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The 1968–69 introduction of equal wages for Aboriginal pastoral workers in the Kimberley

Fiona Skyring, consultant historian, 10 November 2009

FIONA SKYRING: Thank you, Tony. Right, I’m talking about the introduction of equal wages for Aboriginal pastoral workers in the Kimberley [region in northern Western Australia] in 1968 and 1969. And in the abstract to this paper, I say that I intend to challenge the implication that equal wages are bad for Aboriginal workers. Allied to this implication is the notion that money in the hands of Aboriginal people is a dangerous thing, and this was openly discussed in 1968 and before. In today’s context of authoritarian micro-management of Aboriginal people’s income, the background to the introduction of equal wages for Aboriginal workers is worth revisiting, I think.

Now in September 1967, the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission decided to remove the racially discriminatory clause from the Federal Pastoral Industry Award, and equal wages for Aboriginal pastoral workers were phased in from December 1968 in the Kimberley region in the far north of Western Australia.

At that time, Aboriginal men working on the stations were paid between $6 and $20 per week. The award was between $38.90 and $41 per week, less $9.41 for food and accommodation. Aboriginal women who worked on the stations were paid between $3 and $10 per week, but many were paid nothing at all. Some stockmen, referred to in the records as ‘half-caste’, received the same wages as white stockmen, but through to the 1960s most Aboriginal men, women and teenagers – ‘cause everyone worked – working on the stations in the Kimberley did so for little or no money.

In earlier decades, Aboriginal station workers were paid no wages and were given food, clothing and tobacco rations in return for their labour. In 1925, Chief Protector Neville wrote that many Aboriginal workers in Western Australia existed under a system of ‘semi-slavery’, and those are his words. This didn’t trouble the Chief Protector at all, and through to the equal wages decision the state government administered a system of low-cost, bonded labour throughout the pastoral regions of the state, with penalties for Aboriginal workers who sought to leave or to challenge the boss. Even in the 1960s, when most of the punitive sections of so-called protective legislation had been repealed, the records show that the Native Welfare Department in the Kimberley acted like an employment agency for station managers, sending workers when asked. Now I’ll just move onto the next one [shows image]. The captions in this slide show the captions that I’ve copied directly from the [JS] Battye Library collection [in the State Library of Western Australia].

In this paper I investigate the context for the social and economic devastation that followed the introduction of equal wages for Aboriginal pastoral workers. Bill Bunbury has addressed this in his book, It’s Not the Money, It’s the Land, and for the people he interviewed, the impact of equal wages for Aboriginal workers and their families was catastrophic.

Aboriginal people were evicted from the stations, which were in many cases on their traditional country, and congregated in squalid refugee camps at Fitzroy Crossing, Hall’s Creek and Derby. The equal wages decision is portrayed in Bunbury’s account as one imposed from afar with no thought for the social consequences nor communication with the people directly affected: the station owners and the Aboriginal station residents. While some stations retained their employees on the lesser ‘slow worker’ rate allowed in the new award, the impact on other stations was a drastic decline in station population as only the younger skilled workers and their immediate families were allowed to stay.

For former Kimberley stockmen who published their recollections, the introduction of equal wages was remembered as devastating. Senior Walmajarri man Eric Lawford recalled that the Emanuels, who ran Christmas Creek station – which is near Fitzroy Crossing – decided that they would only pay a few stockmen and that everybody else had to leave. ‘That’s how they split this community up,’ he said.

Former chairman of the Kimberley Land Council John Watson described it this way, and these are his words:

From the early days Aboriginal people were forced to work on the stations. All the stations came to depend on cheap Aboriginal labour. The Aboriginal people knew they were being exploited, but they didn’t have any choice. Then during the 50s and 60s, Aboriginal stockmen started pushing for better wages. They didn’t realise the drastic effect it would have on their lives.

When the equal wages decision was handed down, hundreds of people were forced to leave the stations they’d grown up on and to live under appalling conditions in town reserves. Those station managers just came out and said, ‘We can’t afford to pay you the basic wage and we can’t afford to keep feeding you. The welfare mob have a lot of money for you to live in the town, so pack up your camp and start walking.’

