‘One of the Great Scandals of Australia’s History: Aboriginal Labour in 20th Century Queensland’ — Dr Ros Kidd

Ros Kidd delivers Alex McDonald Memorial Lecture 2010. Photo: Ted Riethmuller

“The money is ours but the government won’t give it back”

Ros Kidd spoke at the Queensland Council of Unions [QCU] about the thousands of indigenous workers who were paid a small fraction of award wages in Queensland during the 20th century — with full knowledge by government and protection authorities like Pat Killoran.

Dr Kidd demonstrated how successive governments in Queensland systematically robbed Murris and then covered it up.

Ros described how she, as a mature age student at Griffith University from a small business background, was inspired by 20th century philosopher, Michel Foucault, to research aboriginal labour in Queensland.

Uncle Bob Anderson gives Welcome to Country. Photo: Ted Riethmuller

During that period Aboriginal labour was the backbone of the pastoral industry, domestic service and in the canefields. Aboriginal labour has long been the most skilled in the pastoral industry — however aboriginal workers were paid a fraction of the award wage for that skilled work. This injustice was repeated in other industries such a domestic labour and in the building industry on reserves and missions.

Uncle Conrad Yeatman tells of his exploitation as an Aboriginal worker in Nth Queensland. Photo: Ted Riethmuller

Aboriginal people in the audience at Ros Kidd’s talk backed up her findings with their own personal accounts of being ripped off resulting in struggle for their families and disappointment. Uncle Conrad Yeatman from Yarrabah Mission in North Queensland verified her research with his personal stories of exploitation on the reserve, in building industry, and in the canefields.

QCU General Secretary Ron Monaghan on behalf of the Qld union movement has assisted Uncle Conrad and Ros Kidd to bring the Queensland Government to account in the courts.

Audience showing its appreciation. Photo: Ted Riethmuller

Aboriginal descendents of people whose wages were stolen spoke of their troubles and concern that justice be done. One aboriginal woman from Mapoon, Connie Andrews, said that her dad had worked as a stockman on the stock routes from the gulf country to Darwin but  that he had not received his full entitlements. Connie asked on behalf of her Mum if any of her family is entitled to claim those outstanding monies under trust law. Ms Andrews asked Ros Kidd a specific question about who are the beneficiaries of a trust. Ros Kidd replied that she is not a lawyer but that she knows that Aboriginal people like the Andrews family should get just compensation from the government for unpaid wages. I was surprised that one of the lawyers present in the room did not answer Connie’s question.

In 2002, the Beattie government announced a $55.6 million take-it-or-leave it reparations fund designed to compensate stolen wages victims.” [See Qld’s stolen wages defence “insulting”].

In the May 2101 Federal budget, the indigenous share was only 1.38% of the total revenue — an insult when you consider the huge profits being made on aboriginal land by transnational mining companies. This is one of  the faults of the federal government’s indigenous policy, they do not take into account the disadvantage caused by successive government’s refusal to pay stolen wages and their inability to compel mining companies to properly compensate aboriginal workers for exploiting their land. Government is unable to force miners to provide schooling, work and services on the lands they have come to despoil. [See “Mapoon divided over mine“]

The QCU and the BLHA is to be congratulated for their support of indigenous people on the question of stolen wages.

Ron Monaghan, General Secretary of the Qld Council of Unions describes the union movement's support for the Stolen Wages Campaign. Photo: Ted Riethmuller

Prior to Ros Kidd’s talk the Aboriginal Rights Coalition ARC had an organising meeting about a ‘freedom bus ride’ to the NT in opposition to the Intervention. It commemorates a similar bus trip through western NSW led by Charlie Perkins in 1965. On that bus trip 30 odd Sydney University students confronted racism at local baths and in small towns like Moree. The high point of the freedom ride was how the colour bar was challenged and eventually broken at the swimming pool in Moree and at the Walgett cinema.

As Ros Kidd’s lecture and peoples comments at the talk on Thursday night illustrated, we have a lot of important and unfinished political business here in Queensland on indigenous issues … Justice for Mulrunji and the people on Palm, Stolen Wages, Lex Wotton still in jail, mining companies exploiting aboriginal land in places like Mapoon in the Gulf  and elsewhere, trade unions needing to have a policy that covers indigenous workers … the list is long and organisation is scarce.

I found myself questioning Ros Kidd’s resort to legal strategy to challenge the intransigence of the Beattie and Bligh Labor governments over this issue. I wondered also how it is possible for 89 members of parliament, not one of whom is indigenous, to ever truly grasp the disadvantage created by the enforced labour and confiscation of wages that Ros Kidd so meticulously researched and described.

