Skip to main content

Statement by Dr William Jonas AM on the Qld ‘stolen wages’ issue (2002)

Statement by Dr William Jonas
AM on the Qld ‘stolen wages’ issue (2002)

The Aboriginal and
Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Dr William Jonas AM,
today called on the Queensland government to delay plans to seek Cabinet
approval for their proposed resolution of the Aboriginal ‘stolen
wages’ issue until they have negotiated further with Indigenous groups.

The government has
made an offer of $55.4m as reparations for the impact of government
control of Aboriginal wages and savings from the 1890’s to 1972.
A Cabinet decision
on whether to proceed with the offer is imminent.

Dr Jonas has just
returned from a range of meetings with Indigenous groups and the Queensland
government about the offer. ‘There remain outstanding a range
of serious problems with the Government’s offer’ said Dr Jonas.
‘I am disturbed
by the unwillingness and inflexibility of the Government to address
these issues and negotiate further with Indigenous communities. The impact
of the Government’s approach to this issue to date has been to create
unnecessary
trauma and anger in Indigenous communities. It is incumbent on them
to reconsider their approach to avoid this continuing.’

Under the proposed
deal, the Government has proposed that $55.4m be set aside
for lump sum payments of $4000 and $2000 to affected individuals, with
the quantum
depending on the age of the eligible person. In order to receive the
payment, it is proposed that individuals will be required to relinquish
all legal rights
that they may have under the various ‘protection’ acts in place
in Queensland between 1897 and 1984.

‘The stolen
wages issue is one of the greatest injustices perpetrated by the Queensland
government on its Indigenous citizens’ stated Dr Jonas. ‘I commend
the Queensland government for seeking to address the consequences of this
disgraceful aspect of Queensland’s history – it is long overdue.’

‘If the deal
is to achieve the aim of contributing to social justice and reconciliation
with Indigenous people, however, it requires significant modification
from its current form’ said Dr Jonas. ‘In particular, there
are three main
sets of concerns that must be addressed’.

‘First, inadequacies
in the consultation process must be addressed. The government
has sought the views of Indigenous people on the appropriateness of
the deal. There have been serious problems with this process ranging from
the fact that
approximately 10% of those people potentially affected actually
participated in the consultation process; that the deal was presented
as a once only ‘take it or leave it’ offer, placing considerable
stress on people
often living in dire economic circumstances; that there was a
lack of independent legal advice on the implications of accepting the
offer; and
that there was significant confusion as to the purpose of the consultations
with many people believing they were signing ‘consent’ forms
so that they
would actually receive the proposed monetary sums. Many people on
communities are now waiting for their money to arrive.’

‘It is clear
that the consultation process has been flawed and does not provide
a representative view of Indigenous peoples’ response to the deal’
said Dr Jonas.
‘Furthermore, people have yet to get answers to a range of basic
questions about the proposed process, such as who exactly is entitled,
and what about
people who lived off reserves or who died since discussions on
the deal began. The lack of information indicates that there has been
no basis for
informed decision making about the issue’.

‘Second, there
are issues about the scope of legal indemnity sought by the Government.
At present, by seeking an indemnity for all legal actions relating
to the protection acts, and not merely those relating to labour exploitation,
the Government is in fact seeking to close down all legal options
for the stolen generations. This is because Indigenous people were forcibly
removed under the same acts that imposed government control of wages
and savings and which regulated the contracting out of Aboriginal labour.’

‘The indemnity
as currently framed is a sneaky, back-door way of silencing the
claims of the stolen generations’ stated Dr Jonas. ‘What is
worse than this
is that in its consultation process, no information has been provided
about this
impact of the proposal. The indemnity provision must be confined to
avoid this outcome.’

‘This also highlights
the need for adequately funded independent legal advice
to affected Indigenous people and communities so that they can understand
fully the ramifications of the Government’s offer. Such advice must
not be funded out of the $55.4m reparations package. Such advice clearly
has not been provided to date.’

‘Third, the
quantum proposed by the government is insultingly low. It cannot be
seen as an appropriate figure for the inter-generational harm and poverty
inflicted on
Indigenous people through the control exercised by the government.
It is clearly an arbitrary figure based on what can be afforded by
Queensland treasury in one hit. There does not appear to have been due
consideration
of proposals by Indigenous groups for staggering payments over several
budgets. There is no justification for how the figure of $55.4m came to
replace the previously estimated cost of $180m to adequately address the
harm caused.’

‘There is also
significant concern about the fact that available estimates indicate
that if each person is paid the proposed $2000 or $4000 there will be
approx $20m left over of the proposed $55.4m. Indigenous people need to
know whether
this money will be paid in reparations or whether the real offer
is in fact a portion of the $55.4m figure currently on offer.’

‘What was initiated
as an act of reconciliation and an attempt at a just settlement
of a long outstanding abuse has been so poorly handled by the Queensland
government that it has in fact turned into another slap in the face
for Queensland’s Indigenous people’ said Dr Jonas. ‘It
is not too late to
right this grievous wrong. Above all else, the pleas of Indigenous people
is that they
be accorded due process and receive a sensitive and thorough consideration
of the issues. Surely this is not too much to ask.’

‘I have extended
an offer to the Queensland government to facilitate meetings
between Indigenous organisations and the government to ensure that their
concerns can be appropriately addressed prior to any decision being made
by Cabinet. Such consultation, aside from being necessary need not cause
undue delay to the process and could lead to a more just outcome and respectful
process.’

‘At the end
of the day, while it is a very difficult issue for Government to manage
it is ultimately a matter of inconvenience for them. For Indigenous people,
however, it is a matter of injustice. There is no comparison. The Queensland
government needs to redouble their efforts in the name of justice and
equity.’

To
access the media release on the "Stolen Wages" case click here
.

Last updated 11 November 2002.