Stolen Wages - Research and Advocacy

This project was completed in 2006.

Project Director:  Sean Brennan

From early in 2004 through late in 2006 the Centre hosted this major research project led by Sean Brennan, an academic in the Faculty of Law at the University of New South Wales. The result is a report that analyses the law and administration which allowed New South Wales Government officials to control the money of thousands of Aboriginal people, money which in some cases has never been paid back. Sean was assisted by a series of social justice interns, beginning with Zoe Craven who located most of the primary and secondary sources on which the report is based. Her analysis of that material became the initial draft for this report. The report stands on its own as a unique, if partial, account of events. However, the research has also made a valuable contribution towards establishment of a repayment scheme in New South Wales and, later, to a national Inquiry by the Senate.

The report as published is available here in pdf

The Senate Inquiry home page.

The ILC submission to the Inquiry

For information about the Repayment Scheme in New South Wales.

Background to the research and Report

For much of the 20th Century the NSW Government took money belonging to Aboriginal people and placed it in trust accounts for which it was legally responsible. It then resisted people who sought to have their own money returned to them, knowing that official records were poor and that significant amounts had gone astray within the bureaucracy.

Legislation in NSW gave State officials the capacity to control wages earned by children who were forced to work as ‘apprentices’, as well as control over some early welfare payments made to Aboriginal adults. As the 20th Century advanced, Commonwealth laws gave the same officials power over a broader range of social security entitlements, such as child endowment and maternity allowances. This was part of a wider set of controls that could be, and often were, exercised over Aboriginal people’s movement, labour and land. These controls were mainly exercised through the Aborigines Protection Board (later the Aborigines Welfare Board). Most Aboriginal people lived their lives independently of the Board, but many were caught in its net. When that happened, these controls often had lasting consequences in terms of health and poverty.

This research report focuses on the laws that made government control of Aboriginal people’s money possible. In that sense, it tells only a small and technical part of the story. It is the voices of Aboriginal people – those who experienced these controls over their labour and money, those who resisted them and those who lived independently of the Board – that convey what these times were really like for those who lived through them.

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