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Half a billion in Stolen Wages contributed to abject poverty

Mr Conrad Yeatman, a proud old Aboriginal man who was never paid directly for a lifetime of work receives nothing and in the same week Francis Abbott, born of privilege receives a $60,000 scholarship to help her study.

Conrad Yeatman
Conrad Yeatman
SBS News

Dr Woolombi Waters The Stringer 4 June 2014

It was once claimed with great pride Australia was a classless society. I don't know if such a claim was ever true when considering Black Australia but considering events over the last week, it's definitely not true anymore.

I want to discuss two stories that made news from the last week. First, the court case by an Aboriginal Elder, Conrad Yeatman, 74, who made a claim for wages stolen by the State of Queensland which was thrown out by the court due to a lack of evidence.

And then to highlight the divide between the classes within Australia the news that Tony Abbott's daughter Frances was to receive a prestigious $60,000 scholarship at Melbourne's Whitehouse Institute of Design.

Could you imagine a greater class divide than these two cases? Like I said, if ever we came from a classless society we certainly don't anymore.

Let's start with Aboriginal Elder, Conrad Yeatman.

Conrad Yeatman was seeking $35,000 for wages never paid to him when he worked as a carpenter and labourer in north Queensland during the 1950s. He lived under the Aboriginals Preservation and Protection Act of 1939. This meant he had his wages placed in the trust of the superintendent of Yarrabah mission where he lived at the time.

Justice David Andrews granted a State bid to put the case on hold permanently after searches were unable to locate financial documentation proving the case. Justice Andrews also stated potential witnesses were now dead.

New fight for Aboriginal stolen wages with petition to WA Parliament
About 700 or 800 people who applied for a WA Gov't payment scheme were knocked back because the words 'stolen wages' was used, most were station workers

The judge did not dispute Mr Yeatman's savings had been managed by the superintendent but he said the money could have been withdrawn on his behalf for food or other reasons as "the defendants have effectively no evidence whatsoever to test these claims."

That's because Mr Yeatman was not deemed as being responsible at the time, as were other Blackfellas, in managing his own money. His wages were taken from him in a form of slavery - yes, slavery. If you force a people to work and they do not get paid and the consequences for not working are imprisonment or worse then this amounts to slavery.

My children's great-grandmother on their mother's side was also a slave but the dormitory and the historic period labelled her a domestic, but make no mistake she was a slave. The family still have the cattle brace she had to wear around her neck to carry water.


Appealing for Stolen Wages outside the courthouse
SBS News

Justice Andrews actually used these past discrimination policies in defending the Government's right to not have to pay reparation for wages stolen by defending the "right" of Mr Yeatman's superintendent to use Mr Yeatman's wages to buy food clothing and some itemised travel. It actually sickens me to write "Justice" Andrews because there was no justice in this case nor is there any moral code of law. What do such findings teach the next generation of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians?

What Justice Andrews did confirm is not only do past policies leave trans-generational trauma and grief to our mob, they still hold legal boundaries as well.

As I said, this case was never about justice - it is really about State and Federal Governments washing their hands of responsibility for past acts through a fear of restitution.

Though no documentation could be found demonstrating the Government's guilt they did discover some evidence money had been spent on Mr Yeatman as a teenager for clothes, medical expenses and trips.

"I don't accept Mr Yeatman is capable of giving a useful account of the number and amounts of payments made for and on his behalf," the judge said.

I bet Mr Yeatman can recall the hours of work he did for no pay, getting up in the early hours of the morning when he was just a young fella and coming home at all hours of the night exhausted and living on rations.

All these years later and evidence of some items of clothing, medical expenses and some travel but no evidence of ever receiving any money is all Mr Yeatman has for years of hard work.

In 2002 former Premier, Peter Beattie acknowledged that as much as $500 million had been stolen from Blackfellas wages.

That's just in Queensland, readers. How much was stolen nationally?

Mr Beattie offered $55 million in compensation and a reparation scheme subsequently paid out about $35 million to 7000 applicants.

Mr Yeatman was offered the maximum $7,000 reparation but knocked it back as a proud and dignified Aboriginal man - and this is an important note for our children, that integrity and self-respect does have some meaning in a world surrounded by greed.

It's a far greater legacy than the $7,000 insult would ever have provided for his grannies or the moral code shared by Justice Andrews in making his ruling.

Every State had an Aboriginal Protection Board where bureaucrats and policemen meticulously recorded what was going on at their reserves and missions. This is why we can find medical expenses, clothes and Mr Yeatman's travel payments.

Unfortunately, records are usually incomplete, they say because of "poor bookkeeping" but these mission managers wrote everything down. It has been substantiated by many spoken testimonies that many records were deliberately destroyed to cover the fraudulent use of Aboriginal money.

"We know many of these files were destroyed or burned or have gone missing," Chief Executive Officer of the Aboriginal Legal Service of Western Australia, Dennis Eggington said.

