I’m really upset about something, and I can’t let it go.

It’s not that race-based polices dictated that generations of Aboriginal people in WA had up to 75% of their wages withheld by the government—supposedly ‘in trust’, but never returned. I already knew that.

It’s not that, as a result, it was almost impossible for Aboriginal people to build up an economic base, entrenching community-wide poverty. I already knew that too. I’d acclimatised, emotionally to that particular aspect of our history.

In fact, I was pleased and impressed when the government, in 2008, established an inquiry into these ‘stolen wages’.  It felt like we were slowly getting somewhere with this whole Reconciliation gig.  What I didn’t know at the time, and would have been really impressed with was that, as a response to that inquiry, Treasury allocated funds for part repayment of the stolen wages agreeing to pay up to $78,000 to each person.   It may not have amounted to full repayment, but it was a meaningful sum.  So that was nice. But then…

Colin Barnett came into power. And he decided that the payments should be withheld , for 4 years.  Some people died in that time. So they never saw their earnings. That was plain cruel. But he, or his government, also decided that the payment would not be passed on to any descendants. So by letting people die, the government got to keep the money  — family earnings — from the families.   All deeply unfair.

But it gets worse… the Barnett government decided that those who had had their wages stolen should not get $78,000 per person. They should get $2,000. That’s not a misprint. No missing zeros. And if you’re thinking this might have been ‘responsible economic restraint’, be aware that this was in the midst of the boom, when money was pouring into and out of Government coffers.

So that upset me.  That seemed deeply, deeply wrong.

But the thing that has REALLY upset me; the thing that shakes my faith in myself and my fellow Western Australians, is that, when Sarah Dingle’s excellent radio exposé of all this hit the airways last year the public outcry was … nothing.

I don’t get it. Imagine this story:  a sweet old pensioner gets $76,000 of her earnings ripped away from her by the government. Surely that would be a story that every shock-jock in Australia would want to pick up. I would have thought that it would have been on the front page of the Sunday Times. Let me write the headline: ‘Premier withholds Grandmother’s wages’. Surely that’s a story?   I would have thought that people would be phoning talk-back radio at least arguing about it. But what followed from Sarah Dingle’s story was a profound, disturbing silence.

Does anyone know why? I ask that question seriously. Am I missing something?  Can someone explain why this hasn’t led to public outrage?  Could it be that, when an injustice is done against thousands of people, it doesn’t have the same impact as when it’s done against one? I almost hope so, because I really don’t want to think that it’s because ‘it’s an Aboriginal issue’.

I think Colin Barnett and the politicians who  ‘re-stole’ the wages should hang their head in shame. But equally, I think we should all hang our heads in shame. Not for acts of the past, but for this act, this silence, of the present. This has happened on our watch, and we’ve done nothing about it.

That’s what really upsets me, and I can’t let it go.

Here’s the link to Sarah Dingle’s report.

http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/backgroundbriefing/wa’s-stolen-wages-shame/6740068