Politics & media

Compensation for Stolen Generation members

Claiming compensation is a “brutally hard” process, hampered by missing records.

For Aboriginal people compensation would help them in their healing process, but many Australians are opposed.

A national compensation scheme still seems to be far away.

Selected statistics

$60,000
Amount members of the Stolen Generations can claim for "a lifetime of mental illness and physical suffering" [14]. Claimant skin colour: black.
$37m
Compensation requested by Kristy Fraser-Kirk, a former publicist for retailer David Jones, after its former CEO "touched her bra" [14]. Claimant skin colour: white.

“Suing governments is brutally hard”

The conservative government led by Prime Minister John Howard which led Australia from 1996 to 2007 refused to apologise to the Stolen Generations arguing that it feared calls for ‘endless’ compensation.

Most members of the Stolen Generations will find that a successful pursuit of a civil claim through the courts is technically impossible, or simply too painful. “Suing governments is hard, brutally hard, especially for people who are damaged,” says Julian Burnside, a human rights lawyer and activist [1].

For many claimants records might not exist or have been destroyed or lost which makes it very hard, if not impossible, to claim compensation. Witnesses might have passed on. Relevant documents have been, and still are, controlled by governments and institutions. Plaintiffs must also endure ‘hostile cross-examination’ and intense scrutiny of their private lives and those of their families, including health and social problems that they might have suffered as a result of their removal [2].

In response to the lack of documents changes to the Aboriginal Trust Fund Repayment Scheme in New South Wales also allow oral evidence when considering applications [3].

It'll be just as much a mystery in 20 years' time why the Stolen Generations are not being compensated properly, as it is a mystery now to white people of how the previous generation locked all of those kids up. —Peter Read, Professor of Aboriginal History, University of Sydney [4]

As long as members of the Stolen Generations are denied reparations while governments spend millions of dollars defending Stolen Generations litigation, the injustice continues. —Robin Banks, Chief Executive Officer, Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC) [2]

Not all Aboriginal people are in favour of compensation though.

I'm not into [compensation]. For others, it may acknowledge their loss. But for me, nothing can be done now. —Lee Willis-Ardler, Aboriginal film-maker [5]

Should Aboriginal people be compensated?
—Polls & opinions

Should compensation form part of an apology to Indigenous
Australia?1,705 votes

Yes
40% 
No
60% 

Source: http://www.theage.com.au, 11 February 2008

Should the federal government compensate the Stolen Gen’s as well as apologise?101 votes

Yes
13% 
No
87% 

Source: canberratimes.com.au, February 2008

The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s Bringing Them Home report made 54 recommendations. 34 out of these addressed reparations, 11 specifically the issue of monetary compensation.

Many non-Indigenous people seem not to be able to relate to the horror and trauma associated with the experiences of being stolen from one’s family, hence the large percentage of nay-sayers in the polls.

Money, it seems, is viewed as something Aboriginal people get plenty of and ask for too much. But if you read about stories of members of the Stolen Generations you’ll think differently.

NSW and Victoria in late 2015 announced their support for compensation for the victims of child sexual abuse, following the recommendation of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. However, compensation for the Stolen Generations is still not on the agenda.

Aboriginal opinions

[Compensation is] not what everyone wants—we need healing centres across Australia so people can move on and heal their incessant pain.—Brenda McDonnell, 64, member of the Stolen Generations [15]

Those people stolen from their families who feel entitled to compensation will never be able to move on. Blackfellas will get the words, the whitefellas will keep the money.—Noel Pearson, Aboriginal elder [16]

People win cases after being wrongly put in jail and are given compensation, while we've had the same thing for generations.—Syd Jackson, retired Aboriginal footballer and member of the Stolen Generations [17]

Symbolism can be a cop out. It needs to be linked with something very very positive. If the government is ruling out compensation they will have an argument on their hands.—John Moriarty, Stolen Generations member and former member of the

Compensation… is about people having the opportunity for the first time in their lives to buy a home.—Bin Bakar, Chairman, Kimberley Stolen Generations Aboriginal Corporation [19]

Monetary compensation for the Stolen Generations is inevitable and essential to the fair and just resolution of the trauma and damage resulting from the forced removal of children from their families.—Helen Moran, Indigenous co-chair National Sorry Day Committee [20]

For [my father], and many of the older ones that I've talked to, compensation wasn't an issue. But he always wanted someone to acknowledge that what had happened to him was wrong.—Marion Scrymgour, Deputy Chief Minister of the NT [21]

Reparations and compensation is different: This [reparation] is about justice.—Lyn Austin, Chairperson, Stolen Generations Victoria [22]

The fact remains that many Aboriginal people can be and have been traumatised by filling out claim forms because they have to relive terrible past experiences [23].

