A landmark class action lawsuit aiming to claw back the stolen wages of about 300 Aboriginal Queenslanders could be the beginning of something much bigger, with similar moves planned nationally within months.
Hans Pearson, the uncle of prominent Aboriginal rights campaigner Noel Pearson, is spearheading the claim in Queensland.
In a statement of claim filed to the Federal Court on Monday, a class action involving 300 Aboriginal workers accused the Queensland government of breaching its fiduciary duty and the trust of Aboriginal people.
In 2002, former premier Peter Beattie acknowledged the total figure for stolen wages in Queensland alone could be as high as half a billion dollars.
Many Aboriginal workers went either unpaid or underpaid from 1904 to the 1970s thanks to legislation allowing the government to hold wages in trust, much of which was stolen.
The action was led by Cairns-based Bottoms English Lawyers with help from Shine Lawyers, which was aiming to file similar claims in Western Australia, New South Wales and possibly other states within months.
Mr Pearson said 10 to 12 years of work on the issue had come to nothing in fixing what Treasurer Curtis Pitt earlier this year labelled a “shameful period in Queensland’s history”.
“We’ve got to have justice. We worked for over 10 to 12 years for nothing,” Mr Pearson told the ABC’s 7.30.
“They’ve got to pay for what they’ve done.
“We’re not asking for their money. It’s our money.”
Mr Pearson told the program he earned up to 7000 pounds working as a stockman during the 1950s and ’60s but was handed just 28 pounds when he went to the police station to collect his wages.
“I said: ‘Is this all I’m getting?’ and he said: ‘Well, that’s all you have after 10 years of working’.”
They’ve got to pay for what they’ve done. We’re not asking for their money. It’s our money.
Mr Pearson’s nephew, Noel, said the action was “as important as Mabo”.
“Uncle Hans and all of those who come behind him have got to fight this one,” he told 7.30.
Similar legislation existed in New South Wales, Western Australia, and possibly the Northern Territory and other states, according to Shine.
Queensland set aside $56.6 million in 2002, courting criticism for capping the payouts at $4000 per person and asking Indigenous people to waive their rights to further legal action.
More than 5500 claimants received money in 2007’s first payment round, with 1342 of those receiving just $2000 and more than 3000 people knocked back because of a lack of government records.
Human Rights Commission Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda’s March 2016 report recommended called on the government to remove the “deed of agreement” waiving future legal rights, saying any reconciliation gesture was “hollow” while the requirement remained.
The government resisted the recommendation in its interim response but a final decision was unclear.
Mr Gooda recommended more than doubling reparations amounts to $4600 and $9200, a figure scoffed at by Shine Lawyers partner Jan Saddler.
She said Mr Pearson’s claim alone was worth $171,000 in current terms and significantly more with interest factored in.
“I think that the government’s response to date has been wholly inadequate when you take into account that they were there to protect people, presumably,” she said.
“That they were there to look after people’s wages and they were there to pay them to Indigenous people when they called for them and none of that occurred.”
Last month, Mr Pitt, who is also Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships Minister, said $5.8 million in reparations had been paid out to more than 3000 eligible claimants under the government’s $21 million Stolen Wages Reparations Scheme.
He said the Reparations Review Panel would, for the first time, accept oral testimonies and other evidence as evidence in the absence of formal documentation.