The Kimberley stockmen whose stories comprise the publication Raparapa did not express a shred of nostalgia for their former bosses, but recalled with pride their skill in stockwork and how they trained the white men sent to manage them. Native title holders told much the same story in the Karajarri, Rubibi and Neowarra trials in the Federal Court. For instance, Steve Possum, a senior Karajarri man, said that he really liked stockwork and had good memories of life on Thangoo station and Frazier Downs, a station on Karajarri country, but he used the word ‘slave’ to describe how they worked for no money.

The contribution made by Aboriginal people to the pastoral industry is one of three types of subsidy [that] I suggest sustained the Kimberley pastoral economy and that the end to this tripartite subsidy had a profound impact on that economy. Very cheap land rentals and, from 1960 onwards, Commonwealth Social Service benefits intended for Aboriginal people were the other two types of subsidies, but I’ll start with the labour costs.

It’s important to remember that when the Australian Workers Union [AWU] took up the case to amend the Federal Pastoral Award in 1944, their respondents were the Graziers’ Associations of New South Wales and Western Australia and others. For Kimberley station owners to give the impression that they were innocent bystanders in 1968, and the case was some distant battle fought in a courtroom, is disingenuous. Station owners fought against the introduction of decent wages for Aboriginal workers right from the start.

West Kimberley Shire president R.M. Rowell was reported in 1971 as saying that the introduction of award wages have done much harm and that, in his words, ‘most Aborigines had not been ready to handle the situation’. In 1950, Rowell was one of the well-known West Kimberley station owners, including the Blythes, J. Forrest, the Duracks and the Roses, who attended a meeting in Perth where he and fellow pastoralists argued against paying their Aboriginal employees anything. At the meeting they reluctantly agreed with the Commissioner of Native Welfare to pay Aboriginal stockmen – not women – between 1 pound and 3 pounds per month, the top rate being 15 shillings a week. They complained that misinformed public opinion was forcing them to pay wages and that this would introduce, and this is in their words, ‘the evils inevitably associated with the circulation of money among a native people not generally educated to its value’.

[shows images] That’s the homestead at Gogo, which is again near Fitzroy. And that’s where the Aboriginal workers lived. So it’s like a contrast. And that’s Fossil Downs later on.

That money was a source of harm for Aboriginal people is a theme that is repeated throughout the history of labour in Western Australia. It was regularly stated by employers and by government as an argument for restricting cash payments to Aboriginal workers. Yet this invented inability of Aboriginal people to fully participate in the mainstream economy belied the very real contribution they made to that mainstream economy.

The low wage system provided a massive subsidy for pastoral station owners. The top award rate for an adult male station worker in 1951 was 10 pounds, 8 shillings with keep – that’s, with food and accommodation. Compared to these award rates, most Aboriginal stockmen were paid around 7 per cent of the award. In 1951, the station owners in the Kimberley were saving a little over 500 pounds a year in labour costs on every adult male Aboriginal worker, except for the few head stockmen who were paid award wages. Even if the station owners were providing food rations to a number of elderly dependents of each adult male worker, which was one of the arguments they used to justify low or non-existent wages, the value of these rations per week would have come nowhere near the difference between 15 shillings and 10 pounds, 8 shillings. The difference in these amounts was more than 9 pounds, and equivalent to three times the weekly old-age pension in 1950.

The wage differential was not quite as extreme when equal wages were phased in for Aboriginal workers in 1968, but it was still there. Most Aboriginal men were earning between 15 per cent and a half of the award rate.

Although no Kimberley Aboriginal pastoral workers were involved in the AWU’s case in the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission, there had been industrial action in the Kimberley prior to 1967. In 1951 the whole station workforce left Thangoo, which is south of Broome, because management refused to pay them 4 pounds per week plus rations. In the mid-1960s, Aboriginal workers at Mount Hart station in central Kimberley staged several walk-offs in protest against ill-treatment by the manager, Jack Webber, and because he refused to pay them wages. In one instance in 1966, Webber followed them with a rifle and this way persuaded them to return to the station. Aboriginal workers and their families did not return to Mount Hart until the manager was replaced in 1967.