Non-Aboriginal opinions

They need to prove there is a stolen generation first.—Paul Gould, newspaper reader [24]

[The apology is] just another easy way for [Aboriginal people] to continue getting easy money. God help Australia now.—Kerryn Robinson, newspaper reader [24]

Five months after Kevin Rudd’s historic apology (and seven months after his election) a Senate committee rejected a suggestion of compensation of Australia’s Stolen Generations, instead recommending a National Indigenous Healing Fund [25].

A legal perspective on compensation

The apology to the Stolen Generations did not admit any act of illegality or negligence. Hence the apology does not expose any liability, say senior lawyers [26].

In their removal being a lawful act at the time it happened, Aboriginal people would have to sue today’s governments for compensation. Courts would only award compensation if Aboriginal people “could prove their removal was unlawful or tainted by negligence”.

Bruce Trevorrow’s claim for compensation in 2007 (see below) was successful because he could supply this evidence with the help of records he had found.

But even if such a case was strong, many claims could still be rejected because they simply come too late. “Statutory limitations” regulate the period within which claims for compensation must be lodged. They vary from state to state. Victoria, for example, has a three year period.

Millions for migrants, nothing for Stolen children

Getting compensation is hard, so much so that we remember the few occasions when it was offered to us without hesitation. Getting compensation as a member of the Stolen Generations in Australia seems to be extremely hard, close to impossible.

It seems governments are fighting toes and nails not to compensate Aboriginal survivors.

The refusal of Australian governments to compensate Stolen Generations survivors is frustrating at best and racist at worst.

Hundreds of British children were sent to the Fairbridge Farm School at Molong, 300 kms west of Sydney near Orange. They suffered similar abuse as the children of the Stolen Generations. But while the Fairbridge victims have been paid a record $24-million provisional compensation payment, the largest to victims of institutional abuse in Australia’s legal history [31], such a compensation is not extended to the Stolen Generations.

The similarities of both cases are compelling:

Selective compensation in Australia
 Fairbridge Farm SchoolStolen Generations
Who was abused?Child migrantsAboriginal children
Type of abuseHarsh conditions, physical, psychological and sexual abuseHarsh conditions, physical, psychological and sexual abuse
Testimonial about abuse“I remember one of the smaller boys who was only four tried to run away up to the back paddock but he was dragged back. He was stripped naked in front of us and beaten with a riding crop at least 40 times in front of us all as a warning.” [31]“I’’ve seen girls naked, strapped to chairs and whipped. We’’ve all been through the locking up period, locked in dark rooms.” [32]
What were they told?“I was told my mother was dead.” [31]“Many boys were told that their mother or their father (quite often both) was dead, when in fact they were alive.” [33]
EnvironmentIsolated from the rest of the community in an environment akin to child slaveryIsolated from the rest of the community in an environment akin to child slavery
When did it happen?1938 to 19741890s to late 1970s
Compensation paid$24 millionnone
Why was it paid?The Fairbridge Foundation, the NSW government and the federal government admitted they had failed in their duty to protect the children.n/a

State governments offering compensation

Two states have offered compensation to members of the Stolen Generations: Tasmania in 2006 and South Australia in 2015.

In other states, brave Aboriginal people took their governments to court to get justice.

Some were successful. But not without fighting on both sides.

Tasmania: First state to compensate Aboriginal people

Australia’s Labour government which took office in 2007 apologised but also refused to compensate members of the Stolen Generations, anticipating large compensation claims. But in a courageous move, the state of Tasmania has made history.

Paul Lennon, Tasmanian Premier. Paul Lennon, Premier of Tasmania in 2006, apologised to the Tasmanian Aboriginal people and paid financial compensation.

For more than 20 years members of the Stolen Generations in Tasmania campaigned for recognition of their rights. First they demanded an apology, which was given in 1997, then compensation.[6]

In October 2006 the then Tasmanian Premier Paul Lennon released a $5 million funding package as part of his reconciliation efforts, making Tasmania the first state to compensate members of the Stolen Generations. He wanted to recognise “that in Tasmania’s history Aboriginal people were dispossessed from their land, severed from their culture and taken from their families”.

