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.
Background Briefing -

View in ParlView

Sarah Dingle: Australia prides itself on being the land of the fair go, and fair pay for a fair day's work. But there are many in the state of Western Australia who have never been paid anything for years of hard labour, and they're still being cheated to this day. Under a state system, these people were unpaid, starved, and had benefits like pensions and child payments stolen from them en masse.

Today Background Briefing reveals the secret government calculations of what's owed to people like Mabel Juli, who worked unpaid for decades.

Mabel Juli: We didn't know the money. We just working for bread and tea and meat. We don't know the money, we never get no money.

Sarah Dingle: And today we'll reveal how government reparations for decades of stolen wages were talked down, from $78,000 to just $2,000 apiece.

Stolen wages expert Dr Rosalind Kidd says the WA government's responsibility for people like Mabel Juli was set out in law.

Rosalind Kidd: I mean, right through to 1972, the Act says, 'Every Aboriginal worker shall be under the supervision of the commissioner for Aboriginal affairs.' So I would say there is a direct failure of duty of a commissioner to ensure the well-being of the people he was supposed to protect.

Sarah Dingle: Through a permit system, unpaid Aboriginal workers were bought by private employers, and sold by the state government, in a system that government itself said was like slavery.

Rosalind Kidd: The Chief Protector himself said that the conditions in the north of Western Australia, the people employed in the pastoral industry, it was effectively semi-slavery.

Sarah Dingle: This semi-slavery is within living memory. Under WA law, if Aboriginal people were paid at all they could be paid just 'pocket money'. The rest of their wages and benefits were kept in accounts, mostly by state government but also by churches or private employers. That money has simply vanished.

In 2012, WA's Indigenous Affairs Minister Peter Collier opened a brief window for Aboriginal people to claim reparations for decades of government-sanctioned stolen wages and free labour.

Peter Collier [archival]: You simply cannot put a figure on the stolen wages that would have rigour and accuracy.

Sarah Dingle: Despite an extraordinary mining boom filling state coffers, Indigenous Affairs Minister Peter Collier said there would be a maximum payout of just $2,000 each.

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

Sarah Dingle: But there was detailed actuarial modelling of stolen wages, commissioned by government, and today Background Briefing reveals the real figures of what a state owes its people. We've obtained the internal calculations of a major stolen wages report to government, never before released. They show the total recommended payout was $71 million, around 28 times more than what the WA government paid for Aboriginal stolen wages.

And instead of $2,000, whistle-blower Howard Riley says there were discussions with government of individual payouts of $78,000.

Howard Riley: Because the Treasury at the time said, 'Well, maybe we can handle $78,000,' that's when we said, 'Well, leave it at $78,000.'

Sarah Dingle: Under the WA government's scheme, no families of dead unpaid Aboriginal workers were allowed to claim. Howard Riley says the government deliberately sat on the stolen wages report for four years, while hundreds of potential claimants died.

Howard Riley: They waited for those 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: Now lawyers are examining a class action on West Australian Aboriginal stolen wages. One thing's for sure, the reparation scheme has completely failed to draw a line under a shameful period in WA history.

I'm Sarah Dingle and on Background Briefing today, we expose how the state of Western Australia risk-managed its way out of paying back what it stole.

In the state of Western Australia, until 1972 a series of laws handed the government's Native Welfare Department enormous control of its Aboriginal people.

Man [archival]: Well, it's often said that the Aborigine is not a very productive worker, he is inherently slow and can't accept much responsibility.

Sarah Dingle: Dr Rosalind Kidd is recognised as one of Australia's foremost experts on stolen wages, having researched the issue for two decades. She says until 1972, WA's legal control of Aboriginal people was near total.

Rosalind Kidd: Their controls affected every aspect of Aboriginal life; where you could live, the work you could do, whether or not you got paid a wage, whether or not you were allowed to access that wage, because under the government system, a lot of that wage went either directly to government officials or the government turned a blind eye to the fact in the pastoral industry that people were not paid a wage for much of the 20th century through to the late '60s.

Sarah Dingle: The government dictated where Aboriginal people worked, sending people to work as labourers, in hospitals, sewing rooms, as domestics, or on pastoral stations. And it created a vast system of files documenting every aspect of their lives.

