Dr Ros Kidd
Historian - Consultant - Writer
Writers Festival 14 September 2006
John von Doussa
‘Trustees on Trial: recovering the stolen wages’ by Dr Rosalind
I would like
to acknowledge that we are meeting on traditional Aboriginal land and pay
my respects to the traditional owners past and present.
It is my
great pleasure to be here today to launch Trustees on Trial:
recovering the stolen wages by Dr Rosalind Kidd.
As many of
you know, for over a decade Dr Kidd has been a tenacious and dedicated
advocate for the rights of Indigenous people. She has focused especially
on the gross inequities that occurred through and under the various
‘Protection Acts’ that operated in Queensland from the 1890s to the 1980s.
In 1996, Dr
Kidd was an expert witness in the Palm Island Wages Case. In this case the
Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission found that the past
decisions of the Queensland government to pay wages to Aboriginal people
employed by the Government at about one third the rate payable to
non-Aboriginal people was in breach of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975
(Cth). In response, the Queensland Government introduced the ‘Underpayment
of Award Wages Process’ in 1999.
made available a single payment of $7000 to people employed by the
Government in Aboriginal Reserves between 31 October 1976 the date
the RDA commenced and 29 October 1986 from which point
ordinary award wages were paid to everyone. However, this
compensation payment left two other aspects of the stolen wages campaign
issue was the underpayment of wages to Aboriginal people employed by
church organisations on mission communities. This topic is presently
the subject of litigation in the Federal Court.[i] The
first claim against Queensland was unsuccessful at trial. The court found
that the underpayment was not a result of discrimination contrary to the
RDA primarily because the church, not the government, was the
decision is under appeal, and there are other similar cases awaiting
trial. It remains to be seen whether Queensland is ultimately found liable
as an accessory to the underpayment of Indigenous workers by the church
organisations as it provided funding for the employment.
remaining aspect of the stolen wages campaign is central to Trustees on
Trial. It concerns the fate of the savings, wages, endowment payments
and pensions of Indigenous people that were controlled by State of
Queensland under the Protection Acts. It seems that these moneys, on
being taken by a ‘Protector’, were in the first instance credited to
accounts in the names of the persons concerned. Certainly the
legislation contemplated this. But the moneys so credited have never
been properly accounted for.
sustained pressure from Stolen Wages campaigners including Dr Kidd
in 2002 the Queensland Government conditionally offered a one-off
payment of $2000 or $4000 to Aboriginal people under the ‘Indigenous Wages
and Savings Reparations Process’. Many eligible applicants did not accept
Trustees on Trial explains this low take up rate was
partly due to an inadequate consultation process with affected
communities, and an understandable perception that the offer was ‘too
little, too late’. Moreover, many Indigenous people felt that the paltry
amount on offer for what was ¬ in some cases ¬ almost a lifetime of lost
wages was simply insulting.
Dr Kidd has harnessed all her
considerable skills as a historian to show why these feelings are
justified. She meticulously documents the devastating impact of the
Queensland Government’s administration of Indigenous affairs under the
very laws that purported to protect Indigenous people.
records instance after instance of the misappropriation, misuse and loss
of moneys taken into care by the ‘Protectors’. Tragically, the loss of
these moneys has resulted in many Indigenous people being caught in a
cycle of intergenerational poverty that persists to this day.
its commencement the book announces that its purpose is to bring a legal
perspective to the realities of history. To this end, Dr Kidd develops the
argument that the ‘stolen wages’ came into the hands of the state in
circumstances that render the state a trustee, subject to a host of
fiduciary duties which impose continuing legal obligations to account for
all these moneys and to compensate in today¹s value for all that was
From a legal point of view the issues are complex. Academics
and lawyers can debate the prospects of legal action based on the
principles of equity explored in Trustees in Trial ad infinitum. However,
the moral obligation of Queensland to provide a just outcome for
Indigenous workers who were systematically robbed over many years is
Perhaps the greatest values of Trustees on Trial is to lay
bare the historical record of financial mismanagement and the moral
failure of previous Queensland Governments to act on evidence of
systematic underpayment, fraud and suspect dealings with trust moneys. The
book gives justification for the often expressed view that the issue of
stolen wages is one of the great scandals of Australia¹s
As Geoffrey Robertson QC observes in the forward to his
book, Premier Beattie at least put forward a scheme that his government
hoped would achieve an outcome, and for that perhaps he at least deserves
two cheers for acknowledging a responsibility. However, the Stolen Wages
Reparation Process has not resolved many of the key issues. This failure
to reach a just and equitable outcome in response to one of the great
scandals of Australia history continues to act as a bar to reconciliation.
Trustees on Trial is unashamedly intended to give the Stolen Wages
Campaign new impetuous by disclosing to the world what really
In his forward Geoffrey Robinson QC expresses his view
that the equitable principles which Dr Kidd has explored may not be the
best way forward.
I too wonder whether litigation based on the
obligations and duties of a fiduciary is the best way forward.
think the solution most likely to advance the cause of reconciliation
would be a negotiated settlement. This settlement must truly be the result
of real negotiations ¬ not solution imposed unilaterally by government on
a take it or leave basis.
It must be a settlement arrived at
through proper consultation with Indigenous communities it seeks to
redress. It must be a settlement that recognises on one hand the moral and
legal obligations resting on the Queensland Government and, on the other
hand, the reality that any figure of compensation can only be an arbitrary
approximation of the true loss and the need for communities to discount
their claims somewhat to achieve finality without further
It is clear that whatever other flaws may be found in the
2002 Reparation Process, the amount offered was obviously too low ¬much
less than the arbitrary amount available to people under the Palm Island
Case process and pitifully little for what was ¬ for some people ¬ a
The scandal of the ‘stolen wages’ is not confined
to Queensland. Similar problems, though perhaps on a lesser scale, also
arose under the ‘Protection’ policies of other states, and ¬ despite some
progress in some states ¬ they remain to be resolved.
book makes a very valuable contribution to understanding why the stolen
wages scandal is still a live issue. It should be read by every
non-Indigenous person in Australia so that they can understand the
continuing resentment and frustration simmering within Indigenous
communities over the Stolen Wages.
The Senate Legal and
Constitutional References Committee is presently holding an Inquiry into
stolen wages in Australia and the research contained in Trustees in Trial
provides a timely resource for the Committee as it tackles this important
and difficult issue.
I congratulate Dr Kidd, on this her second
book, and have must pleasure in formally declaring Trustees on Trial
[i] Baird v
Queensland  FCA 495.