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Last Updated: Wednesday, 7 April 2004, 13:50 GMT 14:50 UK
Aborigines fight for their money back
By Becky Branford
BBC News Online

Fred Edwards, holding some campaign materials. Courtesy Christine Howes
Fred is one of many indigenous workers whose wages have vanished
Over the past 15 years, Australian Aborigines have fought to receive official title to their ancestral lands and for governments to acknowledge the sad history of the removal of their children.

Now they have a new target in their sights: the state-sanctioned confiscation of the wages earned by tens of thousands of Aboriginal workers for much of the 20th century.

It is an issue only now being uncovered - and campaigners hope it will explode across Australia this year.

One Aboriginal man, Fred Edwards, was sent out to work on a cattle ranch aged 12 and spent the next 25 years earning money that, for the most part, he never received.

Under the Aboriginal Protection Act of 1897, the Queensland state government held it "in trust" for him. But the balance has never been settled, and, despite his long working life, Fred now cannot afford to retire.

"The money is ours but the government won't give it back," said Mr Edwards, now 65. "Now I've got to go on slaving, I don't know how long I'll be going - until I can't stand it any more, I suppose."

The practice went on, to varying degrees, across Australia until about 1972.

It appears to have been most prevalent in Queensland, where at least half the Aboriginal population - which grew from about 15,000 in 1910 to 40,000 in 1960 - is thought to have been affected.

Here, not only wages, but pensions, inheritances and child benefits were taken.

'Aboriginal problem'?

Mr Edwards' story features on a postcard that campaigners, backed by many of Australia's trade unions, hope will raise awareness of the issue in Australia and around the world.

The issue was uncovered by an Australian academic, Dr Ros Kidd, while researching her PhD thesis on government controls on Aborigines.

The department for Aboriginal affairs was a closed shop, run by little Napoleons
Dr Ros Kidd
Academic and campaigner
"There were items in the newspapers about the 'Aboriginal problem' and I thought, 'I can't get any proper sense of this'," she told BBC News Online.

"I decided to investigate the controls on Aboriginal people - how the government had operated, particularly in the 20th century. I spent three years researching in churches and government offices. They had no idea what was there - the files weren't even in proper order.

"I was appalled by what I read."

Dr Kidd learned that under the act the state acquired powers to declare any Aborigine a "ward of state", regardless of their personal circumstances.

They could then be forcibly interned or sent to church missions, often to live in conditions of extreme poverty. Families were commonly separated, the children sent to institutional dormitories.

Forced labour

Men were regularly sent on 12-month work contracts, often on cattle ranches. Women were frequently despatched to white homes as domestic servants. Refusal to go incurred punishment or banishment to a penal island.

And, from 1904, the wages they earned went directly to local police "protectors" who were supposed to hand a fraction on to workers as "pocket money" and place the rest in trust funds.

Read the stories of victims and campaigners (With thanks to Christine Howes)

But Dr Kidd found widespread evidence of fraud on the part of the protectors, indicating that workers often never received even pocket money.

The money that did end up in the trust funds was regularly siphoned into government revenue - often to be spent on capital works programmes. Very little of that money remains.

No formal accounting has been done, but Dr Kidd's research suggests that A$500m (US$380m) could be owing in Queensland alone - "and it could actually be several times that".

Asked why it took so many years for the issue to come to light, Dr Kidd explained that all Aboriginal affairs were run by one department - "a closed shop, run by little Napoleons. There were only three men running the department between 1914 and 1986 - and they had complete control.

"The beauty of it is that they assumed that no one would ever question what they were doing and they certainly never assumed any bright bunny - a female - would expose it all for what it was."


As Dr Kidd's work gained prominence in the late 1990s, the Queensland government decided to act.

The government was under no obligation to do anything, but decided it would be a really good gesture
Liddy Clark MP
Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander policy, Queensland Government
It publicly acknowledged the wrong done and established a fund of $55.4m, from which successful claimants receive individual compensation of either $2,000 or $4,000, depending on their age.

"The reparations offer was not calculated to say, 'Look, we owe you this money', it was basically done for reconciliation, you know, holding out the hand," Liddy Clark MP, Queensland's minister for Aboriginal affairs, told BBC News Online.

"The government was under no obligation to do anything, but decided it would be a really good gesture to offer this money because of the historical bad practice," she said.

The Queensland government has estimated that there are about 16,000 potential claimants alive today. Of those, 6,370 have applied for the reparations deal; 2,443 have been accepted.


But the settlement offer has been passionately rejected by many members of the indigenous community.

"Well, what's a nice way to say it? It's bull!" said Lanora Jackson, whose father was a victim (see photo gallery).

They are robbing and deceiving us again
Bob Weatherall
Foundation for Aboriginal and Islander Research Action (Faira)
"Dad refuses to take the money, because it's an insult. After listening to some of his stories of the work he was forced to do I feel he should be paid $4,000 for one week of the work," she said.

Campaigners also charge that no formal accounts exist as to how much was taken. They say victims must receive compensation that at least approximates what they lost.

And they say a government bar on claims from the descendants of victims who died before the offer was made in May 2002 must be retracted.

"They are robbing and deceiving us again," said Bob Weatherall, cultural officer for Faira, an indigenous rights group.

"Many of our elders, who were slaves, have died, and their offspring are not able to get reparations so they can progress in their communities. We want to create a viable economic base for our communities so we are not beggars, living off welfare. That's what we've been reduced to."


He says that although the confiscation ended 30 years ago, its legacy is entrenched in the poverty suffered by many indigenous people today.

Aboriginal men face a life expectancy two decades shorter than white men. A recent report put malnutrition among Aboriginal children on a par with some of the world's poorest countries, such as Sudan and Sierra Leone.

The issue of wage confiscation affects not only Queenslanders. In states across Australia, campaigners are beginning to uncover similar tales of dispossession.

Campaigners hope that their work will ensure a just resolution, as the next step in Australia's recognition of its painful colonial past.

Aborigine health 'getting worse'
30 Mar 04 |  Asia-Pacific
Australia's lost generation
16 Feb 04 |  Asia-Pacific
Timeline: Australia
04 Feb 04 |  Country profiles

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