Article in The Courier Mail by Margaret Wenham

THE most recent chapter in a saga of injustice that began well over 100 years ago is currently being written, as a group of Queensland workers who had their wages taken from them by the state government seek to be given back their money.

All of it. Not just some piddling, tokenistic, arbitrarily arrived at amount. All of it.

Led by Hans Pearson, uncle of activist and lawyer Noel Pearson, a class action was instituted in the Federal Court last September.

Pearson, born in 1939 at the Cape Bedford mission in far north Queensland, not far from Cooktown, is seeking $145,950 for wages paid by his various employers to the state government over the course of his working life until the late 1960s.

Late last month the State Government filed its defence.

No, it doesn’t want to give back to Pearson and the 2300 other claimants who have joined the action all the money owed.

And, no, it doesn’t accept that, having taken the money from these workers to ostensibly hold “in trust” for them while otherwise emasculating them under so-called protection legislation, that it had a fiduciary duty towards them to manage the money properly and, ultimately, pay it back.

This position is wrong and dishonest.

In fact, it has been estimated that up to about $500 million is owed to thousands of Queensland Aboriginal workers.

It was researcher Dr Ros Kidd who first combed through the state’s archived Aboriginal Affairs files. Her subsequent book The Way We Civilise – based on her doctoral thesis – exposed how the state wrested from Aboriginal people control over just about every facet of their lives.

Lest we forget, a great many Aboriginal people were relocated from their traditional lands to state or church-run missions where they were not allowed to practise their culture or speak their language.

Not even counted in the country’s census as people until 1967, they had to obtain the state’s permission if they wanted to travel or leave the mission to live and work elsewhere. They had to obtain the state’s permission to marry. They were not only paid less than white people for the same work but, completely disenfranchised, they also had no way of fighting the state’s appropriation of their wages.

In particular, Kidd’s work details how, from the 1900s to the late 1970s, indigenous people’s wages were seized to be held in trust.

As well and equally unfair, levies for public works were arbitrarily imposed and deducted from those seized wages.

Aboriginal mothers were stripped of much of their child endowment payments too.

It also details how successive audits exposed mismanagement and misuse of the trust money and theft by public servants.

But no one ever did anything about the audits’ findings. No effort was ever made to pay the money, not even in part, to whom it belonged until May 2002 when the Beattie government set up a $55.6 million fund from which to pay reparations.

But this scheme, no doubt aimed at heading off a major court case, was rude.

It offered capped payments of $2000 or $4000 for a lifetime’s work in exchange for a signed indemnity to “give up any future rights to sue the government about anything to do with being ‘under the Acts’.”

So offended were so many that far fewer people signed up for the scheme than anticipated. Those who held their nose and did apply and whose legitimacy was accepted, numbered just 5413.

Where the official records were missing, claims were rejected. Only $19.11 million was paid out.

In 2008, the Bligh government reopened the scheme and topped up the payments to the successful applicants by $1500 and $3000 and then transferred the rest ($15 million), along with $10.8 million remaining in the pillaged Aboriginal Welfare Fund, to a new Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Foundation which provides financial support to indigenous students.

In December, 2015, the Palaszczuk Government allocated another $21 million to further top up the payments – with amounts of $1100 or $2200 – made to the previously successful applicants, bringing total reparation payments to either $4600 if born between 1952 and 1959 or $9200 if born before 1952.

But if you were Hans Pearson and you estimated over most of your working life you’d lost around $146,000 in wages, stolen by the government, would you think $9200 was a fair settlement?

I’ve written before that the white Western economy was imposed on indigenous peoples but their participation in it last century amounted to little more than a massive and unconscionable rip-off.

It is imperative we grasp that, writ large among the many privations visited on them, this stealing of Aboriginal people’s wages condemned generations to poverty, the effects of which continue to reverberate.

The theft of indigenous people’s wages is a vast economic injustice that should be put right – in full.