The Brisbane Labour History Association advertising for the talk states:

“Ros Kidd was awarded a doctorate by Griffith University in 1994 for her groundbreaking research into government control of Aboriginal people in Queensland between 1840 and 1988. She has published four books: The Way We Civilise; Black Lives, Government Lies; Trustees on Trial; and Hard Labour, Stolen Wages. She has assisted Native Title claimants with historical research reports, and works with Aboriginal people in pursuit of justice from the government for illegally underpaid wages and lost savings.”

Ros Kidd beseeched people with imagination to come up with a strategy to bring government to account over stolen wages. Foucault had been her inspiration to enter a field of inquiry cold, without previous knowledge. He had inspired Ros to look at things from a different perspective, ‘to turn things on their head’. Interestingly Foucault was oft quoted in the 1980’s, sometimes as a counter to Marx. This may have been a misrepresentation but I understand that Foucault was sympathetic to the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979 — even to the extent of visiting Iran and supporting the interim government established under the Ayatollah Khomeini. I wonder if Foucault held to that view, given the political repression that followed — the drawn-out and murderous war with Iraq, the suppression of women and the denial of secular development. It is understandable that Foucault and other Leftists in France, the country that housed the Ayatollah in exile, would have been pleased to see the end of the American puppet, the Shah of Iran, but to support a religious zealot was naive in the extreme.

One comment directed at Ros Kidd drew a parallel between the suspension of the racial discrimination act and the protectionism of the 20th century in Queensland. The express purpose of the Queensland Acts was to discriminate against aboriginal people and to drive them into missions and reserves using wage exploitation and enslavement under a domitary and penal system. Ros Kidd’s research has shown it was intended to loot the wages and entitlements of the people housed on those reserves. No doubt the comment was intended to bring us to the present and to advocate support for the campaign against the ‘Intervention’ in the Northern Territory, with its income management regime and the suspension of the racial discrimination act [RDA]. The speaker warned us that the federal labor government, on re-introduction of the RDA, intended to exempt its income management scheme from legal attack.

While I understand the focus on the present, nevertheless the parallel with aboriginal experience in Queensland under the ‘Acts’ is superficial. For one there are far more aboriginal people in Queensland who suffered under a regime of exploitation [the ‘Acts’], often illegal, for 100 years beginning with the Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1897.

“Chief Protector of Aboriginals, Cornelius O’Leary, confirmed the priorities of the employment regime, stating in 1948 that the Aboriginal workforce ‘continue to prove a valuable asset’ to the pastoral industry.2 Indeed records show this cheap labour pool was critical for industry survival in remote areas and Aboriginal workers were highly prized for their skills and stability (as will be discussed below).  Yet across generations very few gained financially from their labours unless they were freed from State controls.  For most, working and retirement lives were characterised by hardship, subsistence diet, minimal clothing, unsafe water and sanitation, and derelict shelter.” — Ros Kidd Australia’s Debt: Unpaid Wages to Indigenous Pastoral Workers

Howard’s Intervention was a racist ploy to save his government in its dying days, discredited by its industrial relations policies, rising household debt, and increased interest rates. The Labor Government is quite happy to run with it as long as it provides electoral mileage. It set back aboriginal people so much that they woke up one morning thinking onetime Chief Protector of Aboriginals, Pat Killoran, had been reincarnated. Labor governments are content to fund research and put out historical documents that pay lip service to past injustice but will not change the ongoing discrimination. What is lacking is organisation behind an idea that will challenge the state for what it has done and what it continues to do in the name of development, in this place, at this time. For small groups such as the Aboriginal Rights Coalition in Brisbane to attempt to move the focus away from the problems faced here in Queensland by 146,400 indigenous people to the Northern Territory where 66,600 indigenous people face the intervention is a curious strategy indeed. [Population statistics — 4705.0 – Population Distribution, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, 2006].  Are we to change our focus from endemic issues every time a federal election comes around?

Sadly, the socialist movement in Australia is bound to ‘issue-related-struggles’ [economism] and is unable  to come up with the idea to generate systemic change or, more importantly, the organisation to back it up. Instead we have been through one ‘electoralist’ experiment after another when our focus should be on the organised working class that holds the power in it to change the system that oppresses all workers, indigenous and non-indigenous.

Ros Kidd’s research is illuminating and was validated at the lecture by people most affected, the Murris themselves who attended and spoke.

But to have studied Foucault is evidently not enough.

Pastoralists on aboriginal land in the Gulf Country, Queensland 1870. Photo: Ian Curr (family collection)

Thanks to Ted Riethmuller for his photos. See Brisbane Labour History’s photostream for more.

