Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Disclaimer: The Parliamentary Library does not warrant or accept liability for the accuracy or usefulness of the transcripts. These are copied directly from the broadcaster's website.
WA govt faces potential class action after millions stolen from Aboriginal workers -

View in ParlViewView other Segments

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: In Western Australia, the government is facing a potential class action over its controversial Stolen Wages Reparations Scheme.

The scheme paid Aboriginal people a maximum of $2,000 in recognition of decades of withheld wages.

Now, a Background Briefing investigation has uncovered secret financial modelling commissioned by the Government which suggests the Government owes the workers much more than that.

Sarah Dingle reports

SARAH DINGLE: In her 80s, Mabel Juli is now a famous artist.

But for decades, under a WA Government system, she laboured on an East Kimberley pastoral station without ever being paid.

MABEL JULI: We didn't know the money. We just working for bread and tea is all. We don't know the money, we didn't get no money.

SARAH DINGLE: Others had their wages stolen.

Until 1972, if an Aboriginal person earned a wage the state could legally withhold up to 75 per cent in government trust accounts but that money has simply vanished.

Three years ago, WA conducted a Stolen Wages Reparations Scheme, with a maximum payout of just $2,000 each.

Dr Rosalind Kidd is a national expert on Aboriginal stolen wages.

ROSALIND KIDD: Can you imagine the CEO of Westpac or ANZ saying that, "We've got no idea how much of your money is missing, we're offering $2,000."

SARAH DINGLE: The Indigenous Affairs Minister Peter Collier said a government stolen wages taskforce had investigated, but there wasn't enough evidence to prove people were owed any more than $2,000 each.

But there was detailed actuarial modelling done by South Australian firm, Barton Consultancy, for the taskforce, delivered to government and obtained by Background Briefing.

At just one workplace alone, Moore River Native Settlement, the actuaries estimate Aboriginal wages kept in trust by government at more than $63 million.

And a whistle-blower who worked with that taskforce, Howard Riley, says State Treasury initially agreed to individual payouts of $78,000.

HOWARD RILEY: Because the Treasury at the time said, "Well, maybe we can handle 78. That's when we said, well, leave it at $78,000."

SARAH DINGLE: Confidential documents show the taskforce's final recommendations to Government in 2008 was a Stolen Wages Reparation Scheme costing $71 million, with up to 3,000 workers thought to be still alive who could make a claim.

But the work of the taskforce was shelved for four years and Howard Riley believes the delay was deliberate.

HOWARD RILEY: They waited for the people to die. They wanted those people to die so that the state coffers weren't being emptied out on black people whose wages they deserved to have back.

SARAH DINGLE: In 2012 the total amount paid out by the West Australian Government for decades of Aboriginal stolen wages was not 71, but just $2.5 million.

The state's Indigenous Affairs Minister refused an interview with Background Briefing.

In a written response to questions he said "it took time to assess the report properly".

The CEO of the state's Aboriginal Legal Service, Dennis Eggington, says what happened in WA was slavery.

DENNIS EGGINGTON: You've got people working for nothing. That is a fair definition of slavery in my terms.

SARAH DINGLE: The Aboriginal Legal Service is now considering a potential class action.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: And you can listen to Sarah Dingle's investigation this Sunday on Background Briefing on Radio National.