “That one there, old man, stockman, worked all over, rations, no pay, but he’s been no good since he was in his twenties, got trampled loading steers.” Someone else says, “Yep, I sat with him to do his stolen wages application, he said he was working from about eleven years old.” A woman waves and someone says, “Wave back, she’s waving at us – over there, them old girls, they all stolen generation ones, that one at Beagle Bay Mission, next one at Moola Bulla and those other two were taken down south... That old one there, he’s having a good sleep.” I remember doing his statement, he missed out on the Redress Scheme because he didn’t hear about it in time, and he put in for stolen wages. He was at Charles Perkins Hostel in Halls Creek while he was going to school, he finished at fifteen and returned to a station. Then he worked at lots of stations in the Kimberley, but busted his leg in his thirties in a rollover. It set wrong, he got no pay for his work, just rations, and no compo for his leg. Someone in the back cuts off my chain of thought. “He hobbles everywhere, really slow, he humbugs people for a lift but he can’t do much else. What do you reckon the tourists think when they look at these people? Do they know what’s happened here? Do white people know what’s happened?”’

When the scheme closed after nine months, the department had received 2,026 applications. By 30 June 2013, 1,263 applicants were deemed eligible for just $2,526,000 in payments; 757 were deemed ineligible; three were closed without assessment, and payments to another three applicants were on hold pending advice on bank account details. Most of those rejected were former pastoral workers who had worked as stockmen, camp cooks and domestics.

For some, the stolen wages payment coincided with the Clean Energy Advance, making it hard to tell the difference between a special payment from Centrelink and the compensation. Some, who were sent the pro forma letter stating they were eligible and were about to be paid, became confused and distressed when it turned out that the stolen wages payment had been made months before the date of the letter and it had already been spent.

Getting closer to Waringarri, we pass the school, Clontarf Academy, the Ord Valley Aboriginal Medical Service, Waringarri Radio and the big Waringarri Aboriginal Corporation administration building – a place of many Aboriginal-run programs and meetings and gatherings, inside at the conference table or outside under the trees.

The last time I was there was for the Sorry Day event in May. I knew a lot of the older people who turned up because we had talked about stolen wages. I nod to an old man across the room. He’s one of the Wave Hill (Kalkarindji) strike walk-off mob, he can’t believe the scheme doesn’t include former station workers. He talked to the members of the taskforce when they came through, and years later when we met he said slowly, ‘It was all of us, all our lives, do you know that?’

At Waringarri Arts people are sitting around, talking and smiling. There’s a mum with a tiny baby, surely only a few days old, dogs walking or lying under the tables. Sausages and meat cooking. It takes me a while to see that there is a seating plan. The women are mainly together. The men are separate. The older male leaders are together – Tom Birch, Frank Chulung, Jack Trust, Button Jones, Ronnie Carlton – there is business happening. First, they decide, the group needs to talk about what’s happened so far with stolen wages, then who will talk to the ABC journalist when she arrives.

JOSIE FARRER’S APPLICATION to the WA Stolen Wages Reparation Scheme included a detailed statement of her life and the impact of government decisions on her family. Josie was born in the bush between Moola Bulla and Halls Creek on 24 September 1947, and lived there until she was rounded up and sent to school. Josephine was the name given to her in 1953 at Moola Bulla school. Her family followed to be near her, and she and her mother worked teasing the horsehair for saddles each day – a continuous job on a cattle station. Schooling was intermittent. In 1955, on the day the government sold Moola Bulla to a pastoralist, Josie and the other children were taken away:

A truck pulled up and the men on the truck said we should get on for a ride. We had never been on a motor vehicle before and we got on the back of the truck… The truck went on to other camps, picking up more children. At some point we were told we had to stay on the truck and we realised that something wasn’t right. Families started crying and pleading to let their children off the truck. But we weren’t allowed off the truck. Once there were about thirty children on the truck, the truck headed out of Moola Bulla and then more children were put on the truck in Halls Creek and we found out we were being taken to Fitzroy Crossing. It took several nights to get to Fitzroy and each night we camped we were cold. There wasn’t enough food, we were hungry and a lot of children were crying… When we got to Fitzroy there were no facilities for us. There was no building or mission. We started out sleeping in the open… A week or so after we arrived another truck arrived with adults, including my grandparents.

