Senate debates

Tuesday, 8 May 2018


Edwards, Mr Fred

9:22 pm

Photo of Andrew BartlettAndrew Bartlett (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I'd like to speak tonight about a great Queenslander who died quite a few months a go. I wanted to take the chance to put on the record here in this chamber his great contribution. I speak of an Aboriginal man, Fred Edwards, who I had the great honour to meet around 12 or so years ago in Normanton in Far North Queensland. He was a man who played a central role in enabling public awareness about the appalling injustice that we still know today as the case of the Aboriginal stolen wages not just in Queensland but in many parts of the world.

He, as with literally thousands of other Aboriginal people in Queensland and in other states, was somebody that worked for many years, as it turned out, literally without pay, at the time told his wages were being held in trust—a very ironic term in hindsight—for him and for all other Aboriginal people, to be provided for them down the track under the incredibly offensive idea that Aboriginal people couldn't possibly manage their own affairs or their own income. Even the amounts that they did get paid were far lower than other people at the time because until the 1970s it was legal to pay Aboriginal people less than other people purely on the basis of their race. But, even under the totally unjust lower wages that Aboriginal people were entitled to, they still, in many cases, did not get those wages. When, many years later, Aboriginal people tried to access the money that was supposedly held in trust for them, they were told that it actually wasn't there. They were told by the other entities or individuals who were supposedly looking after the money on their behalf that the money had disappeared. Frankly, it is a scandal that I still, after all these years, find very, very hard to comprehend, even by the standards of a different era—that something so blatant could be allowed to happen.

Even worse is that, when it was exposed, very little was done about it. This isn't something contentious. This is something that the Queensland government and other state governments have acknowledged on the record and made apologies for. They have said, 'Sorry about that,' but they haven't actually paid the money back. There were small amounts of so-called reparations under the Beattie government, originally with a maximum of $2,000 or $4,000, depending on certain circumstances, for some people who had been robbed of tens of thousands of dollars—even back then with the value of money at the time, let alone once corrected for inflation and let alone any issues with regard to damages or extra compensation. It is impossible for me, and I think for most other people, to believe that, if this circumstance had happened to any other Australians, they would not have been properly, genuinely, legally and fully compensated. For these Aboriginal people, even when it was made public and it was acknowledged, it's never happened.

The current Palaszczuk Labor government have, somewhat to their credit, made some attempts to improve the situation a bit, but it still goes nowhere near paying genuine, proper recompense to people who had their money stolen of them. So many of them, like Fred, are now dead. The fact that they are now dead is no excuse under law for their descendants to not be compensated for that. If you think of the loss of what they could have done and what could have been provided to their spouse, to their children and to their communities if they had received their own money, it's enormous. All of the underinvestment and all of the lost opportunities of that income not being passed on to them and then into their local communities and economy is enormous. There is still no compensation for that.

Fred was not the only person, but he was a key person when this was initially made public. That was, in a large part, because of the work of Dr Ros Kidd in doing what I think was her PhD thesis examining this and what she discovered. Like on many issues, you can have an academic writing a thesis about something but the issue is how you bring it into the public domain—having a face for that campaign. Fred gave his face to that campaign. He allowed his face to be used as a living example of a person who had their wages stolen from them for decades and was still living and wanting that justice. I think we, hopefully, could all recognise that was a major step. It was a big act of courage for him to put his face out there and to be the face of a campaign against such injustice and to face all the consequences that can come from being such a target.

I want to put on the record here a few comments provided from various people who were at Fred's funeral some months back, including me, acknowledging his dignity and bravery in being willing to put his face and his personal experiences into the public arena because of his desire to see justice not for himself but for thousands of other Aboriginal people who had their wages stolen from them and their fundamental rights ignored. His quiet but strong determination to have his and his fellow workers' rights recognised has never left me, which is why I feel compelled to put it on the record here tonight. I continue to be honoured to promote in the Senate here his message and that of his fellow workers. I apologise that we in this federal parliament, the people in the state parliament and the campaigners were not able to get a more just outcome for him and for the many others who suffered the same injustice but we will continue to do what we can to make sure his name, story and courage live on.

The Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs did have an inquiry into the stolen wages issue in around 2007. Again, that clearly highlighted the issue and put on to the record the undeniable facts of this. The New South Wales government's response was better than Queensland's but still not adequate. Other states dissembled continually. There has never been proper action or proper recognition of what was a basic case of industrial workplace theft. We hear today about wage theft. This was the most blatant in our history and it has not been redressed.

I use some other words here from others, including Dr Ros Kidd herself, who spoke of Fred's courage in being a public face for the stolen wages campaign because he knew it was so important for white Australians to realise that the work of so many hundreds of Aboriginal men, women and children over so many decades was crucial to building the states' and the nation's wealth. In standing publicly in the fight to reclaim wages and savings lost, stolen by Queensland governments, Fred's courage and determination was and continues to be an example for all of us.

Palm Island mayor, Alf Lacey, in giving credit to Fred for his involvement in the stolen wages campaign through all the adversity, said Fred always maintained his dignity. Fred came from the toughest era of our history and worked hard. His hat, somewhat similar to Senator Dodson's hat—always worn—was a reminder of those years that he carried with him. The former mayor of Mapoon Peter Guivarra spoke about that image of Fred, the photograph of his face he allowed to be used so much by those who worked on the stolen wages campaign. Lara Watson, the Indigenous officer from the Australian Council of Trade Unions, spoke about how Fred, knowing how to draw people in on the side of justice, was a fighter for wage justice and his passing was a big loss for the Aboriginal rights movement. Phil Glendenning, former national president of Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation, spoke about Fred's courage—something all of us will never forget—and the impact of his actions going far beyond his own community to the whole nation and being central to the whole campaign. It went beyond just this nation, because the Australia Asia Worker Links organisation also noted his work and his efforts and acknowledged his contribution.

Senate adjourned at 21:33