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.

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. 

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Thousands of Aboriginal protesters and supporters assembled in Hyde Park in Cadi (Sydney) on January 26, 2019, calling for the abolition of Australia Day. / Photo by Holli.

The policies of forced child removal were often justified under the guise of “good intentions” — “what is best for the child” — but Trevorrow’s story showed that to be a lie. He had come from a loving, supporting Aboriginal family, which became apparent in the extensive paper trail that chronicled his parents’ attempts to get him back. It was a consolation for Trevorrow. He told the Guardian newspaper: “The best thing is knowing they never forgot me, my mum and dad. They didn’t want to let me go. There’s proof of that.” Trevorrow’s case was unique in that he went to the courts, and was successful in winning compensation. But it should never have been up to the courts. His story was not an uncommon one, and his victory only furthered calls for reparations for all members of the Stolen Generations. When the South Australian government announced it was appealing the decision, the calls only grew louder. 

In 1997, a landmark report, Bringing Them Home by the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families had been tabled in the federal Parliament. It estimated that from 1910 to 1970, between one and ten, or as many as one and three Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children had been removed from their families. There was no Indigenous family in the country that had not been affected by these policies.

The removal of children, and the destruction of Aboriginal families, was a key plank of the assimilation agenda of governments across the country, and yet the stories of those who were taken, and those who had their children taken from them, were largely missing in the history books. The report gave them a voice and delivered 54 recommendations aimed towards addressing the injustice. The most important was the call for full reparations, which the report defined as having five pillars: 

  • Acknowledgement and apology
  • Guarantees against repetition
  • Measures of restitution
  • Measures of rehabilitation
  • Monetary compensation

However, over the next decade, this sophisticated call for full reparations was watered down into one word: “Sorry.” Prime Minister John Howard (1996-2007) fiercely opposed any apology arguing that Australians should not be held responsible for the actions of their predecessors, and so the debate became concentrated on this one issue at the expense of other measures in the report. Howard had claimed that symbolic gestures were not important: what was important were practical measures. But his resistance to “Sorry” characterized his paternalistic approach to Indigenous affairs, in which his form of “practical reconciliation” was seen through a prism of white benevolence rather than Black justice. Under his decade-long term, he destroyed the only nationally elected Aboriginal body (ATSIC), took the sledgehammer to hard-fought Indigenous land rights legislation, killed off an Aboriginal devised national employment programs and sent the military into Aboriginal communities under the most racist piece of Australian legislation in modern times, which later became known as the NT intervention. 

When Howard was booted from office in 2007, his successor Kevin Rudd announced that he would be delivering the apology as one of his first acts of Parliament. Only a few months after Trevorrow’s historic win, Rudd made good on his promise. He said “Sorry” in front of a gallery of Aboriginal people, and those long-awaited words were broadcast from the lawns outside Parliament House to remote, regional and urban communities across the country. Although Rudd was celebrated for the apology, in the lead up to it, he had refused calls for any form of monetary compensation, ruling out any idea that the apology could be used for either a reparations scheme or litigation through the courts. 

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The Aboriginal tent embassy today. / Photos by Kev Hughes (2019) and EQRoy (2016)

Conservative Aboriginal lawyer Noel Pearson had pre-empted the use of the apology to bypass compensation calls when he said in the lead up: “Blackfellas will get the words, the whitefellas will keep the money. And by Thursday, the Stolen Generations and their apology will be over as a political issue.” And that is what happened. Rudd would continue to ride off the kudos off that apology for years, even addressing it as one of the acts he was most proud of when he was dumped in a leadership spill before the end of his first term. But the issue of full reparations — and with it, monetary compensation — was left completely off the table. Not only that, one of the important parts of “reparations” — the part that guaranteed it would never happen again — was never realized. Five years after Rudd’s apology, the rates of Aboriginal child removal grew at exponential rates, and these rates continue to grow. In 2017, Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander children represented one in every three children living in out-of-home-care.

While there have been reparations schemes in some Australian states, it fell far short of what Aboriginal families are owed. The issue of full reparations for members of the Stolen Generations fell off the political agenda. A few months after the apology, Trevorrow passed away, like so many elders who die before their time. At the time of his passing, the South Australian government had already announced it was appealing his win. It showed again that even while acknowledging the depth of the hurt, Australian governments did not want to help heal it. 

Stolen Wages ///

The term “slavery” is not often applied to Australia, and many Australians would baulk at the use of the term — let alone the fact they are direct beneficiaries of it. But in the 1860s, “slavery” was used to describe the conditions for Aboriginal workers across the north Australian frontier. Slavery had been outlawed by 1833 across the British Empire, but Queensland and New South Wales had begun using Melanesian indentured labor from the Pacific Islands, which was not technically slavery by name, but largely embodied what it meant in practice. But this trade, known as “blackbirding”was not the only slave trade occurring at this time. 

Law lecturer Stephen Gray wrote:

However the practice did not stop on the frontier. Between the 1860s to 1970s, Aboriginal people were forced into labour on cattle and pastoral stations, with women often working as domestic servants, under state protection acts.

This legislation controlled every aspect of Aboriginal life, from who you married to your finances. Under this system, governments not only underpaid Aboriginal workers, they withheld portions of the wages, as well as payments like child endowment, pensions and soldier’s pay. Much of this went into trust accounts which were never paid back and helped build state infrastructure. Although nowadays the word “slavery” is seen as a word to be carefully applied, during the days of the practice, it was a term used by those even in close association to it. For example, the Chief Protector in Western Australia — the man who controlled the missions — said openly in 1925 that the treatment of Aboriginal people in the state was a state of semi-slavery, as did the South Australian Chief Protector who said in 1927 that pastoral workers “are kept in servitude that is nothing short of slavery.” Those who worked for, in some cases, a lifetime, never received what they were owed. 