Steve Kinnane is a researcher at the University of Notre Dame, and a Marda Marda man. In 1930, like many others, Steve Kinnane's grandmother Jessie was under surveillance. This system of surveillance continued right up until 1972.

Steve Kinnane: They document who you're seeing, where you're living, who you're related to, personal relationships, how much money you're earning, how much money they're taking from your earnings, what they're spending that money on.

Sarah Dingle: Steve Kinnane says on top of surveillance, the government's financial controls meant total control. The files show Jessie Smith needed medical treatment for a disease which would ultimately kill her.

Steve Kinnane: She had a bone disease in her leg, which was tied to her sugar diabetes. She was informed that she should see the government doctor who was based in Perth. That meant that she had to give up her employment for that time, travel to Perth, stay at the East Perth Girls' Home which was the only place in Perth where Aboriginal women were allowed to stay. While they stayed there, they paid a significant sum for their boarding. She would actually go into debt. While the government may claim that they were keeping these monies for people's benefit, they were also using it to subsidise their own management and control of people.

Sarah Dingle: In the mid '50s, at the age of ten, Pearl Gordon had never been to school. Instead she was at work on Lissadell Station, south of Kununurra in Western Australia.

Pearl Gordon: Well, us mob used to work when we were about ten, eleven year old. Doing things you know, like washing and hanging out, stuff like that. But that time we never got anything.

Sarah Dingle: Western Australia had legalised bonded labour. Effectively the government rented Aboriginal people to pastoral stations as free labourers who didn't have to be paid, only fed.

Pearl Gordon is now 71.

Pearl Gordon: You know, we're people, we're human beings like everybody else. We're not animals. Aboriginal people worked on a station or went to a mission and getting nothing, just flour, tea and sugar and clothing. That's all they had, they never had any money.

Sarah Dingle: Often, WA station owners got a bargain with extra free child labour from workers like Pearl who came with their parents.

Pearl Gordon: Then you go out and work and it was like a family thing to us mob. Dad used to make fences, we used to help Dad, whatever he was doing we used to help him on the station.

Sarah Dingle: 200 kilometres south of Kununurra, at a station called Texas Downs, by the age of nine, Nancy Nodea was also at work. Now 66, she still lives in a remote community near Texas Downs and she joined me over the phone.

How old were you when you started working?

Nancy Nodea: I don't know, maybe about nine or something.

Sarah Dingle: At nine Nancy Nodea hadn't been to school either. Her jobs on the pastoral station included building works.

Nancy Nodea: We went cutting wood, you know, for the station. From the creek we used to pull a trailer with sand to make that lawn. Pull it up ourselves.

Sarah Dingle: You filled a trailer with sand and pulled it to the lawn?

Nancy Nodea: To the house yeah, to make lawn, you know.

Sarah Dingle: Healthcare for Aboriginal workers on stations was virtually non-existent. At the age of 11, Nancy Nodea was infected with leprosy. She was sent to the Derby Leprosarium. There she went to school for the first time, but outside of school hours, despite the fact that she was a child patient with leprosy, she also had to work without pay.

Nancy Nodea: In the laundry or the dining hall where they used to cook for the patients. Sometimes to hospital, you know, helping the sisters with dressing patients.

Sarah Dingle: At 15 Nancy went back to her station, Texas Downs, for another decade's work.

Nancy Nodea: We was working for nothing, for years. Make us feel rubbish.

Sarah Dingle: At both the leprosarium and at Texas Downs, under WA law her income was withheld from her.

Historian Dr Rosalind Kidd says even the head of the Department of Native Welfare described what was happening as slavery.

Rosalind Kidd: The Chief Protector himself said that the conditions in the north of Western Australia, the people employed in the pastoral industry, it was effectively semi-slavery.

Sarah Dingle: In 2006 Dr Rosalind Kidd wrote the terms of reference for the national Senate inquiry into Aboriginal stolen wages. The Senate said in WA there was 'substantial evidence' Aboriginal wages were stolen. It recommended a WA compensation scheme as a matter of urgency.

Six years later, in 2012, WA Indigenous Affairs Minister Peter Collier admitted to Parliament the amount of money stolen by government was vast.

Peter Collier [archival]: The control of wages was permitted under legislation which gave the department the power to hold up to 75% of earnings in a departmental trust account. There is little or no evidence that these wages were returned.

