On day 7 of National Reconciliation week, we shed light on the truth of Stolen Wages. Byron Smith encourages us to 'acknowledge the realities of systemic theft and fraud committed against our first peoples.' Brooke Prentis leads us in a powerful prayer of lament. #NRW19 #GroundedInTruth

Reconciliation as Truth and Action

Stolen Wages

Byron Smith is an ecological ethicist helping Christians join the dots between discipleship and caring for our common home. His PhD in theological ethics focused on emotional responses to climate change. With his wife Jessica, Byron is part of a ministry team at Paddington Anglican. He enjoys beekeeping, worm farming, composting, and hosting a podcast, The Good Dirt, which is only tangentially about any of them.

A worker deserves their wages

A few months ago during the most recent US government shutdown under President Trump, federal workers went for thirty-four days without being paid. This was big news. There was a sustained public outcry and it made headlines internationally.

Unpaid labour is an obvious injustice, especially where it leads to genuine hardship. But in the history of this land, this great evil was inflicted upon Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people not for a month, but for many, many decades. It was never front page news; most Australians have never even heard of Stolen Wages. Yet for the vast majority of those affected, the backpay - running into billions of dollars - has never been made good.

After extensive primary research into stolen wages in Queensland, historian Dr Rosalind Kidd summarised her findings:

“Most people have some understanding that Aboriginal Australians were excluded from the great Australian dream; few are aware of how deliberate, how carefully implemented, this exclusion was. For most of the nineteenth century Aboriginal labour was unpaid. And for most of the twentieth century, although Aboriginal workers were the backbone of rural development in Queensland, their wages were set at a fraction of the rate for white people, their savings were diverted into massive government controlled trust funds, and these trust monies, these private earnings, were invested for the benefit of white Queenslanders. This system continued into the 1970s. Aboriginal poverty continues today.”

For most of the period since Federation, the employment of Aboriginal people was controlled by the government, with workers given little or no freedom to make their own choices. Working conditions were frequently atrocious, especially in remote rural stations. Fraud was widespread. Little or no oversight was conducted and few abuses were ever punished.

Although the details differed somewhat from state to state, in every part of this land, the research of Dr Kidd and others concludes that over many decades and affecting tens of thousands of individuals, hundreds of millions, likely billions of dollars have been taken from Aboriginal communities in the form of unpaid wages and unpunished systemic fraud.

The racist stereotypes of Aboriginal people as lazy, government dependents, leaching off of the public purse is precisely the opposite of the historical reality. The governments of this land for over a century leached off hardworking black labourers, often working against their will, for little or no pay.

Poverty is rarely the result of mere individual laziness. Most poverty is the predictable consequence of choices made by the ruling classes to buttress their power and comfort. The myths and lies that get told to justify that inequality are the necessary condition of keeping those of us somewhere in the comfortable middle sufficiently pacified to accept the status quo.

The Uluru Statement from the Heart (2017) points out that only by truth-telling about the history of this continent can Aboriginal people hope for “a truthful relationship with the people of Australia and a better future for our children based on justice and self-determination”. It is time for all Australians to drop the self-serving stereotypes and acknowledge the realities of systemic theft and fraud committed against our first peoples. This National Reconciliation Week is the perfect opportunity to embrace such honesty, seeking to be grounded in truth as a necessary first step in courageously walking together towards justice for those whose wages were stolen.

I’ll give the last word to a member of an oppressed and occupied people, issuing a warning that remains as relevant today as it was two millennia ago when the Apostle James wrote it:

“Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. Listen! The wages of the labourers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.” (James 5.1-4 NRSV)


by Brooke Prentis

Brooke Prentis is an Aboriginal Christian Leader and Aboriginal Spokesperson for Common Grace. Brooke is a Chartered Accountant with 16 years Senior Management experience in a variety of businesses in Australia including Top 100 ASX listed companies, and 7 years with EY (Ernst & Young). 


Creator Spirit. We humble ourselves, on our knees in prayer, feeling the weight of economic injustice. We open our hands as a sign of letting go of the greed and power that can consume us.

Today, in Australia we see an economy out of balance. We see much wealth in the hands of a few, and much poverty in the lives of many - too many. Dear God, help people, organisations, businesses, and governments see that some continue to choose profit and greed over caring for your precious creation - land, waters, sky, trees, plants, birds, animals, fish, and all peoples.

We pray for our nation that the focus will retreat from self-interest to a focus on a more compassionate nation. We pray people will open their minds to see the effects of Stolen Land and Stolen Wages on our economy and peoples and how the wealth of the Church and many Non-Aboriginal peoples was generated. We pray people will open their ears to your call to give to those without and to share our resources - especially those resources that were the product of theft or were gifted.

We lament the slavery of Aboriginal peoples - the generations of uncompensated hard labour, including child labour. We know Australia was not built on the backs of sheep and cattle but on the blood, sweat, and tears from the back-breaking work of Aboriginal peoples - some of who were bound in heavy chains around their necks, hands, and feet. We know Aboriginal peoples were often not seen as being created in your image and were used as objects to be traded by the government, the church, and some missionaries. We are sad, distressed, and sorrowful. We are sorry. We ask for your forgiveness.

We also acknowledge and lament the slavery of Torres Strait Islander peoples, and also the South Sea Islander peoples brought to these lands as slave labour.

We pray for the Elders still alive today, and the descendants of those who have passed, that the decades of injustice and Stolen Wages will be repaid by the governments.

Jesus, throw away the veil of secrecy, silence, and ignorance that transcends many in Australia and let us be confident in knowing that only the truth will set us free. May the truth of Stolen Wages, and the truth of poverty, and the truth of greed and profit be brought into the light so that this nation can take steps towards understanding and taking action towards the redistribution of your resources for a just, fair, and generous Australia.



Truth in Action 

Truth starts with knowledge. What would Australia look like, sound like, act like if every person living in these lands and waters understood what “Australia” looked like before colonisation and if we had a shared understanding of the true history of 1788? What would the Australian church look like, sound like, act like, if every Christian knew about God’s appointed custodians and God’s appointed boundaries and viewed colonisation through the Creator’s eyes - the shooting and disregard of peoples made in His image, the destruction of the environment, the commencement of deforestation in Australia.

Will you take action to see how we could change the view of Australia and Australian Christians?


Many Aboriginal Christian Leaders work voluntarily, there are very few Aboriginal churches in Australia, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ministry in underfunded, if funded at all.

The Grasstree Gathering is a network of over 200 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Christian Leaders from all across Australia, all different church backgrounds and denominations, who gather for leadership development, ministry training, support and encouragement every few years - in God’s timing - largely dependent upon the funds being raised. Grasstree would love to be blessed to not only be able to gather every few years but to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Christian Leaders in the ministry work that God has called them too.

We want to make The Grasstree Gathering 2020 a reality, but we need your help and support, including financially. As a way of redistributing resources, would you please consider giving financially to The Grasstree Gathering, however small or large an amount you have to give. It costs approximately $800 per person to be fully funded to attend Grasstree. 


Haven’t seen The Grasstree Gathering 2018 video

Watch it here:

This post is part of our National Reconciliation Week 2019 series where we are together discovering Reconciliation as Truth and Action.  

Reconciliation Week 2019