The pressure for decent wages intensified in the 1960s, much of it coming from Aboriginal workers themselves.

Now another form of subsidy for Kimberley station owners that was also under threat by the 1960s was the extremely cheap lease rents throughout the region. The reappraisal of Kimberley pastoral lease rents in 1948 identified them as substantially undervalued. Government reports from the 1950s were generally critical of the standard of land management on Kimberley stations. The irreversible environmental damage caused by uncontrolled grazing, no fences and inadequate station improvements, and the corresponding steady decline in herd quality, meant that the vast pastoral areas of the north were not as productive as they could have been.

The government had invested in better roads and transport infrastructure in the Kimberley, but there had been little corresponding cattle investment from the pastoral leaseholders themselves. Pastoral inspector Bill Henwood was particularly critical of the majority of the station owners who were not resident in the Kimberley – ‘absentee owners’, as he called them, mostly based in Perth – and who refused to invest in improvements. In a 1952 report for the Commonwealth Bureau of Agricultural Economics, the neglect of Aboriginal people and the deplorable living conditions provided by the employers was identified as a central problem in the lack of development of the beef industry in north Australia.

Now, just quickly. [shows image] So that’s Fossil Downs homestead, and I think that’s 1950s. Ah, three minutes, okay. I’ll keep going. One of the arguments they used was that it was really difficult to get supplies, but you know, not for that one [referring to the image of a neo-classical stone structure built by Kim Durack on Liveringa station].

By the 1960s, the government was becoming less willing to tolerate poor land and herd management in the Kimberley. In 1969, the Pastoral Appraisement Board considered that low lease rents promoted inefficient land use and recommended that rents should increase by 600 per cent. The Board suggested it was more prudent to limit this increase to 400 per cent. In the end, the state government decided to limit the pastoral lease rent increase for Kimberley stations to 300 per cent, effective first of July. And then pastoral lease rents were again increased in 1979 by between two and four times the 1969 rate. And the Pastoralists and Graziers Association argued against these increases, but the days of negligible land costs for Kimberley station owners were over.

The third form of subsidy for Kimberley station owners started in 1960 with the removal of racially discriminatory clauses in Commonwealth legislation governing the payment of old-age pensions and maternity allowances. It meant that for the first time, many Aboriginal people living on pastoral stations across Western Australia became eligible to receive these Commonwealth benefits. A native welfare officer in Derby described it as ‘a flood of money’ into the Kimberley economy’.

On the eve of the legislative changes, a memo was distributed to all field officers detailing the new arrangements for distribution of Commonwealth benefits. It listed the amounts of pocket money that would be paid in cash to each pension recipient, with the remainder held by various mission authorities and station owners for maintenance and improvements in accommodation. The third and fourth pages of that memo are on the Senate Committee’s Stolen Wages inquiry website, and I can give you details of that later.

So on the stations, pensioners were supposed to receive 10 shillings in cash, which was about 10 per cent of the weekly pension payment of 5 pounds in 1960. By the mid-1960s, both state and Commonwealth government officials right up to most senior levels knew that abuses were widespread and that the stations kept most of the Commonwealth benefits intended for Aboriginal people themselves. A senior native welfare officer commented of the stations that ‘they’re all making a quid out of the pensioners’.

The Department of Social Services appointed Special Magistrate M.E. Davies to investigate the allegations of misappropriation, and he conducted reviews of stations across the Kimberley in 1965 and 1966. And I’m sorry, I don’t have time to go through the various examples I have here of how that was manifest, but they did things like massively overcharging for food – in one instance charging the actual value of the pension for food – [and] using the money to build sheds in which Aboriginal pensioners were then supposed to be housed, and then Aboriginal people had no ownership of those sheds that was built with their pension money. And we’re talking about a lot of money. On one station, $30,268 between 1960 and 1966; on another station, 9,900 pounds in the space of one and a half years between 1962 and 1964. And these stations never paid pensioners anything. And on that particular station they were given biscuits and lollies instead of cash.