Sarah Dingle: In the same speech, Peter Collier abruptly announced the start of a reparation scheme. It began that day and closed nine months later. Right from the start, there were a number of caveats.

Peter Collier [archival]: Cabinet has agreed that an ex gratia reparation payment of up to $2,000 be made to Aboriginal people born prior to 1958 who are still living and who potentially experienced direct government control over their income while resident at Moore River Native Settlement, Carrolup, Moola Bulla Station, Sister Kate's Home and other government native welfare settlements in Western Australia.

Sarah Dingle: And we'll come back to Moore River Native Settlement later in this program.

The reparations scheme was based on a major stolen wages report to government completed four years earlier in 2008, which had been kept secret. The government had paid actuarial firm, Barton Consultancy, to dig into decades of government files and run the numbers.

Background Briefing has obtained hundreds of pages of taskforce research and government briefings, including the actuarial modelling, released under Freedom of Information. They reveal the $2,000 payout is a pittance compared to calculations of what's owed and what was recommended by the actuaries.

In 2007, a taskforce of top government bureaucrats and Indigenous consultants had began an investigation into WA's stolen wages. In a little over a year they travelled to almost 60 towns across the state to interview more than 1,000 people.

One of the Indigenous consultants was Nyungar man Howard Riley.

Howard Riley: I need people to know that there was a group of people who were determined to get this stuff sorted out in a good way for Aboriginal people.

Sarah Dingle: He's decided to blow the whistle.

Howard Riley: I was sworn to confidentiality from the outset, when I became an advisor to the taskforce we had to sign a piece of paper. We had to declare that we weren't going to repeat anything that we'd done that would be detrimental to the government. It would have been the Labor government, but I never signed any confidentiality agreement with the Liberal government.

Sarah Dingle: The taskforce soon realised there were a whole range of ways in which money had been stolen from Aboriginal people in WA. There were laws saying up to 75% of Aboriginal wages could be sent to government coffers to be kept 'in trust'.

Man [archival]: All pensions and child endowment monies are at present handled by the station manager, who uses them to offset credit buying at the station store. What's left goes into a trust fund, which the native can't touch without government permission.

Sarah Dingle: For decades, Aboriginal pensions, maternity payments and child endowments were stolen en masse by private employers and churches. Aboriginal workers on pastoral stations often weren't paid at all. And many of those workers had been removed from their parents.

Howard Riley: We know for a fact that most of the Stolen Generation were used as cheap labour, some even could be classified as slave labour. They didn't receive anything, they were sent out to work on farms, cattle stations. Money that was given to them was sent to the missions instead of to the people.

Sarah Dingle: Howard Riley says years of stolen wages dramatically increased the numbers of the Stolen Generations.

Howard Riley: The amount of Indigenous people that was removed from their families was because their families couldn't care for them. Native Welfare Officers made those assessments, and they knew, Native Welfare Department knew that people weren't getting money. These Native Welfare Officers come along and seen people living in squalor, which meant there was nothing in their fridges, when they had fridges, there was nothing in their cupboards. Linen was hard to come by. If you had no money, you couldn't do anything, you just had to live with the fact that your child was at risk of being taken away.

Sarah Dingle: Howard Riley should know: he was removed by the Department of Native Welfare, like his parents and his grandparents before him.

Howard Riley: Three generations of us got removed from our families because we didn't have the financial support to look after each other.

Sarah Dingle: In 2008, faced with untangling the massive intergenerational debt left by stolen wages, the Indigenous consultants agreed on a one-off ex gratia payment.

Howard Riley: It was around $78,000 for those who were living, for those who survived to make an application. We know that people weren't going to get the hundreds of thousands that they might have been entitled to, so we didn't even meet them halfway, we went rock bottom what we thought people was worth. $78,000 was nothing compared to what they might have really been worth.

Sarah Dingle: Howard Riley says this figure of $78,000 was initially seen as reasonable by government.

Howard Riley: Because the Treasury at the time said, 'Well, maybe we can handle $78,000, we can't handle $150,000,' and that's when we said, 'Well, leave it at $78,000.'

Sarah Dingle: You had conversations with Treasury that $78,000 would be an acceptable figure?

Howard Riley: A comfortable figure.

Sarah Dingle: A comfortable figure. And who in Treasury said that would be a comfortable figure?

Howard Riley: It came from the Treasury, I think it came from the Director General.

