New fight for Aboriginal stolen wages with petition to WA Parliament

About 700 or 800 people who applied for a meager Government payment scheme were knocked back because the definition of 'stolen wages' was used, the majority of these were stations workers .

Aboriginal stockmen were typically paid less or not at all in the formative years of the Kimberley pastoral industry.

Ben Collins and Vanessa Mills ABC Kimberley 1 May 2014

A petition to the WA Parliament is calling for a new Aboriginal stolen wages scheme, claiming the previous reparation was humiliating and inadequate.

In 2012 the WA State Government announced the stolen wages reparation scheme which invited people born before 1958 to apply for payments of up to $2,000 if they had directly experienced government control over their income
Kimberley Community Legal Service solicitor Judy Harrison, says that Aboriginal people her organisation has spoken to are not happy with the 2012 reparation scheme.

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"The government came up with a figure and said 'Well here it is. We'll give you this. You don't have to give up your rights. We're not apologising to you, so take it if you care to take it and this will be the end of it,'" she says.

"So the whole way that the scheme was administered was offhand, it was experienced as humiliating. So now we have the petition."

Many Kimberley Aboriginal people say the 2012 reparation scheme did not address the issue of Aboriginal people working on pastoral stations for little or no wages.

Aboriginal labour is widely regarded as fundamental to the creation of the pastoral industry and was unpaid or lowly paid for over half a century. The 2012 scheme only compensated wages held by the government, not wages held by private industry or for unpaid work.

Ms Harrison says that in trying to compensate people who had worked for the government, the scheme brought the broader issue to the fore.

"The term 'stolen wages' which the Government applied to the scheme actually acted as a lightning rod," she says.

Many people who applied for the scheme were knocked back because of the definition of 'stolen wages' being used.

"About 700 or 800 people were, the majority of whom were on stations, were knocked back for that reason," says Ms Harrison.

The petition calls for a new scheme to be negotiated with Aboriginal people that takes a broader understanding of 'stolen wages' and which acknowledges past wrongs. A dollar figure is not included in the petition.

"One of the things that has come through very clearly from a lot of the Aboriginal people who have expressed themselves to us is that they require recognition. And recognition may or may not come with a financial price tag," she says.

Although it is acknowledged that the government was not directly withholding or restricting payments to Aboriginal people by the pastoral industry, Ms Harrison says it was Federal and State legislation which allowed and even encouraged pastoralists to pay people differently based on race.

"Aboriginal people in Western Australia and elsewhere were made to be ineligible for the social security payments of the day, that non-Aboriginal people were eligible for... Which directly involves the Commonwealth, it involves Western Australia because of how they administered funds that came from the Commonwealth. So, there's a lot that actually needs to be talked about."

The WA Department of Aboriginal Affairs has been contacted for a response to this report.