State knew Aborigines' pay rates broke law

By: Tony Koch

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THE Queensland Cabinet met twice a year to discuss the budgets of church-run missions throughout the state and set the amount of wage increases allowable, according to documents now before the Federal Court.
They show that the Lutheran Church was commissioned to run Hope Vale and Wujal Wujal missions on Cape York on behalf of the Government, which provided the annual budget.
The total grant from the State Government for the two missions in 1980/81 was $686,696, of which $579,406 was for ``wage allocation''.
The following year the respective figures were $733,535 and $613,370.
Money earned on the missions from the sale of cattle, vegetables and ``curios'' (artefacts) was taken by the Government as income.
The current claim by eight residents of Wujal and Hope Vale communities near Cooktown has unearthed reams of material demonstrating that the Government had legal opinions that it was in breach of the Racial Discrimination Act (1975) by failing to pay award wages to Aboriginal workers.
However, that advice was not followed until the Australian Workers Union took the case of Yarrabah man Arnold Murgha Jr to court, claiming he was being underpaid.
In a Cabinet submission dated March 6, 1986, then community services minister Bob Katter referred to that case.
Mr Katter said it had been settled out of court on legal advice ``rather than have a decision unfavourable to it (the department) handed down''.
His submission said: ``Shortly after my promotion to the portfolio (November 7, 1983) I was advised by the under-secretary (Mr Pat Killoran) that it was not possible to move to an award wage position for all workers because positions could not be cut back; the state was not liable; and the cost would be in excess of $10 million.
``Private research has proved this advice to be totally incorrect. The cost is of the order of $3.8 million and the state is vicariously liable.
``I have established the Government stands in a position of extreme legal vulnerability in this issue.
``In 1980 the Solicitor-General advised that the prospect of successfully resisting the payment of award wages was far from good.''
Hope Vale community council chairwoman June Pearson and a group of elders last week wrote that their council had become so distraught at the lack of justice for their old people that they had initiated the legal action themselves.
``Hope Vale council is pushing for an early settlement to this matter because our elderly are passing on and we need to provide them with a little comfort now before they leave us,'' they said.
``The people of Hope Vale Aboriginal Community want justice, nothing more and nothing less.
``That is, justice for the many years of hard work in conditions far from ideal for the time when the Queensland government, together with the Hope Vale Mission Board operated by the Lutheran Church, treated the people as over-worked and underpaid Aboriginal slaves.
``The church had established a mission in Hope Valley to save the souls of the Guugu Yimithirr Warra Aboriginal nation and show them Christianity and fellowship, in the say of the white man.
``The Lutheran Church came straight out of Germany and into Australia to be the protectors of this nation of proud and extremely historical Aboriginals.
``It would have been thought that the Lutheran church and the Queensland government would have taken pride in the events that were witnessed at that time and ensured this once mighty nation retained its heritage, its traditions, its culture and its dignity in a manner befitting their ancestors.
``Instead these people that once formed part of the community workforce in the seventies, when the then Hope Vale Mission Board ran the Hope Valley mission, discovered the church and the government had exploited them for part of their hard-earned wages and entitlements for the work performed in the community.''