Sarah Dingle: The state Department of Treasury declined to comment, saying the matter was subject to Cabinet approval processes at the time.

According to Howard Riley, that $78,000 was watered down, not because of financial, but political calculations. He says mining royalties were mentioned.

Howard Riley: Then they started telling us, 'Oh, well, I don't think those people should be getting this and that, because a lot of them get royalties anyway,' because we talked about the people in the Pilbara and the Kimberleys. But that does not pay for their pain and suffering when they used to live from one day to the next with nothing.

Sarah Dingle: Meanwhile the actuaries consulting to the taskforce were starting from the other end, using government records to model what the missing wages might look like in today's terms.

Moore River Native Settlement was one of the biggest government-run institutions in the state. The actuaries from Barton Consulting made the conservative estimate that only 50% of wages were withheld at Moore River, and they used women's rates, which were lower than men's. The money was supposed to have been kept in trust by government, so the actuaries added a long-term bond rate from 1969. They came up with a total of more than $63 million owing to the workers of Moore River alone.

Steve Kinnane: I am shocked. I'm shocked to see the amount so carefully worked out by their own actuarial people.

Sarah Dingle: Steve Kinnane's grandmother Jessie Smith worked at Moore River.

Steve Kinnane: She had between initially 50% but sometimes up to 70% of her wages held in trust by the Department. If she was behaving herself, she could keep more of her money as pocket money.

Sarah Dingle: The government file on Jessie Smith, including her time at Moore River, runs to about 350 pages. It contains notes by the Chief Protector of Aboriginals, AO Neville himself.

Steve Kinnane: My grandmother having up to 75% of her wages withheld because she left employment where she was being abused by a particular employer, and Mr Neville chose to punish her by having more of her wages from her next employment withheld. It was some physical abuse, thankfully not sexual, but I have known of many cases of women who have suffered sexual abuse at the hands of their employers and have made complaints to the Department. That is documented within their personal files. Also what is documented often is the lack of response of the government to those kinds of accusations.

Sarah Dingle: After the $63 million estimate for Moore River, an email obtained by Background Briefing shows the task force asking the actuaries to tackle stolen wages from another angle. They're asked to calculate the numbers of people affected, from a few key workplaces, who are likely to still be alive.

Background Briefing has obtained a copy of Barton Consulting's response, delivered to the Department of Indigenous Affairs. It's based on ledger accounts of wages withheld over 20 years at Moore River, Carrolup, and Sister Kate's Children's Home, as well as withheld pensions and overcharged keep for workers in the Kimberley. This time there was no long-term bond rate applied, but it still came to $51 million, with about 400 of those workers thought to be still alive.

Steve Kinnane: It indicates that the government is well aware that the actual figure that was being dealt with was much, much larger than what ultimately was paid.

Sarah Dingle: In July 2008, the actuaries' final advice was delivered to the then Minister for Indigenous Affairs. It was modest. It proposed a lump sum payout for all stolen wages claimants of $10,000, which was equal to seven years' work at 1950s rates at Moore River and Carrolup. This $10,000 payout would apply to everyone who had their wages stolen, regardless of workplace.

Stolen wages historian Dr Rosalind Kidd says that $10,000 should have been taken in context.

Rosalind Kidd: That, of course, doesn't include a penalty for loss of use. That's purely money that they seem to have identified for the years 1951 to '57 as being lost out of the accounts while the government was supposed to be looking after them.

Sarah Dingle: The actuaries told the minister there would be up to 3,000 Aboriginal people still alive who would be eligible for a $10,000 payout. To acknowledge workers who had died, the actuaries suggested a Community Experience Fund of about the same amount, to fund projects such as archives and oral history works. With admin costs, the scheme would be at most $71 million.

A month later, the WA Labor government called the earliest election in more than a century.

Howard Riley: All the information that we gave them, the recommendations about the stolen wages should have been dealt with whilst they had a chance to deal with it as Labor politicians. They didn't.

Sarah Dingle: Labor lost power to Colin Barnett's Liberal Party, and the work of the taskforce was shelved and kept secret for the next four years.

While the state enjoyed a mining boom, Howard Riley watched Aboriginal workers who had given evidence to the taskforce die.

