• Aboriginal prisoners are brought to Wyndham for spearing cattle, 1930. Photo: State Library of Western Australia, The Battye Library (State Library of Western Australia, The Battye Library)Source: State Library of Western Australia, The Battye Library
Decades of stolen wages, the Gurindji strike, black-birding of South Sea Islander people, domestication under government policies, the mission system and using Aboriginal people to prop up pastoral and mining industries are some examples given by SNAICC CEO Richard Weston.
Shahni Wellington

11 Jun 2020 - 4:45 PM  UPDATED 11 Jun 2020 - 4:45 PM

The CEO of the national body for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children has hit back at 'ignorant' comments from the Prime Minister, where he said that slavery never existed in Australia.

Scott Morrison was defending Captain Cook's legacy on national radio station 2GB Thursday morning when he said that the country was founded "on the basis that there'd be no slavery."

"And while slave ships continued to travel around the world, when Australia was established yes, sure, it was a pretty brutal settlement," he said.

"My forefathers and foremothers were on the First and Second Fleets. It was a pretty brutal place, but there was no slavery in Australia."

But Meriam man and SNAICC CEO Richard Weston described the Prime Minister's comments as 'ill-informed'.

"What he's ignoring is the way Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were treated here, propping up industries like the pastoral industry, farming, mining industry, the pearling industry in the Torres Strait," he said.

"We also all know about the black-birding of people from the South Pacific, into Queensland to work on cane plantation - These are all forms of slavery."

Mr Morrison's comments come as a coalition of 30 community groups, including Reconciliation Australia and the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO), join in demanding a bipartisan national anti-racism strategy across health, housing, education and the workplace.

While Mr Weston is supportive of a national anti-racism strategy, he says the Prime Minister needs to be able to engage and acknowledge the history of Aboriginal people.

Aboriginal members of the Opposition, Senator Malarndirri McCarthy and Ms Linda Burney, have called for better truth-telling following the comments.

History books and first-hand accounts have shown that Aboriginal people often worked for rations instead of wages, and were displaced from their families to either missions or workplaces to fulfil roles such as servants, stockmen or labourers.

As well as the conditions enforced on Indigenous Aboriginal people, the practice known as 'Blackbirding' saw an estimated 60,000 South Sea Islanders were brought to Australia between 1863 and 1904 to work on sugarcane and cotton farms in Queensland and Northern NSW.

Mr Weston continued to list what he calls the most famous cases of slave labour, including the Gurindji people walking from Wave Hill Station in 1967.

The case exemplified a struggle for land rights and the heavy exploitation of Aboriginal workers.

In 1883 in the Northern Territory, 3,000 kilometres of Gurindji land was granted to a pastoralist by the colonial government.

"Working in the pastoral industry for close to 100 years, they weren't paid," Mr Weston said.

"They lived in appalling conditions on their own country, you know, supporting these multi-million dollar industries, supporting pastoral leases and rich people from Europe... that's slave labour."

Mr Weston continued to list other examples, including nation-wide stolen wages from Aboriginal people.

Last year, a $190 million class-action lawsuit on behalf of 10,000 Aboriginal people was settled against the state government. It claimed the Queensland "Protection Acts" in force between 1939 and 1972 required the wages of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workers be paid to the protector or superintendent of an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander district, reserve, settlement or mission.

"So that, again, is another example of slavery," Mr Weston said.

"And, you know, the mission system that we had in this country where people had to seek permission to spend any money that they earned - they weren't allowed to earn money,"

"And our people were just really going to end up through that Stolen Generations period in the 20th century. People were being trained for domestic service or labouring jobs. We weren't seen as people that would be involved in meaningful work, other than the most menial tasks."