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Law Seminar 2007: Indigenous Stolen Wages Inquiry held by Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee Senator Russell Trood


Speaking Notes

for a seminar organised by

Human Rights and Equal Rights Commission

on the topic of

Indigenous Stolen Wages Inquiry held by

Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee


Senator Russell Trood

Senator for Queensland

9 March 2007


  • Initiated by Senator Bartlett, Democrat Queensland
  • Inquiry much indebted to the research of Dr Ros Kidd
  • Inquiry began in October 2006, report was presented in December 2006
  • Terms of Reference Wide
    • Indigenous workers whose wages controlled by governments 19th – 20th centuries
  • Inquiry received 128 submissions
  • Public hearings held in Brisbane, Sydney, Perth and Canberra
  • Heard from nearly 60 witnesses
  • Committee produced a 150 page report; 8 chapters
  • The Enquiry received good evidence on the issues from NSW and QLD; useful evidence came from NT and WA; nothing from TAS, VIC, SA

Enquiry Findings

  • By 1911 all states (other than Tasmania) and the Northern Territory had Aboriginal protection acts
  • These acts allowed governments to control employment, conditions and wages of aboriginals in their jurisdiction.
    • Varied somewhat from state to state
    • QLD and NSW aboriginals to hand over wages to state authorities for trust, not by law in WA, though this was the practice
    • VIC paid to "guardian" for aborigine's benefit
    • In sum, aborigines were not allowed to manage their own financial affairs
    • Monies went into "trust accounts" for the benefit of the individuals to whom the funds were to be paid.
    • Clear evidence before the enquiry that government administration of trust accounts failed to ensure people received their entitlements or that funds adequately protected from misappropriation of fraud
      • Direct evidence from some witnesses that in NSW, QLD, WA they had not received wages

      • Also evidence that under the protection acts there was considerable abuse of workers – few rights, employment protections, exploitation, poor living conditions and in some cases, physical abuse
      • Strong evidence of some systematic misappropriation in relation to social security benefits including:
        • Social security entitlements
        • Child endowments –
        • Maternity allowance
        • Invalid pensions
        • War Services pensions
        • Widows pensions
      • Conflicting evidence on the current state of some of these accounts – eg QLD Government said accounts closed 1990s.  QLD Public Interest Clearing house said present status unknown
  • In some jurisdictions there were concerns about the maladministration of funds over a lengthy period of time eg QLD and NSW enquiries going back to 1930s, in WA in 1960s. No information regarding VIC and SA
  • It was clear from the evidence that records and archive in all jurisdictions are in considerable disarray
        • This is not always the fault of authorities – difficulties with aboriginal literacy and recoding of correct names
        • Generally: missing, incomplete, lost files, gaps in information, complex filing systems, limited resources to support access requests, sometimes restrictions on access
        • WA described as tattered and disconnected but better than in NT - almost no sound or credible records.
        • All adds up to grave difficulties in individuals gaining reliable information.
  • Only in two jurisdictions have any attempts been made to rectify the injustices that have occurred:


      • 1999 Unemployment of Award wages Process covering people employed 1975-86
      • 2002 Indigenous Wages and Savings Reparations- $55.6 million fund offer indigenous workers under protection acts
      • Both set sum schemes: 1999 scheme maximum entitlement $7000, under the 2002 scheme, $2000 or $4000 one off payments
      • Various eligibility requirements DOB etc. Most controversially claimants have to provide an indemnity and give up common law rights and have to provide documentary evidence. Offer closed 31 Jan 2006
      • 8761 claims, 63% deemed eligible 5413 paid at cost: $19.11 million
      • Great deal of resentment if not anger about scheme – reparations not repayment; lack of legal advice; inadequate consultation; indemnity; onerous evidence etc

           New South Wales

      • Aboriginal Trust Fund Repayment Scheme, February 2005
      • Far more generous than QLD- repayment of wages indexed to current value; no cap on payments, “reliable evidence” test; claims by individuals or decedents; no indemnity; practical support and counselling
      • Panel assessed claims
      • 290 claims, 190 claims with interim assessment, $385,325 paid out; claims between $1000 and $24000
      • Some witnesses’ had criticisms, but jury still out on its success.

Committee made six recommendations –

  • All governments should give better access to archives
  • Funding for an education campaign and legal research on stolen wages
  • Commonwealth should fund a national oral history and archival project re stolen wages
  • WA government: consult with aboriginals re stolen wages, establish a compensation scheme, Commonwealth to assess its records re WA stolen wages
  • Re stolen wages in TAS, NT, VIC and SA: governments should consult with indigenous people re stolen wages, conduct preliminary research of archives and if the need exists set up scheme on NSW model
  • QLD should revise terms of offer to ensure full compensation, more time for claims, reliance on oral history, no indemnification, descendents can claim.

Senator Russell Trood

9 March 2007

Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Website: Legal Information
updated 10 April, 2007