This scandal is now known as “Stolen Wages.” It remained largely a hidden history until historians like Rosalind Kidd began digging through the archives. In her home state of Queensland, she made a conservative estimate that $500 million had been stolen over the decades from Aboriginal workers, with that figure certain to be much higher. In a 2010 article she wrote: “One of our enduring myths is that the Australian economy was built on the sheep’s back, that our wonderful rural wealth during the late nineteenth and much of the twentieth century made us the lucky country we are today. We hear little about the huge nameless army of unpaid and underpaid Aboriginal labour upon which this wealth depended; generations of workers who even now are rarely acknowledged.”

This theft of wages had an intergenerational impact and helped keep Aboriginal families in poverty through generations. The state’s history of how Aboriginal people worked for nothing, in a legalized form of “slavery,” was erased.Meanwhile, Aboriginal people — who inherited this poverty — were tarred as “dole bludgers” and “welfare dependent.”

But Aboriginal people continued to campaign for what they were owed. Queensland was one of the first states to offer a “reparations” fund when, in 2002, the state premier Peter Bettie announced he was offering stolen-wage claimants $55.4 million. The figure — a far cry from the estimated $500 million — was widely seen as an insult. Many claimants simply refused to apply. 

Instead of addressing these concerns, the state government funnelled the leftover money into an education scholarship fund for Indigenous students. It was again seen as an insult — it was money meant for repaying Aboriginal families what they were owed, but instead it was directed towards a scheme that should already be state government expenditure. With an apathetic and demeaning response from successive state Queensland governments, Stolen Wages claimants took it to the courts. In a class action led by Aboriginal man Hans Pearson representing 10,000 claimants, they argued in the federal court that the State had breached its duties as a trustee by taking the money and never paying it back. In 2019, they won a historic settlement of $190 million. It was still far from what was owed, but it demonstrated the historic wrong and put the state-run reparations fund to shame. There is a reason why Australian governments refuse to compensate Aboriginal people for past wrongs. It has nothing to do with luck, and everything to do with history. This country is built on a stolen wealth. And for all the empty gestures over the years, it has never paid it back. 

Stolen Land ///

On January 26, every year, Australians celebrate the arrival of the First Fleet into Botany Bay. For them, it marks the beginning of British settlement in this country. For Aboriginal people, it represents a day of mourning. It is the day that symbolizes the beginning of the invasions into Aboriginal lands and everything that came afterwards: the diseases, the massacres, the rapes and the destruction of country. But it also represents survival and sovereignty. As Aboriginal people continue to march in protest of this day, there is a recognition that there has been, and will continue to be, an ongoing resistance. There is a resistance, because sovereignty was never ceded. Aboriginal people never gave permission for the British to take control of this country. No treaty was ever signed. 

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First day of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy on January 27, 1972, in front of what was the Australian Parliament House in Canberra back then. Left to right: Billy Craigie, Bert Williams, Michael Anderson and Tony Coorey. / Collection of the State Library of New South Wales.

As Gomeroi writer and lawyer Natalie Cromb wrote in 2019, under English law, land can only be acquired in one of three ways: 

through settlement, where territory is uninhabited and the ‘settlers’ bought with them English law; through conquest, where territory was inhabited and the native laws survived, provided they weren’t discordant with the laws of the Crown; or through cession, where the territory was inhabited and the sovereignty was ceded to the Crown.

[…] The prevailing legal doctrine is that Australia was ‘acquired through settlement’ — despite the presence of an Indigenous population.

In order to claim this settlement, Aboriginal people would have to be painted as “inferior” and “uncivilized,” their land left uncultivated despite a sophisticated system of land management that spanned the breadth of the continent and which was intimately tied in with spirituality and kinship. Instead, there was a legal fiction that was applied: the doctrine of “terra nullius,” or “land belonging to no one.” That fiction was overturned in the 1992 Mabo High Court case, which lead to legislated Native Title, a form of federal land rights, but which many Aboriginal groups consider a very weak form of land justice. 

As constitutional law expert and Gubbi Gubbi woman Professor Megan Davis writes: 

Sovereignty was not passed from the Aboriginal people through any significant legal act. The British did not ask permission to settle. Aboriginal people did not consent and no-one ceded. This is the source of disquiet. This is the grievance that must be addressed. The further we are from 1788 the less inclined the state will be to address this.

Australia’s refusal to deal with the original sin at the heart of this country has relegated any conversation about reparations to the fringe — outside of the narrow spectrum of acceptable debate permitted on the state of Black and white relations in the country. It becomes not a debate about what is owed to Aboriginal Australia, but instead what Aboriginal Australia wants to “take.” After Native Title, Aboriginal groups were victim to a fear campaign that accused them of coming for beaches and parks across the country. In the lead up to the apology to the Stolen Generations, survivors were accused of simply looking for money, for compensation, despite having a right to it, as shown in the Trevorrow case. And workers and their families who had been left in intergenerational poverty despite working for a lifetime, were met with insulting figures that not only did not cover the cost of their stolen wages, but also the pain from being kept in a form of slavery. 

Because Australians are complicit in this amnesia of our true history, they are able to believe and perpetrate this lie: that Aboriginal people who call for reparations just want a “free ride.” However, Australian prosperity would not exist without Aboriginal poverty. And the only way to begin healing past wrongs is through an acknowledgement of the true history and full reparations. ■