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.