Ian Curr
May 2010


Palm Island — on the inside and out
Australia’s Debt: Unpaid Wages to Indigenous Pastoral Workers

7 thoughts on “‘One of the Great Scandals of Australia’s History: Aboriginal Labour in 20th Century Queensland’ — Dr Ros Kidd

  1. ANTaR (1)

    Aboriginal issues have more of an impact on voting results than most polies realise. A lot of people that pay taxes are aware of the (increasing) financial dependence on the public purse with future probable stolen generations claims, re the precedent set in S.A and Tasmania recently, not to forget the stolen wages campaign. These alone will cost the people untold millions ( billions?) of dollars over generations. And the way the campaign is run, with *Ros Kidd and A.N.T.A.R along with their Indigenous Advisers, these issues can (will?) Never Be Resolved, Ever !! With No Problem Solved !! ( So, Justice Didn’t Work! What do we do now? Who do we blame ? ) The delivery of an outcome putting 4 and 7 thousand dollars in the hands of four thousand A&I people in Queensland via the state government stolen wages fund a couple of years back is heady stuff ! Now they have the, Bit Between Their Teeth !! so to speak! Not to mention, their Heads in the Clouds ! ( the Pie in the Sky, or, Cargo Cult Mentality, they Cultivate and Inspire ! ) and they will no doubt, Again, be Urging and Coercing members of the A&I community, talking 100s of thousands of dollars to Apply !! Or mainly, Re-apply. *( Typical academic, in their quest for literary fame and immortality. On the Backs of Blacks so to speak? Another Daisy Bates !? ) extract from. http://www.whitc.info
    Arthur Bell.

  2. ANTaR (3)

    Finally got to get on ” Let’s Talk ” Today, 19/12/09. Tiga didn’t like it At All !! And he would have had his finger on the kill switch !! My aunt, Ruth Hegarty, a community activist and elder, was a guest. This is why he very reluctantly let me on!! ( Aunt Ruth was aware of this forced censorship issue ) The discussion was about Stolen Wages, Loss of Freedom, People Starving in the Dormitories in Cherbourg. Us being surrounded by Barbed Wire, Systemic Abuse and Starving !! According to The Expert, Ros Kidd. I made the point , that I spent time in the Boy’s Dormitory in Cherbourg, in 1962, Three (3) months as punishment. My Aunt pointed out that being there for punishment, we were treated differently. (not true) But I was Still Aware, of what was happening in the Boy’s Dormitory ! Growing up and going to school, I visited and passed through the said, Boys Dormitory many times over years !! And as far as I can recall, and to my knowledge, Chinny and Aunt Nellie or Aunt Maude Phillips Did Not, and, Would Not, have let, or, Stood By, while Any of their charges, were Starved, or Abused !! To suggest this Happened, is An Insult to the Memories and Achievements of these People and Ros Kidd Should Concede Her Ignorance and Apologise. And along with ANTaR and Associates, get out of this debate!!
    extract from http://www.whitc.info
    Arthur Bell.

  3. I grew up in South Brisbane, and on my way home from the City, would walk through Manhattan walk, where Aborigines congregated. My school was next to and in Musgrave Park. This was in the late 50’s and 60’s. The scenes I witnessed were heartbreaking, I remember, blood, drunken hollering, shattered glass, people passed out on the ground next to their metho bottles, or begging nearby. I used to get very distressed and tried to avert my eyes, and my father being a closet communist, would say . “People say the Aboriginals are no good. But these poor people can’t get work, and even if they do, they get paid nothing for their labor. No wonder they act this way. Who wouldn’t give in to despair?”

  4. Manhattan Walk, South Brisbane, 2010

  5. Manhattan Walk sure has changed. Another thing I remember was my old headmaster at South Brisbane State School, Mr Bailey. He used to speak out against white racism, especially when the locals tried to prevent an Aboriginal hostel being built nearby. One year he invited Mum Shirl to address us, another year it was Faith Bandler.

  6. judy,

    you have been away from manhattan walk, south brisbane for a long time.

    the protest by murris on invasion day 2010 (shown below) is not dissimilar to the countless times we have been there to confront racism, especially on australia day. i think that murris are steadily having an effect – you will not find submission to colonial masters there – in your day it may have been masked by despair but the influence of Mum Shirl and the setting up of the ‘born free’ club in Sth Brisbane is proof that resistance was always alive in kurilpa (place of the water rat).

    the old park (manhattan walk) was a common place for murris to reclaim kurilpa despite the limits placed on our brothers & sisters by boundary street – not just a name – it was a real boundary that denied murris access to white areas in west end and was ruthlessly enforced by police — not unlike the Apartheid Wall in Israel.

    i spent many hours and sometimes whole days in manhattan walk with hundreds of others who had been arrested and detained in the jail there during the democratic rights demonstrations in 1977 . To explain, you may recall that, back in the day, the south brisbane watchouse was ‘conveniently’ placed alongside manhattan park.

    i can still hear the cries from that watchouse – ‘one struggle one fight: workers, women, blacks unite’. here is a special branch officer arresting a friend near manhattan walk on 23 oct 1977 – SZ arrested by DC

  7. Well, I havent lived in South Brisbane since 1969…

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