Stuart Rintoul, October 14, 2006
ABORIGINAL people in Queensland and NSW are preparing legal action against their state governments over wages they should have been paid as labourers or servants, but which they never received.
This is despite a $55.5million offer to settle the stolen wages cases by the Beattie Government, which drew widespread condemnation when it was capped at individual payments of $4000; a NSW scheme that over the past year has accepted $400,000 in claims of up to $25,000; and a Senate inquiry into the matter.
Aborigines also learned this week that NSW archivists had discovered 139 boxes of documents covering the period 1938-49. Previously, there were thought to be very few documents from this period to support claims.
The director of the NSW Aboriginal Trust Fund Repayment Scheme, Marilyn Hoey, said the 100,000 pages of documents, from the old Chief Secretary’s Department, were “harrowing” and “devastating” in their descriptions of how Aboriginal lives were controlled by the Aborigines Protection Board and the Aboriginal Welfare Board.
The legal actions being discussed centre on the argument that governments were in breach of trust in their handling of the stolen wages, which has been accepted in US courts in relation to Native Americans but not yet tested in Australia.
Over the past fortnight, Elouise Cobell, the lead plaintiff in a $176billion class action by Native Americans against the US Government, the largest claim in US history, has held discussions with lawyers in Queensland, NSW and Victoria, along with stolen wages activist Ros Kidd.
Ms Cobell has described the Individual Indian Monies case in the US as “worse than Enron, because it’s the Government that is lying, covering up and breaching its trust. They stole people’s entire life savings. They robbed an entire race of people.”
Having now heard some of the stories of Aboriginal people who were denied wages throughout their lives, she told The Weekend Australian: “I don’t see how any Australian, after listening to the stories, can feel good. It’s emotionally draining.”
In Queensland, lawyers are searching for a strong test case from among Aboriginal workers who were offered compensation by the Government, based on documentary evidence, but rejected it.
In NSW, at a meeting in inner Sydney’s Redfern this week, Public Interest Advocacy Centre director Robin Banks said it was likely that “classes of people” who fell outside the Aboriginal Trust Fund Repayment Scheme would also go to court.
These would include wards of the state whose employers had failed to pay wages into trust funds; who had received under-award wages with the state’s knowledge; or those who had their finances managed by churches or other benevolent institutions.
In Queensland, after four years, only half the 16,400 anticipated claimants have applied for payment. One-third of those have been rejected because the Government has been unable to find substantiating documents and only $20 million of the allocated $55.5 million has been distributed.
In NSW, Ms Hoey said $400,000 in claims had been accepted over the past year, ranging from just less than $1000 to $25,000. She said there were 304 direct claimants while 1054 descendants had also lodged sometimes overlapping claims.
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