Howard Riley: I had an old uncle up in Tom Price. He used to work at Wittenoom, he used to dig asbestos, blue asbestos out of the ground. His mother used to say, 'I haven't got a black boy, I got a blue boy.' Because he was grey-blue when he used to come home. He died of mesothelioma, and he also had renal failure. He was one of the first people that I thought might have got a payout because I told them how sick he was. The thing that he wanted most was for a dialysis machine in his house so he could stay home and die with his family. Never got that. And I would say we interviewed at least 1,500 people. Today, I think there's only about 300 left. I lost one on the weekend.

Sarah Dingle: The Indigenous Affairs Minister Peter Collier refused our request for an interview. In a written response to our questions he said it took time to 'assess the report properly'.

To Howard Riley, the four-year delay was deliberate.

Howard Riley: I'm so angry about it, it just felt like they purposely withheld that money, just so that there was a decrease in the amount of people that they had to pay.

Sarah Dingle: Four years after the actuaries delivered their advice, WA Liberal Indigenous Affairs Minister Peter Collier abruptly announced a stolen wages scheme. There was no individual payout of $78,000. There was no individual payout of $10,000, nor a package of $71 million, instead the state paid a total of just $2.5 million. For individuals, the total maximum reparations were just $2,000 each. There was no Common Experience Fund: if a worker had died, that was it.

Howard Riley had to face his people.

Howard Riley: I thought, oh my god, that's not even enough to bury them, you know? I went back, only one old lady from Tom Price, she reckoned, 'Oh, I thought you promised us a lot of money.' She told me off, and it was like, it was so hard to face her. I don't know, I avoided her for a couple of days. When I seen her, I walked up with my head down in the cultural way, all I could do is say, 'Sorry mum.'

Sarah Dingle: Howard Riley says he was so angry at Colin Barnett's government, he tried to tackle things in the traditional way, asking elders to put a curse on the Premier.

Howard Riley: It was so bad, I felt like…I felt there was something I needed to do, I even spoke to traditional people to sing Barnett, sing him, kill him out the way, you know. They were going, 'We don't know how to sing white people.' They couldn't. So I was disappointed with them too.

Sarah Dingle: Around 2,000 people put in a claim to the stolen wages scheme. But more than 700 were rejected, not because they didn't have wages stolen, but because the scheme was tightly restricted. To receive anything, Aboriginal people had to have lived and worked at something called a Government Native Welfare Settlement.

I asked Dr Rosalind Kidd if she had ever heard of that term before.

Rosalind Kidd: No, I haven't. I would have assumed in WA meant run directly by government and yet it seems some of the ones they've included were not run directly by government. I don't know that they know what they mean.

Sarah Dingle: The WA government refused to publish any list of what were Government Native Welfare Settlements.

Researcher Steve Kinnane:

Steve Kinnane: People can create terms if they want to. The reality that I've indicated from our discussion and what we've found in the files is that people's wages were controlled outside of these settlements. And to disregard those realities is an incredible act of risk management.

Sarah Dingle: The Stolen Wages reparation scheme was being made up on the fly.

Background Briefing has obtained an internal memorandum to the Director General of the Department of Indigenous Affairs, three months into the reparations scheme. It shows that even the Department didn't know what was in and what was out.

There were four institutions which were definitely considered Government Native Welfare Settlements, and then another 58 which were either 'proposed definite' or 'questionable'. And this week the Indigenous Affairs Minister told Background Briefing that instead of specific locations, all applications were decided on a case by case basis.

Mabel Juli put in an application for more than three decades of unpaid labour at the pastoral station Springvale. She was rejected, which she says hurt her.

Mabel Juli: Yeah, it made me angry. It's no money. It's working for tea, sugar, bread and flour, that's all. And a blanket.

Sarah Dingle: At 82, Mabel Juli is now a famous artist from Warmun in the East Kimberley. Her art shows Springvale Station, where she worked unpaid for decades, where her family is buried, and where her Dreaming is.

Mabel Juli: Yeah, I got my Dream there. Rainbow. Rainbow Dream. And Moon Dream. That's my mum. Mum Dream.

Sarah Dingle: Fellow artist Nancy Nodea put in a stolen wages application for unpaid work on a pastoral station and for unpaid work as a child at the Derby Leprosarium, where she was also a patient. She was successful, but once again there was no explanation. Nancy Nodea can only guess it's for her work at the leprosarium, but not for her years on a pastoral station, which she says is upsetting.

