Hundreds of Aboriginal West Australians who had their wages withheld from successive state governments could miss out on a reparations payment, after the Barnett Liberal government refused to extend the deadline.
The Stolen Wages Reparations Scheme was announced earlier this year, offering a $2000 ex-gratia payment in exchange for the millions of dollars in Aboriginal wages and entitlements withheld within a system of trust accounts from 1905 to 1972.
The withholding of wages and pensions compounded the disadvantage and poverty of Aboriginal people throughout Western Australia.
The scheme followed the example set by the Queensland and New South Wales government, who have implemented their own schemes in the past to settle the issue.
But the government was slammed for the $2000 amount, which was deemed insulting given the extent of monies withheld.
For example, the nation’s leading historian on the stolen wages scandal — Dr Ros Kidd — said the offer was a “disgustingly low amount” and “an insult”.
The government offer followed an internal government report. Claimants were only given six months to compile documentation and send off their applications.
The deadline for applications was originally extended to November 30 this year, but there is still concern that the date will lock out eligible applicants.
The Aboriginal Legal Service of WA (ALSWA) has already written to Collier to request an extension but was refused.
“I am so sad for all of the people who will miss out on making an application, it is really disheartening that after all they have already gone through, they will be further disadvantaged through this exclusionary time limit and limited criteria for eligibility,” ALSWA CEO Dennis Eggington said.
The legal service said that it has lodged applications for about 640 people but there are about 1000 who could miss out.
Eggington said the logistics of compiling information was an enormous task.
WA Greens MP Robin Chapple accused the state Aboriginal affairs minister Peter Collier of being “unjust, unfair and mean-spirited”.
“The WA government is very good at paying lip service to the needs of Aboriginal people but puts its head firmly in the sand when it comes time to follow through with practical assistance,” Chapple said.
“The $2,000 payment to compensate Indigenous workers who had their wages held in trust by successive state governments until the 1970s is paltry enough.
“But to deny people even that tiny sum by closing the scheme just 9 months after it was announced is nothing short of malevolent.
“Compare the situation in this ‘boom’ state with Queensland and NSW, where similar schemes ran for four and five years respectively.
“Mr Barnett has got his priorities seriously wrong when he spends millions of dollars on a glitzy harbour development in downtown Perth while he short-changes Aboriginal people their entitlements.
“Not only does the deadline for the current scheme need to be extended, reparation should also be offered to Aboriginal station workers — the backbone of the pastoral industry for many decades — whose wages were withheld before the legislation changed in the 1970s.
“I take no comfort from Mr Collier’s mollifying words of ‘understanding’ and ‘sympathy’ for Aboriginal people who miss out on compensation or ex gratia payments, nor his assurances that the government strives to work towards reconciliation.
“And I cannot forgive him for acknowledging that previous discriminatory legislation has led to considerable disadvantage and disharmony for Aboriginal people, while refusing to share more than the crumbs from his table.
Collier told the ABC on November 24 the government had made a “comprehensive attempt to engage with the people that were directly involved”.
“What we did do as an act of goodwill we extended it by a further three months.”
But Eggington says the state was not respecting Aboriginal people who had worked hard to build the prosperity of WA.
“Our state benefits hugely from the resource sector and it’s unacceptable that the hard working Aboriginal men and women who contributed so much to this state, not only had their wages or pensions withheld, but will also miss out on reparation all these years later.”
[First published in Tracker Magazine].