• Aboriginal stockmen were among those whose wages were controlled by the state government. (WA State Library)Source: WA State Library
Dr Heron Loban speaks to The Point about the lasting impacts of policies that led to Stolen Wages, and how we can confront intergenerational poverty head-on.
Rachael Hocking

The Point
7 Sep 2019 - 11:26 AM  UPDATED 7 Sep 2019 - 11:26 AM

Often referred to as Australia's example of slave labour, the Stolen Wages saw the Queensland Government control Indigenous workers' wages between 1939 and 1972.

A class action on behalf of an estimated 10,000 workers was settled with the Queensland government for $190 million this year, with similar actions now being explored in NT, WA and NSW.

The practice of withholding wages has had long-lasting impacts on the lives of the Indigenous workers and their descendants. The Point's Rachael Hocking spoke with Senior Lecturer at Griffith University Dr Heron Loban about the issue. 

What are some of the consequences still felt today as a result of what we now refer to as the Stolen Wages?

Dr Loban: There's quite a bit of research that has been done that shows us that some of the consequences from the dispossession of land, but also the dispossession of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people's money and finances is that generations that we have now have not had the opportunity to learn financial literacy skills or money skills, if you like, from their parents and from their grandparents. So we're seeing this generational effect coming about because of the control essentially, of people's wages and income in decades past, and obviously the stolen generations is, rather the Stolen Wages, is a part of that.

How does financial illiteracy impact on the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people today?

Dr Loban: One of the things around financial literacy that's so important is that it covers those basic financial skills that we need for everyday life, so how to use banks, how to create a budget, how to save money and making money last for your family for a week or two. But also, if you're presented with a deal to buy car or mobile phone, how do you know whether it's a good deal or a bad deal?

So one of the things that financial literacy does is it equips people with the information they need to be able to decide whether or not they've got a good deal or a bad deal, or whether they're being maybe scammed or taken advantage of, so has a really important protective element to it.

What impacts do we see on the overall emotional wellbeing of our mob, such as their mental health, from the impacts of intergenerational poverty?

Dr Loban: Obviously we're seeing a lot of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living in poverty, so in impoverished conditions. Without these financial literacy skills, we're seeing people under high levels of stress because they're counting cents, they're counting dollars living from day-to-day, week-to-week.

We know from the research that the consequences of those high levels of financial stress can have serious flow and consequences for people's emotional wellbeing, their mental health, and can also sometimes sadly create levels of stress and conflict around finances that then spill out into other types of conflict.

"The current laws and policies of the government at the moment continue to control and dispossess Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of their money."

So all of these things, they contribute to a cycle that is difficult for our mob to get out of?

Dr Loban: Yeah, that's right. And I suppose the other observation that I would make is even though we've just seen the Stolen Wages case, and I'm talking to you in a historical context, one of the things that continues is the current laws and policies of the government at the moment continue to control and dispossess Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of their money.

So programs such as Income Management, programs such as the Basic Card are still essentially denying people the opportunity to develop those financial skills, develop those budgeting skills and to be able to make choices that are beneficial for them. Even current programs and current laws and policies are still having that kind of problematic impact on limiting people's ability to be more autonomous in their decision making around their money.

Just to take a step back before we focus on some of those things you brought up, as you mentioned, we've seen the Queensland government settle a class action for around less than half of what was predicted to be owed to living workers and their descendants. What were your initial thoughts on that settlement?

Dr Loban: I suppose, from my personal point of view, is that I thought it was good to settle. I know that litigation can be really expensive in Queensland. This is not the first time that we've been through a Stolen Wages process. There have been at least two iterations where people were offered paltry sums and then a little bit more. So what's being settled is still less.

But I suppose one of the things that as a lawyer and perhaps their lawyers, and the things that they weighed up with their families was would they like to get the benefit of that money now while people are still alive and it can still improve the lives of themselves and their families? Or do we continue on for what could be five, 10 years of litigation and risk perhaps getting less, perhaps getting more?

But I suppose it's about quality of life, and so from that point of view, I think a settlement, and it was, I think it was a reasonable settlement, is sometimes a good way for people to be able to move on to a happier, healthier life for themselves and their families.

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And just like you had mentioned before, there's still policy today that's impacting on our people's ability to get out of poverty. What are some other ways that governments today can address intergenerational poverty in our communities?

Dr Loban: It's obviously a deep challenge to address intergenerational poverty for our communities, for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. I suppose I try to be positive about these things and if I could give a couple of examples that are happening at the moment in the non government sector, just to highlight what can be done.

First Nations Foundation recently connected Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander people in remote communities with about $20 million worth of superannuation that they were owed and they had access to but didn't, couldn't identify and didn't know how to find it. So I think that's pretty amazing and extraordinary. That's a collaborative process with the superannuation funds.

The Indigenous Consumer Assistance Network runs programs for financial counselling training and they have scholarships for Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander people wanting to deliver financial literacy training to their communities. So I think they're both fantastic programs that are making a big difference.

I think going from non-government to government, I do still have real concerns that the government doesn't really understand how to work with us and it needs to really reshape its thinking about how it addresses issues that we raise and the solutions that we put forward. So I think that engagement really needs to perhaps be turned on its head.

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Having said that, any work with government needs to be community driven or community led. I think that includes existing services that the government does provide financial support for. So things like financial counselling is an essential service that they do fund. And I commend that and I think that needs to continue as an essential service and to increase.

I think also the government could do more to provide financial skilling training and consumer law training as well to Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander people so that they start to develop those skills that where they can arm themselves to be a little bit autonomous in dealing with unscrupulous businesses and traders and kind of say, "Hang on a second, that's a bad deal. You know, I deserve better."

And I think lastly, the other thing that's important is the government investing in indigenous owned and run businesses, whether it's in remote communities, regional Australia, or in the cities, because those have a really important role in providing economic benefits directly back to our community, as well as creating capability and knowledge around financial acumen that you really often can't get just through a training session, but you will get on the job and in a job that pays what you're worth and what your skills are worth as well.

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