Stolen Children, Stolen Wages, Stolen Land, Stolen Wealth: Reparations for Aboriginal Australia




“Sorry” could not possibly constitute a reparation from the Australian settler State to Indigenous people from the Continent, Tasmania, and the Torres Strait islands. Amy McQuire describes the extent of the past and present theft, as well as reparations models emerging from Aboriginal activists themselves.

Article published in The Funambulist 30 (July-August 2020) Reparations. Click here to access the rest of the issue.

Australians commonly think of themselves as citizens of the “lucky country,” a moniker attributed to essayist Donald Horne who said: “Australia is a lucky country run mainly by second rate people who share its luck.” Australians are ‘lucky’, in part, because the continent is resource rich. Mining is a key contributor to the Australian economy, and the mining lobby is so powerful that it not only triggers the downfall of Prime Ministers, but also can, and has, scuttled Aboriginal aspirations — for example, it was responsible for killing national land rights legislation under the Hawke government (1983-1991). 

Australians believe these resources are there to be exploited; as a result, the Aboriginal right to protect country — country for which we have been custodians for over 70,000 years — is seen as a threat. The national Native Title legislation allows for traditional owner groups — those proven to hold an existing cultural connection to the land despite waves of invasion — to negotiate with big mining, but it does not give them the right to veto it. It has meant Aboriginal groups have often been paid pennies in compensation, while big miners become rich off the destruction of traditional lands. 

It is clear that Australia is not a lucky country for all, and the wealth is not evenly distributed: some get a bigger part of the “share.” While Australians have some of the highest living standards in the world, Aboriginal people die on average 17 years earlier, are more likely to live in poverty, have higher rates of chronic disease, are incarcerated at sky-rocketing rates, are more likely to live in overcrowded housing or be homeless, and are more likely to be victims of violence. But the language of “luck” has endured because it obscures the historical and current day violence still perpetrated against Aboriginal people. After all, if Australians are “lucky,” then it must mean those who do not “share” the wealth are simply “unlucky.” And if it is just a question of luck, then there is no need for justice or accountability. 

This wealth stems from the theft of Aboriginal land and the removal of Aboriginal people from it, whether it be by introducing diseases, massacres, child removals, protection acts, or through more modern incarnations such as incarceration. But despite the origin of this wealth, there has never been a national conversation about reparations. That’s not to suggest it hasn’t been called for by Aboriginal people. Aboriginal activist Robbie Thorpe has long called for a scheme to “Pay the Rent,” which is a form of reparations in which non-Indigenous individuals would pay rent back to Indigenous organizations and causes, in recognition that they live on stolen land. 

On a national level however, governments have proven time and time again that they are unwilling to deal with the legacy of dispossession that the entire country has benefited from at the expense of Aboriginal people. Reparations is drowned out by other more palatable movements like “Reconciliation,” where Aboriginal people are burdened with the work to “move on” and reconcile with white Australia. Similarly, “Recognise” called for symbolic recognition in the Australian constitution while bypassing the fact the nation’s founding document allows parliaments to make racist laws. Not only that, we have seen how Australian governments have treated calls for reparations in the cases of both the Stolen Generations and the Stolen Wages scandal. 

Stolen Children ///

In 2007, a landmark decision was handed down in the State of South Australia’s highest court. Ngarrindjeri man Bruce Trevorrow, 50 year old, became the first member of the Stolen Generations to be awarded compensation ($525,000 in damages, with $250,000 in interest) in recognition of a lifetime of trauma. Trevorrow had been taken from his family and placed in state care at only 13-months-old after his mother sought treatment for him at a local hospital. He was not returned until he was a teenager, and by that point, his father had passed away. The court case acknowledged that Trevorrow’s life had been severely affected by his removal: he had struggled with alcohol addiction, had been incarcerated and found it hard to gain employment.