The great cattle station scandal

5 September 2007

Thalia Anthony
Thalia Anthony

Between the 1880s and the 1960s, tens of thousands of Aboriginal Australians lived and worked on cattle stations in the Northern Territory.

Their contribution to the prosperity of the cattle industry and the Territory's economy was immense. They worked as jackeroos and stockmen, droving and mustering cattle, erecting fences and building roads and dams.

But in one of Australia's dark historic injustices, the vast majority worked for nothing, their wages withheld or stolen by the cattle station owners.

Sydney law lecturer Thalia Anthony is one of a handful of researchers leading a campaign to seek compensation for the indigenous cattle station workers and their descendants.

After giving evidence to a Senate inquiry last year, Dr Anthony is currently hoping to compile enough evidence to bring a test case involving about 40 workers from Wave Hill, one of the largest cattle stations in the Northern Territory.

She claims the Federal Government has a legal and moral obligation to offer compensation to the thousand or so survivors, many now in their 60s and 70s, and to the descendants of those who have died.

Liability should also extend to the owners of the cattle stations, she argues, who include major companies such as the Vestey Group and LJ Hooker.

But in the long term, she says, litigation is not the best way forward, and she would prefer the Government and responsible corporations to set up a voluntary compensation scheme administered by indigenous people. Similar schemes have already been set up in NSW and Queensland, where much smaller numbers of people were employed.

In a recent lecture at the Koori Centre, Dr Anthony said there was effectively a feudal bond between the cattle stations and their indigenous workers, many of whom were removed from their land by police and pastoralists and forcibly taken to cattle stations - a practice known as "running them down".

There they were provided with food and clothing and could retain elements of their culture; they could practise ceremonies and even go walkabout in the wet season.

"The indigenous workers wanted to stay there because it was a way of sustaining their communities, but it wasn't a fair relationship," said Dr Anthony.

When pressure was exerted on the cattle companies to start paying wages in the 1930s, many claimed exemption by saying they were providing for the families of their indigenous workers.

And when wages became obligatory after the Second World War, the wages would often be paid as credit at the station store where prices were inflated by as much as 300 per cent.

Dr Anthony said the arrangement was good for the cattle industry and good for the Commonwealth Government, which was freed of its responsibility towards Aboriginal people.

The Government made little effort to inspect cattle stations, and the employment licences which gave the owners control over their indigenous workers were rarely revoked. In the 1930s there were only 48 protectors to carry out inspections for the benefit of indigenous workers in an area covering 523,000 square miles.

Dr Anthony's next step is to collect more evidence for a possible test case. "At this stage it's a matter of collecting more testimonies and engaging legal services willing to take on the fight," she said.

A Sydney arts and law graduate and a former postgraduate representative on the University Senate, Dr Anthony told the Senate inquiry last year that measures to remedy the injustice of stolen wages would go a long way towards helping the process of indigenous reconciliation.

Contact: Richard North

Phone: 02 9351 3720

Email: 1a685f3b0a112c7905231c1d671621386a531c