Josie’s application described her experience of being taken from her family without any discussion to the Fitzroy United Aborigines Mission, boys in one dormitory, girls in another, locked in at night. Josie tried to run away several times, but was brought back and flogged. There was strict segregation between family members in their ‘camp’ and children fenced off in a ‘compound’. Adults were expected to work if they were to remain near their children. After five years at Fitzroy Crossing, when she was thirteen, Josie was sent to the Amy Bethel Hostel in Derby for further ‘training’ – cleaning the houses of staff, ironing their clothes, scrubbing, cooking and cleaning. At fifteen she was taken back to Fitzroy Crossing, but her family had gone back to Moola Bulla, her mother’s country. Moola Bulla was under new management and they wanted Aboriginal workers, so Josie asked to be taken there and began working with her family.

Josie’s application focused only on these early years, when she was held in government and government-sanctioned institutions and expected to work. This was common in the Kimberley. In 1963 Josie and her husband moved into Halls Creek, at the urging of the Native Welfare Department, which was providing rations for people to encourage them to move into the town. This was when the government began funneling people into towns and reserves with devastating consequences. Aboriginal refugees from the stations were channeled into town camps, on land designated as reserves, which were overcrowded and had inadequate shelter, poor sanitation and little prospect of work.

Josie and her husband were soon directed to a station owned by the Quiltys. Even though she was heavily pregnant she was expected to work without pay:

Looking back, I think all the work I was made to do, at Amy Bethel Hostel, Moola Bulla and the Quilty’s, was like slavery. I never received payment. I do not know whether Amy Bethel Hostel received money for me or kept money, which I should have received. All I know is that I was never paid anything.

In February 2013, Josie received a letter from the director-general of DIA saying, ‘you have been assessed as eligible to receive an ex-gratia payment of $2,000’. There was no indication why her application was successful, no expression of regret, or responsibility, no acknowledgement of the hardships she experienced. Greater transparency was needed. Just as Josie did not know why she was deemed eligible and what had been taken into account, others did not know why they were refused.

Josie later instructed KCLS to make a FOI application to learn how her application was assessed. The response included the hitherto secret list of most of the ‘government native welfare settlements’. It became clear that in assessing applications, the department did not research to see if a trust account existed for the person or what income had been withheld. KCLS renewed a request to the minister that the department be required to write to all applicants to explain the reason for the outcome. This would respect the claimants’ right to know, and avoid problems in the future for those who were at more than one qualifying institution and would otherwise be unable to say which resulted in their payment. The minister again declined, this time stating that as KCLS had the list, it could tell its clients.

For Kimberley people, clarifying which institutions were covered and why was particularly important because their income was withheld while working on stations under government regulation. This was never just about money, it was about recognition of Aboriginal labour and the benefit the state accrued from the pastoral industry in the twentieth century. The scheme was meant to be about reparation. Instead it appeared to be a risk-management response, a lesson in how not to deal with the past.

KCLS clients continue to argue that more needs to be done. The legal centre has followed up on hundreds of cases. Kimberley Aboriginal leaders are seeking to have the entire scheme reviewed and re-opened. Leaders of the Labor opposition and Greens have visited the East Kimberley to listen, but no one from the government has made the journey to discuss the problems.

In June 2014, a petition was tabled in the Legislative Council calling for a new scheme to be negotiated – one that adopts a broader understanding of ‘stolen wages’ and acknowledges past wrongs. The petition called for a new process of consultation, evaluation and assessment of the full impact of stolen wages in the state and the adequacy of the scheme. The Legislative Council Committee that received the petition wrote to KCLS advising that the minister’s response meant there would be no further action by the Committee.

The Liberal–National Government has the numbers on the Committee, in the Legislative Council and the Legislative Assembly. The Labor Party has a policy to review stolen wages should it be elected at the next state election, but that will not be held until March 2017.

FAIR AND JUST approaches to reparation for past actions are sensible and ultimately beneficial to all members of societies in which such injustices have occurred. This is part of a global movement as the legacy of historic injustice is being more fully understood, with some predicting that this ‘will be the century of global reparatory justice’.