Under the Stolen Generation of Aboriginal Children Act 2006 compensation was distributed between living members of the Stolen Generations but also the children of those who had died. 106 Aboriginal people qualified for one-off compensation, 45 cases were rejected [7]. To qualify applicants had to be Aboriginal and been removed from their families between 1935 and 1975 for at least 12 months.

Many other Australian state governments shrink from apologising to or compensating Aboriginal people for fear of multi-million dollar payments.

Financial compensation doesn't fix things, it's a way of saying sorry. —Michelle O'Byrne, State Community Development Minister, Tasmania [8]

South Australia: Suing paved the way for compensation scheme

Portrait of Bruce Trevorrow. Bruce Trevorrow, who sued the South Australian government successfully for compensation. Photo: Kirstie Parker, Koori Mail

The following story is a good example of both the suffering and the struggle for compensation of survivors of the Stolen Generations.

Ngarrindjeri man Bruce Trevorrow was 13 months old when he was sent to hospital with a stomach ache. The hospital falsely recorded that he had no parents and was ‘neglected and malnourished’, reason enough for authorities not to return him to his family. A decade would pass before Bruce was able to see his loved ones again [9].

In June 1998 Mr Trevorrow sued the South Australian government for pain and suffering. During the trial it was established that Bruce

  • lost his cultural identity,
  • suffered depression and subsequently became an alcoholic and heavy smoker,
  • was never told his mother tried to see him but was not allowed to,
  • suffered from emotional problems which put him in and out of institutions, including jail,
  • is chronically insecure.

The court was satisfied that ‘the conduct of the state, amounting to misfeasance in public office, together with the false imprisonment of the plaintiff, has been a material cause of the plaintiff’s long-term depression’. The court found that this had ‘ruptured the bond’ between Bruce and his family to a degree that he could not overcome the difficulties he encountered, contrary to his siblings who were not taken away and were able to “achieve their potential throughout life” [10].

I have reached the conclusion that the plaintiff has, thus far, generally had a miserable life.—Justice Thomas Gray about Bruce Trevorrow

On August 1st 2007, 50-year-old Bruce Trevorrow was awarded $525,000 which made him the first member of the Stolen Generations to be awarded compensation by a court.

The ruling was facilitated by enough evidence found in records which backed Bruce Trevorrow’s claims. Many other members of the Stolen Generations cannot access records because they were destroyed or lost.

The SA government did not contest the ruling as such and initially considered establishing a compensation fund for the Stolen Generations, similar to the one created by the Tasmanian government in 2006 [8].

However, in February 2008 the SA government appealed the decision because it set an “important precedent” and the government wanted to get clarity on future liabilities [30], one of the reasons being that governments still take away children from their parents if these are abusive, drug-addicted, alcoholic or criminals. The government lost their appeal in March 2010.

A lot of people have said we made up our stories but the court case proved it was wrong, they done wrong.—Bruce Trevorrow [30]

Sadly, on 20 June 2008, Bruce Trevorrow passed away aged 51 after a long illness [11]. Despite his compensation he continued to feel the impact of “dislocation from his family origin, incomplete cultural identity and the many injustices he experienced”, said his family [12].

SA government establishes compensation fund

Eight years after Bruce Trevorrow’s case, in November 2015, the South Australian government finally announced an $11 million reparation fund, making it the second state government to create such a scheme after Tasmania.

What had changed their minds was a parliamentary committee report in 2013 that found a reparation fund would be cheaper for the government than fighting legal claims and meant victims could avoid court.

An estimated 300 members of the Stolen Generations will be eligible for payments of up to $50,000 under the scheme. [34]

However, only around $6 million of the $11 million scheme will be distributed as ex gratia payments to claimants, the remaining $5 million are be used for indirect reparations, such as memorials, counselling and support programs, scholarships and exhibitions telling the stories of the Stolen Generations.[34]

Victoria: Compensation found out of court

In June 2011 Neville Austin became the first victim of the Stolen Generations in Victoria to gain compensation [13].

Mr Austin became a ward of the state because his mother fell behind in payments for the St Gabriel’s Babies Home where he had been put when his mother gave him up because she could not properly look after him.

During the following 12 years Mr Austin lived in several foster families, growing up without knowing who he was. “I didn’t know I was Aboriginal for a long while,” he said. “I thought I was Maltese or Italian. I lived the identity I was told to be.” [13].

