“Government cannot be allowed to buy its way out of the truth” – Black Lives, Government Lies reviewed

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Australian Governments have a horrible history of systemic racism. But they didn’t
try to hide it! They wrote it all down. Thanks to historian and activist, Ros Kidd, the shameful treatment of Indigenous Australians is not gathering dust in the archives. A second edition of her powerful exposé, Black Lives, Government Lies, was published earlier this year. 

Kidd combed through Queensland Government archives, church records and correspondence to uncover the brutal reality of more than a century of paternalism, neglect and control over every aspect of the public and private lives of Indigenous Queenslanders. 

Like all historians, Kidd has a view. She sets out to show that the treatment of Indigenous
people was not simply “a tragic and regrettable saga in Australian history.” She lets the evidence speak for itself. She not only demonstrates the nature of Queensland governments’ treatment of Aboriginal people over the decades, but by quoting government records, she reveals that they understood the impact of their policies. The Queensland Government knew that its policies wreaked damage on Indigenous people, “yet allowed it to continue,” says Kidd.

Black Lives, Government Lies is simply written and makes powerful reading. The stories of Aboriginal kids stolen from their parents, allegedly for their own “best interests,” and then housed in freezing dormitories with one blanket apiece made me angry. For decades, kids were housed in facilities which lacked sanitation and were left to go hungry. In her speech at the book launch, Kidd asked the question: “Why, if people were confined to government care ‘for their own good,’ were they so disastrously worse off than those making their way in the wider community?” 

Bill Jonas, Social Justice Commissioner with the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, also spoke at the launch. Jonas argues that the book “demonstrates there is indeed no gap between historic deeds of previous governments and present circumstances.” Kidd also makes clear that we are not talking about ancient history. Exploitation, not very successfully disguised as benevolence, is still a feature of Queensland government policy today. 

The chapter entitled “In our time” focuses on the treatment of Indigenous workers. The
records show that as late as 1974, only one person on Palm Island was paid an award wage. In 1975, when faced with pressure from the Federal Government to rectify this situation, Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen declared that full wages for the State’s Aboriginal employees were beyond the State’s resources. He threatened mass sackings if forced to comply.

Black Lives, Government Lies outlines how the Federal and Queensland Governments struck a deal to divert individual unemployment entitlements to councils running Aboriginal communities. Kidd explains: “This was the birth of the infamous Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) scheme, which has condemned these most impoverished Australians to struggle for survival on less than the dole…This artificial funding pool continues nearly a century of the discounting of Aboriginal employment, wages and social standards to fit budgets known to be deficient. It endures today.”

Kidd is a campaigner who uses her research to fight for justice. In 1996 she testified at the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity inquiry in the Palm Island under-award issue. She has re-published her book in the context of the struggle to win reparations for Indigenous workers who were under-paid and had savings stolen. She is quite explicit that the Beattie Government’s “generous offer” of reparations is nothing more than a cynical attempt to buy its way out of the truth. 

The Howard Government has argued ad nauseum that it cannot be held accountable “for the errors and misdeeds of earlier generations.” This is the view Kidd rejects when she baldly states, “When Howard entered Parliament, Aboriginal community workers were under-paid by almost 66% and children were so hungry they stole scraps put out for the pigs.” 

The persistent racist scapegoating of Indigenous institutions, the reality of health, education and employment for Aboriginal Australians and the Beattie Government’s insulting attempts to present itself as progressive while continuing a long and ugly legacy of racism all highlight that winning justice for Indigenous Australians is as urgent as ever. Ros Kidd has made an important contribution with Black Lives, Government Lies, with its ultimate message that the perpetrators must pay up and be held accountable. 

Black Lives, Government Lives costs $14.95 and is available from Solidarity Salon, 580 Sydney Road Brunswick or direct from the author 

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