Reconciling the Past, the long delayed stolen wages taskforce report, described the success of Canada’s $1.9 billion compensation scheme for First Nation children who were abused when interned in Indian Residential Schools. Seventy-eight thousand made claims, and those that were verified were awarded $10,000 for the first year of internment and $3,000 for each subsequent year. This scheme also included a Truth and Reconciliation Commission with a budget of $60 million over five years to ‘promote public education and awareness about the Indian Residential School System and its legacy’, which meant affected individuals and families could share their stories appropriately. A further $20 million was made available for commemoration initiatives while an endowment of $125 million goes towards healing programs.

On 16 December 2005, the United Nations General Assembly adopted Basic Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Remedy and Reparation for Victims (GA 60/147) after fifteen years of work by Professor Theo van Boven and others. Neither this resolution, nor an earlier draft of the van Boven principles that significantly framed the 1997 Bringing Them Home report, were mentioned by the taskforce. The UN policy calls for a comprehensive victim-focused framework for reparations and includes compensation, restitution, rehabilitation, satisfaction and guarantees of non-repetition. The taskforce ignored this rights-based framework and made no reference to the human rights of Aboriginal people. It did not consider how the treatment of Aboriginal people violated the spirit, and arguably the letter, of Australia’s obligations under international conventions.

In the United States, the massive American Indian Trust class action of Cobell v Salazar, Secretary of the Interior, which began in 1996, was well underway when the taskforce was operating. Whether the WA Government monitored and analysed this case is unknown, but it cannot have failed to notice that the settlement in 2009 included a $1.4 billion fund, a $1.9 billion Trust Land Consolidation Fund to consolidate Indian trust lands and a $60 million Indian Education Scholarship Fund.

In September 2013, Caribbean countries established the CARICOM Reparations Commission to seek reparations from Britain and other European colonial powers for ‘native genocide, the transatlantic slave trade and slavery’. On the 16 June 2014, in a presentation to the British House of Commons, the Chairman of the Reparations Commission, Professor Sir Hilary Beckles, made his prediction that ‘this twenty-first century will be the century of global reparatory justice’. The Commission’s ten-point plan includes: formal apology, repatriation, economic development, health and education programs, social inclusion and psychological rehabilitation, technology transfer, and debt cancellation.

Even closer to home, the Queensland Government created the acclaimed Community and Personal Histories Team in response to key recommendations of the 1991 Deaths in Custody and Bringing Them Home reports. The team deals with up to a thousand requests for access each year. Cases are managed by appropriately trained counsellors, who give clients a research report and copies of all government files about them. The twenty-five staff, who are predominantly Aboriginal, have access to more than thirty-five thousand files in over a kilometre of shelved records. Their success is due to the relationships they have built with Aboriginal communities, which become a vital knowledge resource in accessing further information, identifying family members and ensuring that dealing with the past is done in the spirit of truth and reconciliation.

ON WEDNESDAY 12 November 2014, Josie Farrer was planning to celebrate the passage of a historic amendment to the preamble of the Western Australian Constitution to ‘acknowledge the Aboriginal peoples as the First Peoples of Western Australia and the traditional custodians of the land’ and that the Parliament sought ‘to effect a reconciliation with the Aboriginal peoples of Western Australia’.

At the last minute there was a problem. The government decided it would not support the bill. The leader of the Opposition, the Shadow Attorney General and government ministers took turns to speak in the debate, but without government support the bill would fail.

Josie sits quietly, dignified, contained and expressionless. She knows the way the system works. She has known it all her life.

Unjust laws build a culture of contempt. It is clear from the evidence that Aboriginal people in WA have been held in contempt for almost two centuries. Unjust schemes also belittle those in power, undermine genuine overtures for justice, healing, reconciliation and future communion. These past laws return as unfinished business when governments lack the courage to act with a true sense of truth and reconciliation.

Western Australia remains the only mainland state that does not recognise Aboriginal people in its constitution.

 14 November 2014


Interview with Steve Kinnane on ABC Radio National Late Night Live

'WA facing legal challenge over "stolen wages" payments'

ABC TV Lateline, 28 July 2015


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