I lived the identity I was told to be.—Neville Austin, member of the Stolen Generations [13]

Mr Austin sought compensation for pain and suffering caused by the state’s breach of duty. His mother had tried for 8 years to find out how her son was, and none of her letters were passed on to him. Meeting his mother as a 13-year-old traumatised Mr Austin considerably.

Now proud of being a Koori Aboriginal man he can start his journey of healing.

Mr Austin’s case was settled out of court and the amount of money was not disclosed. It carries no weight as a legal precedent.

Western Australia: Redress Scheme open for Stolen Generations

In 2007 the Western Australian government set up the Redress Scheme, offering compensation for the “Forgotten Australians” which included members of the Stolen Generations. The scheme was open for applications from May 2008 to April 2009.

Redress WA had a total budget of $114 million, $90.2 million of which was set aside for ex-gratia payments. Initially the government offered a maximum of $80,000, but due to a “large number of [severe] claims” lowered that amount in late 2009 to $45,000 [28].

However, to qualify for this amount a person must have suffered “very severe abuse and/or neglect with ongoing symptoms and disability” [29].

Over 10,000 people in Western Australia registered with Redress WA by the time the scheme closed on April 30, 2009. Almost half of them were members of the Stolen Generations [27].

However, many refused to lodge a claim because they didn’t want to go through all the suffering and pain again for “menial” returns. For them, it’s not about the money.

You could trip over a pavement in the street and be paid more in compensation than what they're offering under Redress.—Dale Jamieson, member of the Stolen Generations [27]

Footnotes

View article sources (34)

[1] 'Lawyer backs compo scheme', Koori Mail 478 p.33
[2] 'Reparations Tribunal is a must for Stolen Gens', Koori Mail 464 p.21
[3] 'Action based on equity and fairness, Koori Mail 454 p.23
[4] 'NSW Governor tells of deep shame over Stolen Generations', Koori Mail 463 p.13
[5] 'One man's story', Koori Mail 477 p.42
[6] Koori Mail 390, 6/12/2006, p8,
[7] 'Tasmania to pay 'stolen generation' of Aborigines £2.2m in reparations', guardian.co.uk, 23/1/2008
[8] 'Clock ticking on compo deadline', Koori Mail 400 p.6
[9] NIT 135 p.4
[10] 'New hope for Aust's Stolen Generations', Koori Mail 407 p.4
[11] 'Stolen Generation 'victor' passes away', NIT 26/6/2008 p.6
[12] 'Tributes pour in for Stolen Gen fighter', Koori Mail 429 p.5
[13] 'Justice for Stolen Generations victim', Koori Mail 504 p.7
[14] 'Damages claim queried', Koori Mail 482 p.26
[15] 'First step the hardest', The Daily Telegraph, 13 February 2008, p.25
[16] 'We'll never let it happen again', The Age, 13 February 2008, p.1
[17] 'The lucky country?', The Age Sport supplement, 13 February 2008, p.6
[18] 'Stolen Gens hopeful', Koori Mail 419, p.8
[19] 'Legal threat over WA Redress Fund', Koori Mail 419, p.10
[20] 'Stolen 'must have a say'', Koori Mail 422, p.33
[21] 'A triumph against the odds', NIT 12/6/2008 p.29
[22] 'Stolen Gen Bill gains support', Koori Mail 436 p.35
[23] 'People told of compo', Koori Mail 429 p.13
[24] Your Say, Herald Sun, 13 February 2008, p.16
[25] 'Senators say no to payouts', Koori Mail 429 p.6
[26] 'PM's words will not expose the commonwealth to liability', The Australian, 13 February 2008, p.4
[27] 'All she wants is justice', Koori Mail 460 p.12
[28] Redress WA Newsletter No.1, August 2009
[29] Redress WA Newsletter No.3, February 2010
[30] ''They've opened a can of worms'', Koori Mail 421 p.6
[31] 'Hope for the children of England's dumping ground', SMH 2/7/2015
[32] Bringing Them Home report, p.161
[33] Bill Simon in: 'A long way from home', Sydney Morning Herald, 23/5/2009
[34] 'Stolen Generations members to have access to $11 million fund announced by South Australian Government', ABC News 19/11/2015

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An appropriate citation for this document is:

www.CreativeSpirits.info,
Aboriginal culture - Politics & media - Compensation for Stolen Generation members, retrieved 26 April 2017