Nancy Nodea: That's all we got for all those things and no more than that, that's what they told us. We just got it one time and that's it.

Sarah Dingle: All pastoral stations appear to have been excluded from the stolen wages scheme, apart from the government-run Moola Bulla.

It was pastoral stations where for decades owners rented Aboriginal workers from government, in a system the government's own Native Commissioner described as 'semi-slavery'.

75-year-old Frank Chulung is known right across the Kimberley from working on pastoral stations, and then from being the first chairman of the Kimberley Land Council. He didn't put in a claim for stolen wages, but he helped other Aboriginal people apply to the WA reparations scheme.

Frank Chulung: Well, I'd like to see a lot of these people really back-paid in full for what they are asking for…before you can say justice has been done to them. A lot of the pastoralists, they ended up being millionaires.

Sarah Dingle: In a statement, the Minister for Indigenous Affairs says claims by pastoral station workers were rejected because there was no evidence their wages were controlled through trust accounts. But the government's permits system allowed Aboriginal pastoral workers to be paid nothing at all.

Frank Chulung says it's not good enough.

Frank Chulung: I know how hard the Aboriginal people worked, how much they suffered, and even a lot of Aboriginal people's wives and girlfriends suffered as a result of the white stockmen out there, you know, how they were taken advantage of, even by the station owners. I seen that with my own eyes. I was only 17.

Sarah Dingle: They would take the women?

Frank Chulung: Yeah, used to come into their camp and just take them out for…how much it takes.

Sarah Dingle: As well as pastoral stations not having to pay their Aboriginal workers, there were extra millions of Aboriginal money to steal.

In 1941 the Commonwealth had decided that Aboriginal people were, like the rest of the population, entitled to old age pensions, child endowments, and maternity payments. In WA, those benefits were embezzled en masse for more than two decades.

Fiona Skyring: Up until the mid '60s, they certainly didn't reach the people that they were intended to.

Sarah Dingle: Dr Fiona Skyring has worked extensively with the WA Aboriginal Legal Service on stolen wages. She shows me a government document from 1959, marked 'confidential' and signed by the WA Native Welfare Commissioner. It contains instructions on how to distribute Aboriginal pension money.

Fiona Skyring: The Native Welfare Department and the Department of Social Services decided that Aboriginal pension recipients would get 10 shillings of that, and the remainder of the pension payment would go to either the station manager or owner or the mission superintendent.

Sarah Dingle: In 2008, the actuaries from WA's Stolen Wages Taskforce calculated the money stolen from Aboriginal pensioners in the '30s and '60s. Background Briefing has obtained those calculations. We can reveal that at Kimberley pastoral stations alone, around $24.5 million was stolen from pensioners.

Did the same thing occur with other kinds of entitlements like child payments for instance?

Fiona Skyring: Certainly, and in this same 1959 document, the circular to Native Welfare Field Officers, it details similar sorts of controls over maternity allowance payments and child endowment.

Sarah Dingle: The embezzlement of benefits was so bad that in 1965 the state government was forced to set up an inquiry under Magistrate Davies. Dr Skyring says Magistrate Davies uncovered systemic abuses but no criminal charges were ever laid. Recently, Dr Skyring tried, but failed, to obtain Magistrate Davies' full report from the 1960s through Freedom of Information.

Fiona Skyring: We had huge difficulty getting this information from the then Department of Indigenous Affairs in Western Australia because they actually control access to these records. Then when we got a copy of the file detailing the investigations, a lot of the names were redacted.

Sarah Dingle: The information in the government's vast system of files is key to unravelling the damage done by stolen wages.

This year, under fire in parliament, Indigenous Affairs Minister Peter Collier claimed that a $2,000 payout for stolen wages was the best that government could do, because there wasn't enough evidence to prove that people were owed any more.

Peter Collier [archival]: Unfortunately, due to the complexity of trust accounts in Western Australia, the significant lack of surviving records and the passage of time, the taskforce could not develop an actuarial model that could illuminate the true value or full impact of any compensation.

Sarah Dingle: Actuarial firm Barton Consulting, which was paid by government and did develop just such an actuarial model, declined to speak to Background Briefing. But we'll post their calculations of a $10,000 payout, and the briefing to government, on our website.

Steve Kinnane: When I hear people such as Minister Collier say that the evidence doesn't exist, he's incorrect. The evidence does exist.