And the Director of Social Services wrote – and I’ll have to finish up here, I’m sorry:

It seems that some warranties regard the pension as a form of station subsidy and consider that they’re entitled to restrict the value of the benefits flowing to the pensioners for various reasons, one being that wages paid to native station workers will not show adversely by comparison. The effect of that, instead of Commonwealth pension monies benefiting the pensioners only, they are undeservedly and unnecessarily benefiting the station.

So I argue in my conclusion that it was, in the space of a few years, the removal of this tripartite subsidy that had a really profound and devastating impact on the local Kimberley economy. And when managers from Christmas Creek station dumped truckloads of people at Fitzroy Crossing in January 1969, the poverty that the people at this refugee camp at Fitzroy Crossing experienced was nothing new, they’d lived in poverty on the stations; but what was new was that they were homeless. Sorry to have taken up extra time. [applause]

MODERATOR: Thanks very much, Fiona, it’s fantastic to be able to do this inter-generational historisation of the current agonising over the nature of cash in the contemporary welfare economy. And that concludes this particular segment, and now, Fiona’s going to take over actually chairing.

FIONA SKYRING: Okay, so no questions?

MODERATOR: Sorry, I’ve got time for two I think.

VAVAA MAWULI: Hi, my name is Vavaa Mawuli. You mentioned that there was a stolen wages inquiry. My question is whether that inquiry is concluded and whether there aren’t now any plans to redress the unfairness of those practices of unequal wages?

FIONA SKYRING: Yes, thanks for your question, Vavaa. There was an inquiry. There was an inquiry by the Senate Legal and Constitutional Committee in 2006; Ros Kidd, who’s a speaker in the next session, gave evidence, [and] so did I. I wrote all of the submissions for the Aboriginal Legal Service [ALS] of Western Australia for that inquiry. They delivered their report in December 2006, and said that across the country it was clear that financial abuses had occurred and that all governments – well, I don’t think they were conclusive about Victoria, but they certainly said that Western Australia, Northern Territory, Queensland and South Australia all needed to set up compensation schemes – oh, in New South Wales there already was one, but yes, they basically said, people need to be compensated because clearly they had their wages and their pension monies taken from them.

And, well, nothing’s happened in Western Australia. The government did their own inquiry, which the ALS objected to because we said, you know, ‘The evidence is there, you don’t need to do any further investigation into this, what we need now is, who was affected and how much they’re owed.’ And yes, so the government finished their inquiry in July of last year and they’re refusing to release it, despite repeated requests from the Aboriginal Legal Service to do so. And a lot of the information that’s in my paper is actually from the submissions that I did, so it’s all up on the Senate Committee website.

MAN IN AUDIENCE: What’s the relationship between state agencies and the pastoral station management here? I mean, is it one of collusion? I mean, clearly state agents were aware of abuses. But were they not attempting to police it or were they just ineffective?

FIONA SKYRING: No, the correspondence, the departmental correspondence between the federal Department of Social Services and the Native Welfare Department in Western Australia, the general tenor of that is that, you know, ‘We know that these abuses are occurring. We don’t want them to continue,’ that, you know, ‘this money is supposed to go to Aboriginal pensioners, it’s not intended to benefit the station owners.’ But there was just never enough staff to effectively police it. They had these two investigations in 1965 and 1966, and again, on the Senate Committee website there’s copies of that, of those reports; and the abuses were – I mean it was just theft, basically, theft and fraud. But no one was ever prosecuted because, yes, they just didn’t have the resources, it seems. ‘Cause that was the other thing that came out in the correspondence, the federal department wanted the Native Welfare Department to police it, and they wrote back saying, ‘You know, we don’t have the staff. You do something about it.’

MAN IN AUDIENCE: The corollary of that was, there was an unwillingness to provide sufficient staff to do that kind of policing by the state government.

FIONA SKYRING: Still is. I mean the Department of Indigenous Affairs in Western Australia is still understaffed. And that’s been the case all along.

Date published: 19 July 2010