Les Ridgeway recounts a case back in the 1970's. "I remember a case when I was a senior welfare officer at Moree," Mr Ridgeway, an Aboriginal Elder from New South Wales, said.

"An instruction came down from the head office of the child welfare department instructing all the district offices around New South Wales to go out on the mission stations or reserves, collect those old files out of the former managers offices, take them to the town dump and burn them," Mr Ridgeway said.

There should never have been an Aboriginal child living in poverty if the generations of Aboriginal people had been paid their wages instead of having them stolen. As stated it has been estimated about $500 million in today's money was taken and held in trust accounts and never returned to our people in Queensland alone.

No one other cultural group by population base has provided so much financial capital toward Australian industry than these blackfellas who had their money taken. Not through mining, not the Greeks, Italians, Jewish, English or any other cultural group.

The money was used to build hospitals our people were not allowed to attend and courthouses and police stations that locked our people up. That's true, it doesn't take long to do a Google search to see where the money went.

Dr Ros Kidd, who many would state is Australia's leading authority on the Stolen Wages said, "The records are full of admissions of negligence, embezzlement and fraud and even at the highest level, misuse of money and the government is saying it has no legal responsibility."

Mr Yeatman's case took five years to come to court and was considered the best hope of bringing the issue to trial. It is now considered unlikely another will be lodged.

As stated earlier there is no moral code for justice in this country and the legal system and ongoing policies in development of Aboriginal legislation just maintains this injustice.

This is why it so important as Aboriginal people we maintain a value system beyond and above what we experience. It's hard I know, but we need to demonstrate an integrity and pride for our people when confronted with such obstacles.

We need to be seen as a viable alternative. I'm not talking about a romanticised poverty - that does not help anyone, what I am saying is we need to remain true to our word as an example to future generations.

So, yes we need to maintain strength in creating our own value systems separate to this and previous State and Commonwealth governments by showing our children there is a better and more just way of life than what we are being shown by non-Indigenous Australians.

Why would we want to align ourselves to either State or Commonwealth governments when we are continually denied true justice

We need to continue to hold our heads high and remain strong in our own collective consciousness and return to a more healthy way of life. We need to heal ourselves. How many times do cases like Mr Yeatman's have to occur before we realise there will never be a guiding or helping hand?

We are clearly on our own. So it's time we look after our families, we take responsibility for our diets, our children's wellbeing, love our partners and build our futures because these bastards will never do it for us.

A lot of our mob continue to self-harm waiting for some form of reconciliation - some form of meaningful apology or help from above so they can begin the healing process. Well, it's time to stop the self-harm because these fella's don't care and they have no understanding of justice.

You only have to look at the other topic of discussion for this week - the case of Frances Abbott, one of the most privileged young woman in Australia receiving a $60,000 scholarship after her father slashed education funding in the latest Budget, making it almost impossible for low-income-earners to attend university.

In the same week Mr Yeatman's case was being thrown out of court a group of university students clashed with police during a rally at the prestigious design school that awarded Tony Abbott's daughter the scholarship.

Protest organiser, Melbourne University student, Jade Eckhaus said: "We think it's a bit of a joke that Tony Abbott is running rampant on the education system and his daughter Frances has been given this exorbitant scholarship."

The scholarship to the prestigious Whitehouse Institute of Design and was not advertised to other students and the Institute chairman, Les Taylor is a long-time friend and supporter of the Prime Minister.

There is also mounting public concern that Mr Abbott's office failed to reveal the scholarship after the budget attacks on education but the Clerk of the House of Representatives replied in a statement saying there was no requirement for the Prime Minister to have declared the scholarship.

What makes this even worse is the Institute's website clearly states "Whitehouse does not currently offer scholarships to gain a place into the Bachelor of Design".

Whitehouse Chief Executive, Ian Tudor stated: "The scholarship that Frances received was a direct scholarship from the founder and owner, Leanne Whitehouse. As a private company, Leanne has from time to time awarded it."

So yes, we are dealing with different class systems here - an education scholarship with no entry requirements, no application and never advertised provided by the school's owner and founder Leanne Whitehouse to the daughter of the Prime Minister.

The Prime Minister's office said Frances won the scholarship "based on her application and art portfolio" but there was no application and no advertised position so I don't know what she actually "won".

So, Mr Yeatman, a proud old Aboriginal man who was never paid directly for a lifetime of work receives nothing and in the same week Francis Abbott, born of privilege receives a $60,000 scholarship to help her study.

Like I said earlier if these are the type of people you are waiting to provide any form of justice or true reconciliation I think you will be waiting for a bloody long time.

Dr Woolombi Waters is a Kamilaroi language speaker and writer and is a lecturer at Griffith University. Dr Waters writes a weekly column for the National Indigenous Times. E-mail: woolombi.waters@nit.com.au