Sarah Dingle: According to research published by Steve Kinnane, of the almost 11,000 administrative files created by the Department of Native Welfare, about half were destroyed. But of the 15,500 personal files on Aboriginal individuals, 80% have been preserved.

Steve Kinnane says the personal files often contain more financial information than the administrative files because governments did record when they were grudgingly forced to spend money. For example, his grandmother's request for new underpants was obsessively documented.

Steve Kinnane: The one thing that got my sister angry was that she had to ask a chief protector, a government worker, a man, permission to buy her underwear, and that he would send someone down to a local store here in Perth to purchase her underwear. That it would be put in a parcel by a government worker and posted to her using her own wages, the money that they had taken from her and put in her account. When if the money was in her hand, she could just go and buy her own underwear. It was just that sense of outrageous, absurd control.

Sarah Dingle: The Stolen Wages Taskforce didn't go through all the personal files held on Aboriginal people. It's become more difficult for Aboriginal people to get a hold of their own personal files. Until recently, the files were kept by the state's Family Information and Records Bureau.

Background Briefing can reveal that just one month before government announced its 2012 stolen wages reparation scheme, it closed that Bureau. Now any Aboriginal person who wants their own state file has to make a Freedom of Information request.

Researcher Steve Kinnane:

Steve Kinnane: Now you have to be very clear about what you want. You have to put that very definitely in an FOI request, and they will respond only to that request. They will do a search of that file only for that information. But of course for most people, you don't know what's in the file. So you actually don't know what to ask for.

Sarah Dingle: Steve Kinnane thinks there's enough in the personal files to be able to work out exactly what some individuals are owed, and when there's not, to tailor a payout depending on occupation.

Steve Kinnane: You could get a sense of what was the common story for a stockman? What was the common story for a domestic servant? What was the common story for someone in the Kimberley? You would be able to say, 'We don't have the actual records for you or we have your file but it doesn't detail that information, but actuarial studies that we have completed which involve the personal files and people's permissions have found that this is generally the case. So on that basis, we can offer you this much and our sincere apology.'

Sarah Dingle: The Indigenous Affairs Minister told Background Briefing that the $2,000 individual payment was not meant to repay any stolen wages, it was an acknowledgement that the practice of withholding wages did occur.

Opposition Indigenous Affairs spokesman Ben Wyatt says if Labor wins power at the next election, it will re-visit the findings of the Stolen Wages Taskforce, including the actuarial modelling.

Would the ex gratia payments be at least $10,000?

Ben Wyatt: Well, I mean, that's…18 months out, that's a commitment that perhaps I can't make yet but certainly it would be something I'd like to achieve.

Sarah Dingle: But $10,000 is also a pittance.

Ben Wyatt: I agree. But as I said, what a payment would look like I just simply can't say at this point.

Sarah Dingle: The state's Aboriginal Legal Service says a political solution has failed, and they're now looking at a potential class action.

CEO Dennis Eggington:

Dennis Eggington: All of these things have to be seen in light of slavery. You've got people working for nothing. That is a fair definition of slavery in my terms. You hear time and time again, oh, Aboriginal people wouldn't work in an iron lung. Well, Aboriginal people did work, and they worked long hours and they worked in hard and terrible conditions, and they never got paid for it, they didn't even get recognised for it. And it just plays to an uncaring, basically racist society that don't believe Aboriginal people should get anything other than what we've got.

Sarah Dingle: Pearl Gordon, who worked from the age of ten on pastoral stations, was also rejected for any stolen wages payout. In any case, she says $2,000 isn't enough.

Pearl Gordon: It's a peanut. $2,000, what is $2,000? You just go into a shop and you come out with $50, or even $20. Everything is dear, you know, nothing cheap in this country.

Sarah Dingle: A bigger stolen wages payout, according to Pearl Gordon, would mean a shot at a better future.

Pearl Gordon: The government might think we're mad but we'd like to look at business for ourselves. We'd like to create something for ourselves. We're worried about our kids. We want to look at future for them. Something they can be proud of. You know, none of our kids are proud of anything.

Sarah Dingle: Background Briefing's co-ordinating producer is Linda McGuiness, research by Lawrence Bull, technical production by Leila Shunnar, the executive producer is Chris Bullock, and I'm Sarah Dingle.

You can read the full statement from WA's Indigenous Affairs Minister on our website.